One of the brightest stars to grace the Branson stage has passed away.
On August 11, Branson music icon Shoji Tabuchi slipped away, surrounded by his family.
A native of Japan, Shoji, best known for making amazing music on his fiddle, discovered the instrument as a youngster, and became a virtuoso. After meeting country great Roy Acuff in the 1960s, Tabuchi was inspired to pursue country and bluegrass music.
Tabuchi moved to the United States with his violin and $500 in cash. He lived in San Francisco, California; Louisiana; and Kansas City before moving to Nashville to reconnect with Acuff, who arranged for Shoji to perform on the Grand Ole Opry.
Tabuchi moved to the Branson area in the 1980s, performing as a featured artist at a number of venues before opening his own show. He soon built one of Branson's most elaborate theaters and quickly became one of the area's top draws, with an extensive and loyal fan base. Motor coaches and groups from around the country visited the Shoji Tabuchi Theatre to take in his amazing Broadway-style production and catch a glimpse of his unbelievable bathrooms.
After years as the reigning king of Branson's music industry, Tabuchi opted for a smaller venue, moving to the IMAX Little Opry Theater for a more personal and intimate show.
In a Facebook post announcing Shoji's death, his daughter Christina said, in part, "Not only will he be terribly missed by his family and friends, he will also be missed by his countless friends throughout the world." She went on to describe Shoji as "larger than life," as most would agree.
As word of Shoji's passing spread through town, many of Tabuchi's friends and peers turned to social media with their own thoughts on the legendary entertainer.
Country music great Buck Trent noted in a Facebook post, "I was so saddened to hear that Shoji Tabuchi had died. He was a fantastic entertainer, musician, golfer and friend. He will be missed. I first met Shoji when Chisai Childs booked me to play the StarliteTheater. I couldn't understand him, but he sure could play that fiddle. Rest in peace, Shoji."
Branson headliner Doug Gabriel posted, "I am still in shock over the passing of my long-time entertainer friend Shoji. When I came to Branson in 1985, I worked with Shoji at the Starlite Theater. He was always so nice to everyone, and me being new at the time, he went out of his way to make me feel welcome to the Starlite cast. He was very influential in making Branson into what it is today, and he will truly be missed. Please pray for his entire family during this difficult time. Thank you, Shoji, for the music and your friendship all of these years. You will be missed!"
Banson entertainer and radio personality Jeff Brandt shared in a Facebook post, "Branson is mourning the loss of one of our great entertainers, Shoji Tabuchi. When I first moved here from Iowa, I wasn't sure what the dress style was for entertainers in Branson. I saw Shoji's jackets and thought, 'Wow! These are pretty amazing!' I asked him where he got them and about how much they ran. After he told me, I decided I better learn how to make my own jackets. He was a really great guy and if you like my mirrored stage jackets, those are a credit to Shoji. Rest in peace! You will be greatly missed by many."
In a brief post on Facebook, entertainer Tim Mabe noted, "So sad to hear the passing of a legend. Shoji was a big reason why Branson is what it is today. He will be missed, and what a great golf buddy!"
Longtime Branson entertainer Bob Nichols posted, "I met Shoji Tabuchi in 1989. Ken Carter invited me to assist him with installation of the new light rig in Shoji's first Branson theater. I remained friends with Shoji from then on, for that is what it was to know him. He always called folks by name and spoke to you with sincerity."
Darrin Otto, a former Branson performer, posted on Facebook, "So sad to hear about the passing of Shoji Tabuchi. Such an important talent and a legendary performer who helped put Branson on the national landscape in the '90s. Hugs to Dorothy, Christina and the entire family. Thanks for all the memories, Shoji. Oh, and for the great games of shooting pool in the theater bathroom."
Entertainer Tracy Biggs posted, in part, "Thank you, Shoji, for your example of professionalism, humility, humor, musicianship, work ethic, command of a crowd, and somehow maintaining a sense of familiarity and love from an audience that kept them coming back year after year. You were exactly who you appeared to be onstage, and were never a 'character' that ended when you walked into the wings."
Many friends and peers of Shoji shared their thoughts on this great man with the Branson Globe this week.
The team at Branson Ticket and Travel recalled, "Shoji was very talented. He brought 'Broadway' and the world in costumes, stages, props, music and productions to this area. He visited us in our office a few times and he was definitely a very kind soul who loved performing. He will be missed!"
Former Branson Mayor Karen Best noted, "Shoji was a truly kind and caring gentleman who treated everyone with dignity and respect. He was so genuine on and off the stage. He loved fiddling, fishing, golf and his family. It was a treat to get to share the links with him. He leaves a giant hole in our community. I, for one, will miss seeing his smiling face around town."
Another talented fiddle player and entertainer Louis Darby commented, "As the curtain closes for the legendary musician, entertainer and storyteller, Mr. Shoji Tabuchi, one can't help but applaud and celebrate a life and career so well performed. In all the years I've been in Branson and our paths would cross, Shoji would always call me by name with a smile and engage in pleasant conversation. He took the time to not only share but to listen intently to those he engaged. I'm sure there are a multitude of entertainers worldwide that would say the same thing. I never saw the man when he wasn't excited and positive about everything around him. He had a genuine love and appreciation for his family, music, life and the people he met. He touched so many lives. Truly, his was a life well lived."
