Storied showman Noel Coward once asked musically, “Why Must the Show Go On?” There would be no debate, however, if the question were put to a particular businessman and theatrical impresario from Branson.
Gene Bicknell, owner of the The Mansion and other theatre, food and entertainment properties, finds a heartfelt expression of caring in bringing entertainment to one of the most underserved audiences – the men and women of the U.S. military serving in war zones overseas. On April 8, Bicknell and an ensemble of entertainers including Tony Orlando and his band, all volunteering their time, head to the Middle East through the combined efforts of Operation Iraqi Children, American Airlines, and other organizations.
In addition to entertaining the troops, the cast will be delivering school supplies for U.S. service personnel to distribute to the children of Iraq. Supplies include some 3,000 tee-shirts donated by the Bicknell Family foundation as well as more than 5,000 pairs of Croc shoes. This part of the mission is coordinated through Operation Iraqi Children, a non-profit effort founded in 2004 by actor Gary Sinise and author Laura Hillenbrand to support U.S. service members in accomplishing their mission.
American Airlines, through its Veterans Initiative Program led by Capt. Steve Blakenship and Capt. Jim Palmersheim, has donated the majority of sponsorship to make this journey possible. In particular, the airline is donating the use of Boeing 767-300 wide body aircraft to facilitate what will be the largest shipment of Operation Iraqi Children supplies in the history of the program.
“People aren’t generally aware of how much charitable work American Airlines does,” Gene Bicknell said, preparing for the trip. “What they’ve done for our veterans and their families is a model of corporate caring.” Bicknell recalled the involvement of American Airlines in the Wounded Warrior Project and also in support of Operation Snowball Express which provides a yearly trip for the spouses and children of service members killed while on active duty since September 11, 2001.
Bicknell’s party of 20 from Branson includes members of the energetic cast from the award-winning “Country Tonite” showcase. On their way to their first overseas stop in Germany, they will be joined by legendary Tony Orlando, another Branson favorite. Also joining the team from Kansas City will be country recording artists Matt Snook and Phil Vandel.
Once in the Middle East, the larger group of singers, dancers and instrumentalists will divide into smaller groups enabling the nearly two-week mission to reach more military audiences serving in diverse areas of operation, even some at sea on aircraft carriers and other navy vessels.
Among those also joining the mission will be sports celebrities, former Miss Americas, and Mary Eisenhower of People to People International, the organization founded by her grandfather, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, to enhance international understanding and cross-cultural friendships.
“None of this would be possible without the caring and concern of a whole lot of people and corporations,” Bicknell said.
This is not hte first time Bicknell has offered his own resources for the sake of veterans and service personnel. Transoceanic satellite hookups have enabled Branson entertainers to perform for the troops from The Mansion and other venues. And two-way communications permitted soldiers in the Middle East to connect with family members who had been invited to the Bicknell theatres.
The show-must-go-on imperative gets further meaning as Bicknell, himself a veteran, explores the emotional bond with bringing smiles and diversion to those who serve in uniform. “My wife Rita and I have a deeper connection. We’ve been to Walter Reed [Army Medical Center] in Washington and to other bases where we’ve been privileged to visit wounded veterans of war. We’ve seen their disfigured faces and have noticed their missing arms and legs, and we’ve understood the sacrifice they’ve made to defend our shores and advance the cause of freedom around the world.
If you don’t have some loyalty to that,” Bicknell explained, “you’re not going to get any of this.”