“We chose that song because he used it on the campaign trail,” Williams later said of Kennedy, who had been a close friend. “He had a terrible voice, but he loved to sing that song. The only way I got through singing in church that day was by saying, ‘This is my job. I can’t let emotion get in the way of the song.’ I really concentrated on not thinking about him.”
After leaving TV, Williams headed back on the road, where his many Christmas shows and albums made him a huge draw during the holidays. One year in Des Moines, however, a snowstorm kept the customers away, and the band’s equipment failed to reach Chicago in time for the next night’s show. The musicians had to borrow instruments from a high school band.
“No more tours,” Williams decreed.
He decided to settle in Branson, with its dozens of theatres featuring live music, comedy and magic acts.
When he arrived in 1992, the town was dominated by country music performers, but Williams changed that, building his classy, $13-million theatre in the heart of the entertainment district and performing two shows a night, six days a week, nine months of the year. Only in recent years did he begin to cut back to one show a night.
Not surprisingly, his most popular time of the year was Christmas, although he acknowledged that not everyone in Hollywood accepted his move to the Midwest.
“The fact is most of my friends in L.A. still think I’m nuts for coming here,” he told The Associated Press in 1998.
He and his second wife, the former Debbie Haas, divided their time between homes in Branson and Palm Springs, where he spent his leisure hours on the golf course when Branson’s theatres were dark during the winter months following Christmas.
Retirement was not on his schedule. As he told the AP in 2001: “I’ll keep going until I get to the point where I can’t get out on stage.”
Williams leaves is survived by his wife, Debbie, and his three children, Robert, Noelle and Christian.