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‘My life is this. I love what I do’— Branson entertainer Terry Wayne Sanders reflects on life, death and comedy

Our Sense of Community Series, "Living Through Art," features residents in our community who express their identities through various art forms.

Branson entertainer Terry Wayne Sanders has been working the crowds at Silver Dollar City for 43 seasons.

At the theme park, Sanders plays an “image character.” And that’s just one of eight jobs the actor, comedian and emcee is working this year. Branson performers often combine gigs to make a living, but Sanders is something of an outlier — his hustle is extra-diverse and prolific.

At Silver Dollar City, Sanders acts as seven characters each workday — changing looks, all while guiding and entertaining theme park guests.

“I start off the day as the Time Traveler, Alexander Osterman," Sanders said, speaking in the voice of the character by using an old-fashioned accent. "He’s a clockmaker by trade, but also a time-traveler for fun! And by the way, words to the wise: If you do time travel, do not go to 2020!”

Mandy Crawford plays Whoops E. Daisy alongside Sanders’s characters. She describes him as intensely positive: “So he is the hardest-working guy that I have ever met. And he is so passionate about everything that he does," she said.

Sanders also plays other characters. His performances are a work of art. YouTube is littered with videos of his impersonation of Joan Rivers, like this bit from the Branson Country USA show.

In a voice strikingly similar to the late New York comedian, Sanders told the music-show crowd, "I know, thank you so mu— I know what you’re thinking, wait, wait, wait — Joan Rivers, isn’t she dead? Yes, I was. I’m much better.”

The audience cracks up.

Sanders says he defines himself as a Branson entertainer. He’s a Missouri Ozarks native, now in his sixties. But inspiration came long before he studied theatre at what’s now Missouri State University.

He recounted his first experiences with Branson: "My Grandpa Lee Sanders brought us all down here. We were talking about this last night. I remember that day explicitly. We were on a budget — I was born with nothing, I still have most of it. All right? Here’s the deal…

“We went to Silver Dollar City because then Silver Dollar City was free. You paid $1.25 to go into Marvel Cave, so we saved some money… Of course, now, at Silver Dollar, I told my grandpa, I said ‘This is where I want to be.’ That night, we went to Shepherd of the Hills –

I interjected to ask, “As a 6-year-old, you’re telling your grandfather, ’I’ve —

Sanders responded, “I fell in love, I said, ‘Look at these old buildings.’”

I asked, “And you meant more than just coming back for [another] time to go in the cave?

"Oh my!" Sanders replied. "No. The seed was planted.”

Juggling gigs from 'Hee Haw' to the age of social media

Decades later, Sanders performed in a season of the hillbilly comedy-sketch show “Hee Haw.” He got the opportunity around age 30 when showrunners saw him on stage in Branson. It was the year after he married his wife, Dede Edwards Sanders. He started to tell me the story, but got distracted by friendly faces.

“All right, this is great," Sanders said. "[In] ’89, the producer, Elmer Alley, and the director, Mr. Bob Boatman, of ‘Hee Haw’ come to town. They’re looking for new blood. So they saw me in the show —"

Terry cut himself off to say hello to folks he recognized.

"Yay! Good morning! Hi, how are ya, dear? I know that guy!”

Terry Wayne Sanders performed live social media broadcasts on Sept. 13, 2022 to drum up business for a family-owned Mexican restaurant group. It's one of eight jobs the Branson resident works as a year-round entertainer.
Gregory Holman/KSMU
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Terry Wayne Sanders performed live social media broadcasts on Sept. 13, 2022 to drum up business for a family-owned Mexican restaurant group. It's one of eight jobs the Branson resident works as a year-round entertainer.

It was like this wherever I went with Sanders. He greets almost everyone. Our interview took place while he was working his social media job—one of those eight jobs he juggles. I tagged along for Taco Tuesday, riding around in his 2010 PT Cruiser as he livestreamed video to drum up business for a group of family-owned Mexican restaurants.

'Shining in their light'

Sanders’s personal story — and how he weaves that into entertaining tourists — is a profound look at the human condition.

Just before the pandemic, his 30-year-old son, Austin Cole Sanders, was killed instantly in a nighttime traffic crash on Highway 65. Signs of grief surround Terry Sanders — like a photo of his son tucked into his rearview mirror.

But this father, in his own way of grieving, greets even the specter of death with the sparkle of humor—including during jokey performances at one of the Branson theaters.

Sanders explained: “And so later in the show I say, ‘Oh, it’s Dede and I, we’re celebrating our anniversary. We went out to the backyard, and we were laughing and talking about about everything under the sun. Talked about our two boys when they were little. Now they’re all grown up and still at the house: Oh yeah. Evan’s in his room and Austin’s in his urn.’

"And so that gets an 'Ahhhh-ohhh!' And I said, 'No no no,' I said, 'That’s okay,' I said, 'Austin had this wonderful wit.'”

As it turns out, Sanders had to face death head-on when he was a toddler.

“My life is this," he explained, referring to his life and work in Branson. "I love what I do… And from a child — I came from a lot of, some difficult beginnings. Four days before my third birthday, my father, Ivan, died. Right there in front of us, me and my brother. And so I knew what death was early on. I knew. My Grandpa Lee took me and my brother right after my dad died to the funeral home, said, 'Okay boys, pick out your dad’s tombstone.'”

Sanders isn't afraid to get real, even when he’s warming up crowds before Branson shows. He described his warm-up act:

“I say, you know, 2020, I look at us all and we are all survivors. I say 2020, we lost, just like many of you, we lost 17 friends and family members to COVID itself. We also lost my sister, Barbara, to cancer in May. In January, we lost Austin Cole in a car wreck. But you know what? Here we are, shining in their light, moving forward. And that’s what we’re going to continue to do.

“So now the seed is planted already in the audience’s mind — now, I’m not trying to milk it for sympathy, that’s not what I’m looking for. I’m wanting people to know, that hey, we’re working this thing, and we are working well, and we are getting on with life, and doing what we’re supposed to do, because that makes them happy.”

Gregory Holman is a KSMU reporter and editor focusing on public affairs and investigations.