JEFFERSON CITY, MO, SEPT. 20, 2022 – For a little more than 50 years, Lee Mace was almost a household name in the Ozarks. Mace and his wife, Joyce, were the founders of Lee Mace’s Ozark Opry, the sign of which still stands along Highway 54 in Osage Beach.
The Ozark Opry showcased local talent – gifted musicians and true showmen. And during its 53-year run, hosted an estimated 10 million guests. The statistics weren’t important to the Maces; the fun and fellowship the opry offered were.
Mace, a native to rural Missouri, grew up near Brumley. As a youngster, he would go with his family to a friend’s home for musical get-togethers, where there would be singing, instrument playing and dancing.
Mace was from a musical family; his mother was an accomplished fiddler. She taught him the basics and from there he learned on his own. Mace became known for playing a “rousing, slapping, free-wheeling bass fiddle.”
As a serviceman in the U.S. Army, Mace formed a band while stationed with the 28th General Hospital Unit in France while awaiting deployment to Korea. Mace was the designated bass player; however, there was no instrument to be found. According to Mace’s nephew, Dave Webb, Mace was “out walking around and saw a bass in a dump. He drug it out and saw it had a broken neck, but it was a bass!”
Mace took it home and one of his Army buddies, who used to work in his dad’s cabinet shop, thought he could fix it and just needed a baseball bat. Webb said Mace’s friend fixed it and if you look closely, you can still see where the bass was repaired with the bat. Mace went on to use the bass in several shows, both abroad and in the states. Constructed in 1938, Mace’s instrument was a Key bass fiddle, one of fewer than 50 such instruments produced, according to a bass fiddle registry.
The Maces were credited with preserving old-time country traditions with the advent of their Ozark Opry. What started in 1953 as a show or two weekly, turned into shows six nights a week for more than 30 years. The couple is credited with starting the first live nightly family show in America, an accomplishment that U.S. Senator Kit Bond entered into the Federal Congressional Record. Their nightly family show became the template that is still used by the Branson entertainment industry. As their success grew, so did their building, which eventually had seating for 1,000.
During the off season, they took their show on the road, first with only two cars with the bass tied to the top. They eventually advanced to a bus. Mace learned to fly and flew with two show members, while the rest rode the bus.
Mace loved flying and often took to the skies in his free time. In June 1985, he and a friend took off in a small, experimental plane, but did not make it home. The two were killed when the plane crashed near Gravois Mills. Mace was 57 and had made more than 10,000 consecutive appearances in his 37-year career.
For years after Mace’s death, the bass sat unused, but was included on stage for the Opry’s final show, Webb said. At the time of the show’s closing, the bass fiddle was given to Webb and was displayed in his home. For a while, he loaned it for display at the Ozark Opry Museum in the old Opry building.
One day, Webb was perusing Facebook and saw a post featuring Missouri Trailblazers on the Missouri State Museum’s page. As a coincidence, Mace was one of the featured Trailblazers.
“I knew the bass needed to be on display for everyone to see,” Webb said. “I was put in contact with Tiffany Patterson from the Missouri State Museum and she began to help make arrangements for us to get it donated.”
On Aug. 25, 2022, in front of a crowd of more than 30 family members, friends and past performers with the Ozark Opry, Lee Mace’s old bass fiddle was installed in a display case at the Missouri State Museum in Jefferson City.
When people think of Lee Mace, those who knew him or saw his show associate him with a bass fiddle. So much so that his headstone was cut into the shape of one. Delivered in two pieces, the stone weighed more than 3,500 pounds!
To many, Mace was more than an entertainer. He was a symbol of economic progress, a true trailblazer for the lake area. Two of the original Lake of the Ozarks pioneers, the Maces believed in the area’s future. Mace was an early investor in commercial ventures and he relentlessly pushed for progress. With their heart-warming values, popular music and down-home hospitality, they blazed a trail for future prosperity, not only for their fellow musicians, friends and family, but for the entire area.
For those interested in seeing the bass and other Trailblazer exhibits, visit the Missouri State Museum on the first floor of the State Capitol at 201 W. Capitol Ave. in Jefferson City.
For more information on Missouri state parks and historic sites, visit mostateparks.com. Missouri State Parks is a division of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources.