Lee and Joyce Mace’s Ozark Opry and their wholesome performers’ talents, music and comedy brought the spotlight to Lake of the Ozarks as early as 1957.
How many of y’all came here tonight for a good time?” The answer was everyone, and boy did Lee and Joyce deliver
for decades. The Maces knew the hills before they held the Lake. They knew their own family and friends’ talents and tenancities. In their own energetic ways they embraced the new shoreline when Bagnell Dam was built between 1929 and 1931. Around the end of World War II, these visionaries began to rally and share their new exciting environment with others. They had the notion that tourism was the way of the future and didn’t think that the Lake was only going to provide fishing and boating. They knew the hills had so much more to offer.
Other names that continuously rise to the top of the Lake’s history in this era were the Blair, Franklin, Foster, Libby, Marker and
Williams families, just to name a few. But the outstanding dynamic duo was Lee and Joyce Mace. They showcased the Lake with gusto. Their business sign is still standing in Osage Beach as a landmark of Lee Mace’s Ozark Opry, a testament to the teamwork of gifted local musicians and showmanship talent. It is estimated that more than 10 million people visited their Ozark Opry during its 53-year run at the Lake. But the tangible statistics weren’t as important to the Maces as the living entity of the Opry itself, the good times it offered and the good folks and fellowship involved.
Being native to the Lake was a boon to their enterprises. Lee was born and raised in Miller county, Joyce in Camden county. They
met doing what they both enjoyed ‒ square dancing ‒ during the much-anticipated, three-day-long Tuscumbia picnic in 1946. Their mutual passions of dancing and having fun fueled their successes. Together with family and friends they formed “The Lake of the Ozarks Square Dancers,” putting taps on their shoes performing their new form of “Ozark Mountain Jig.”
They barnstormed the Midwest and quickly became wildly popular, appearing on The Today Show with Dave Galloway and Ted Mack’s Amateur Hour. They secured a contract as “The Grand Ole Opry Square Dancers,” performing more than 100 shows on
the Grand Old Opry Show. They also headlined in New Orleans, Louisiana, and Reno, Nevada. Lee and Joyce became Mr. and Mrs.i n 1950. Upon returning home from their honeymoon Lee was drafted into the Army. They lived in Texas for a bit before Lee was shipped off to France from 1950 to 1952.
While stationed with the 28th General Hospital Unit he formed a hillbilly band. Lee was designated as the bass player but no bass
could be found. One day he spotted a discarded bass with a broken neck, so a new neck was fashioned from a baseball bat by one of the members. Lee taught himself to play the bass, and music and memories commenced.
After he was released from the service, music called again. Lee was hired back home as the program director at the newly established KRMS-AM radio station in Osage Beach and had an open microphone every Sunday. From this began a live radio talent show with Lee as the master of ceremonies. A group of musicians was hired for the radio station, as was typical then. This group became the precursor to the Ozark Opry, with Lee again on bass.
In 1953 the radio station had the group play at Casino Pier next to the Bagnell Dam. Their show was family-oriented, true to the old traditions and values; country music performed with square dancers and singers, and incorporating banjo, rhythm guitar, fiddle, mandolin and bass. They also added a comedian. It was a runaway hit.
Joyce and Lee lit out on their own in 1957. They built the Opry’s permanent home on Highway 54 that initially seated over 200 in
folding chairs. They both helped make the individual, concrete building blocks. Lee was on stage while Joyce was behind the scenes running an efficient office and being the head costume seamstress.
Lee even ran a tour bus through the Brumley countryside. Tourists only paid if they were pleased and only at the conclusion of the tour. No one was ever disappointed, as the story goes.Their music show’s popularity spread, and soon they had their own weekly TV show on KRCG-TV, Jefferson City, and KMOS-TV, Sedalia. They were regularly in the top 10 shows according to the
Nielsen ratings, running for 26-plus years. Their show’s unique style‒ never with a big star, only local talent ‒ was the first in the nation to perform six nights a week. United States Senator Kit Bond entered this accomplishment into the Federal Congressional Record as such.(The Grand Ole Opry was just two nights a week at that time.)
Many of the musicians went on to be a member of major acts. Meeting growing success, three more additions were made to their building over the years to eventually seat more than 1,000. They often performed two shows, four nights a week, April through September.
During the off-season they toured the Midwest, first in only two cars with the bass tied to the top, then in a bus. Lee learned how
to fly and flew with two show members (who luckily drew the two highest cards) and the rest rode the bus to share their music, dance and everything good about the Ozarks.In 1979, a recording studio was added at the back of the property to produce and share the Opry’s wholesome music, including Lee’s popular Old Rugged Cross, so visitors could then enjoy the music at home.
Over the years they released more than 25 albums. Their annual talent show held in the fall drew folks from all over the nation. The talent show started at 2 p.m. on Sunday and often lasted past midnight.Lee contributed to the community and residents in many inconspicuous acts of kindness. However, he was notable as a Shriner raising millions of dollars for their causes. He was
also a founding director of the Bank of Lake of the Ozarks. Also, he was a commercial entrepreneur and even a partner in the popular Indian Burial Cave attraction.
The sky attracted Lee, like it often did in his free time, on one particular spring day. He and a friend took off in a small, experimental plane to fly around the Lake and tragically flew to heaven on June 16, 1985. He was only 57 and had performed more than 10,000 consecutive appearances in his 37-year career. Joyce, her family, friends and musicians pressed forward with their show’s traditions and the integrity it was known for. They carried on for 20 more years. His memories and music linger still, especially in the Lee Mace’s Ozark Opry museum inside the Lee Mace Sear’s building.
It’s located on the Lee Mace Memorial Highway that originally was a gravel road. There are other notable evolutions from the Ozark Opry time too. Casual fishing in wooden boats with a single, 15mph motor gave way to numerous, nationally revered fishing tournaments and the SHOOTOUT boat race breaking 200mph speed records with jet engines. The popularity of square dancing was the predecessor to the free dancing of today at numerous nightclubs and outdoor bars with pools. The Mace’s Wild
Mouse roller coaster was the forerunner to today’s Miner Mike’s Family Fun Center. Their show gave rise to a number of live shows at the Lake, yet only one ‒ the Main Street Music Hall ‒ remains. The Mace’s show fueled the many shows at Branson. But there’s still the one and only, the original, Lee Mace’s Ozark Opry.
They were two of the original Lake pioneers. They were a part of the team that was revered and popular, and with heart-warming values that helped blaze the trail for future prosperity of not only their fellow musicians, staff and families, but for the entire, beautiful Lake of the Ozarks. They truly answered Lee’s show-opening question in more ways than one. Everyone
came together to have a good time! •