Branson's Dalena Ditto was fortunate to share a theater with Tabuchi. Said Ditto, "When I was asked to pen my thoughts about who Shoji was, I realized how many once-in-a-lifetime events I've been blessed to have. Who he was to me was who everyone came to love. I first met Shoji in 2002. I remember being a bit nervous to say 'Hello," Like most people who have been in Branson, I had toured the bathrooms of his theater and was excited to tell him that my mom and I had seen them both! Shoji was kind and laughed as if he'd never heard that before. Over the last 20-plus years that I've lived in Branson, Shoji always exemplified that same infectious kindness. Last year, we shared the same theater, same backstage. I was often asked what that was like. And, I would reply, 'Awesome! He's the best in the business!' And, he was. The last time I spoke to Shoji, we talked about cars, fishing, music and the good ole days with Mickey Gilley. We laughed a lot and then we took a selfie with my son, Landon. I thought then, how special Shoji was to take the time to talk, how he was still one of the most kindhearted humans I've ever known. Little did I know when we parted that day, it was the last time we'd say goodbye. I once heard, 'The two hardest things to say in life are hello for the first time and goodbye for the last.' So true. Godspeed, my friend!"
Norm Jewell worked closely with Shoji Tabuchi. "I first met Shoji in 1990," said Jewell. "He had just opened his new theater. I was transitioning from a U.S. Navy career to civilian life, and he generously offered me the position of general manager. He already had a solid fan base from his performing with major country names and the time he had already spent in Branson. They have tried to explain the unique connection some artists have with their audiences. Shoji had it in spades. Marketing and other factors are important, but positive word-of-mouth on the street trumps it all. Some examples which illustrate that audience connection from those early ‘90s years—
approximately half of the permanent seats had been installed. Several hundred folding chairs were added to accommodate the demand. Major renovations to the theater were accomplished the first three winters to accommodate demand. Corporate headquarters was moved twice to handle increased needs."
Jewell continued, "Winter traveling shows started to become obsolete but Shoji's message was always the same. 'If you like what you saw tonight, you must come to Branson!' The 3x5 cards asking for feedback on the show were handed out to each patron in those early days. They came back by the thousands. If you spent time among the patrons as they exited the show, the joy they experienced and carried home with them was inspirational. It takes a particular artist and person to experience the success that Shoji did and maintain an even keel. He will be greatly missed!"
Marshall Howden, a member of the Branson Board of Aldermen, a Branson music historian and the grandson of music legend Mel Tillis said, "I was devastated to learn of the passing of Shoji Tabuchi as he was such a dear friend to my family and I. It was especially tough to take, as we have lost so many of our Branson legends over the past few years. And yet I am so grateful to have grown up in a town where these legends could prosper. Shoji and my grandpa were fishing buddies and I can't imagine the stories they are telling each other now!"
Another member of the Tillis family, Mel's daughter Cindy Tillis Shorey added, "We received the news of the passing of Shoji with great sadness. He was a great friend to Dad, especially. They shared so many wonderful moments together, held dear by both of them. Shoji reached out to me earlier this year to check in on us and share, again, how much he missed our father. He invited us to his new show, and I was so looking forward to seeing him in Branson. Everyone knows of the jokes shared about their times fishing, but their bond went far beyond that. During Dad's illness, he called weekly for months. He was both an incredible talent and a special, special man. We are all thinking of Shoji's family at this time."
State Representative Brian Seitz said, "I first saw my friend Shoji Tabuchi perform in the late 1980s at the old Starlite Theater. He later moved into his own opulent venue in Branson, where the ambiance and uniqueness of the show entertained guests from across the world. Shoji was an innovator. He pushed the limits and made his dreams a reality, and we are all better off for having known him. I was honored to be able to give the opening prayer at the inaugural Shoji Tabuchi Day a few years ago, and I'm praying for peace for his family during this difficult time. I know he will be missed by not only the citizens of Branson, but friends across the world."
Branson Mayor Larry Milton shared his thoughts, noting "Shoji Tabuchi was a pillar of our community and one of the foundational reasons that Branson turned into the city we know and love today. The contributions that he and his family have made to our city over the decades cannot be overstated. He cared deeply about our community and never met a stranger. Lianne and I are praying for his family during this difficult time."
Branson talent Gregg Gray shared the stage with Tabuchi many times. Said Gray, "Whenever a friend passes, especially when it is unexpected, it makes you think about what is truly important in life. Building relationships with others is certainly near the top of that list. Shoji was one of the most well-known names in Branson entertainment. Literally millions of people saw him perform over the last three decades. The production value of his shows was unparalleled. His musical arrangements were outstanding. In short, he wouldn't settle for second best. And, then there were the bathrooms at his theater, an ingenious marketing idea. Everyone wanted to see Shoji's bathrooms, in large part because of the 60 Minutes feature on Branson in the ‘90s. But, after the show is over, the lights are out. The theater is empty. What was Shoji really like? Honestly, one of the nicest men you would ever want to meet. He always had a smile and a kind word. He was the epitome of the American dream. A young man raised in Japan, who learned to play the violin using the Suzuki method, and then fell in love with country music after country legend Roy Acuff performed near his hometown in Japan."
Gray added, "He arrived in the U.S. with $500. Worked a day job and fiddled at night. Auditioned for well-known country artist David Houston, and the rest is history. One thing about Shoji—he never expected more out of you than he was willing to give. He motivated those around him by inspiring them. A person can demand respect or command respect. You wanted to do your best for Shoji because you loved him. I feel so blessed to have known him and performed with him during his years in Branson. And, he would always make you laugh as he told a story in his broken 'Engrish.' Those memories are something I'll never forget. His legacy will live on."