Entertainer Andy Williams was remembered Sunday for a smooth voice that could soothe the soul, an inviting smile and a warmth that became synonymous with Christmas as celebrities and fans alike gathered for a memorial tribute at his Moon River Theatre in the southwest Missouri town he adopted as his home.
Williams, who died last month at the age of 84 after a battle with cancer, was serenaded in absentia by a series of musical artists who got their start with him decades ago or had performed with him over the years — the Lennon Sisters, Osmond Brothers and Gatlin Brothers, among them. Entertainer Bob Newhart choked up with emotion as he joked of his friendship with Williams.
Others sent tributes by video, including comedian Bill Cosby and Ethel Kennedy, who recalled swooning as she once danced with Williams — a family friend who sang at the memorial for her husband, Robert Kennedy, after his assassination in 1968.
Williams himself also appeared on the video screen as clips recalling his musical albums, TV variety show and Christmas specials were played.
More than 1,000 people attended the tribute hosted by entertainer Peter Marshall that started as an invitation-only event, but was opened to fans as word spread through Branson.
Williams had three platinum and 18 gold records, and five Grammy award nominations during a career that began at age 8 — when he performed with his older brothers Dick, Bob and Don — and continued nearly until his death as he performed at his Branson theater named for his signature song, "Moon River."
"For his fans, his music is the tapestry of our lives — it can soothe life's difficult moments, help to celebrate the glorious ones," said Anthony Gigliotti, who spoke at the memorial service as a representative of Williams' fan club.
Williams became a big star in 1956, the same year as Elvis Presley, with the swing song "Canadian Sunset." He hosted "The Andy Williams Show" through the 1960s into 1971, and the show won three Emmys. His annual Christmas specials, featuring Williams dressed in colorful sweaters singing favorites such as "The Most Wonderful Time of the Year," continued long after his TV show ended and were renewed with live performances after Williams opened his Branson theater in 1992.
"Christmas is never going to be the same to me," Newhart said Sunday, his voice breaking up with emotion.
A cross section of people who knew Williams was seated out of the spotlight in the theater that he built. Some knew him in passing from his friendly smile and wave that graced Branson, and others in a more personal way, including the man who regularly golfed with Williams or the woman who once lived next door to him.
Former neighbor Jude Rhodes recalled Williams holding her sick dog and singing to her for a birthday.
Page 2 of 2 - "I could go on for days and days what a wonderful man he was — a sweet lovely man," Rhodes said.
Williams was passionate not only about singing and entertaining, but about art, architecture, golf and virtually everything he did, his family and friends said.
His older brother Dick drew a standing ovation after singing at the service. Then the 2½-hour memorial tribute closed with a video of Williams singing "May Each Day" — a tune he often used to close his own shows.
"May each day in the year be a good day. May each day find you happy and gay. And may all of your days be as lovely as the one you shared with me today," Williams sang. "May each day of your life be a good day, and good night."
Then the theater lights went dark. And an audience applauded one final time for Williams.