The end of an era

Dan Field
An aerial view of The Topsider complex back in the day.

One door closes and another opens.

Dick and Kym Ebling take notice with mixed emotion as property they owned on Osage Beach Parkway for more than 43 years is beginning a new chapter. Dirt work has begun.

The Poop Deck and Topsider that entertained and fed tens of thousands of patrons for more than four decades is now giving way to another venture under new ownership – condos first and a restaurant and hotel later.

Trees are being bulldozed now on vacant property adjacent to the popular entertainment complex that closed three years ago after the Ebling family – including daughters Susan and Katie – decided the run was over. It was time to step aside.


“The lost relationships we built,” Kym says. “And I’ll miss the opportunity to teach and influence young people.”

Many of the hundreds of employees who served customers have moved on – married, changed careers or even stayed in the service industry. But the memories last forever.

“We’ve had a great run,” Dick says.

“I can’t go anywhere it seems without someone stopping me – customers or employees – and sharing a story,” she said. “We’ve been as far as Las Vegas and somebody knew me.”

The beginning

Dick and Kym met while students at the University of Missouri-Columbia. They dated and eventually married in 1964 at the Lake Ozark Christian Church. You see, Kym’s dad built the former Kalfran Lodge in Osage Beach and her mom taught at School of the Osage.

Both Dick and Kym taught after graduating from MU. After Dick got his Master’s Degree, he took a job with Ralston-Purina in St. Louis. Kym, after graduating from School of the Osage and leaving the lake, said she’d never return to her home because in the 1950s there was hardly any population and little apparent future.

But as the world turns, Dick was looking for a career change. He’d always wanted to move to the lake and through a mutual friend learned that The Clown was for sale. That was a dream soon to become reality.

The Clown’s owner – Robert T. McIntosh – told Dick he would make him a deal. If he worked for nothing for 30 days he would consider selling the on-the-water restaurant to him. Dick and Kym were skeptical, but as a young couple they plunged forward. As it turned out, Robert T (as he was widely known) was testing Dick to see if he was worthy.

“Robert T worked me hard,” Dick recalled. “I couldn’t do anything right and he was on me all the time.”

Kym was a waitress and cook at The Clown, which turned out to be fundamental to the success of their business.

On the 30th day, McIntosh came to Dick and said “I’ll tell you what. Meet me at the house and we’ll talk.”

“I want to his house, he grabbed my hand and said ‘how does it feel to be the owner of The Clown?’ I was so excited. You could have blown me over with a feather.”

And so their journey began.

Dick and Kym bought The Clown, the iconic floating boat drive-in, in June 1975. It has quite the history itself. It was created by Robert T and his wife, Jody, in 1960. It was the original floating restaurant.

But in 1978, fate dealt a mind-numbing blow to the Eblings. A fire destroyed their home up the hill from The Clown along with restrooms that served The Clown.

And from the ashes rose The Poop Deck. Dick and Kym used the insurance money to re-start their lives, bought a double-wide trailer and built The Poop Deck – the second in a string of properties.

The Poop Deck was the first outdoor waterfront restaurant and bar at the lake. It began as a 30x30 uncovered deck and bar that served food packed in picnic baskets and delivered up the hill from The Clown.

In 1979, there was no place on the water to drink or eat, so the popularity of The Clown and The Poop Deck skyrocketed as interest in the lake begin to blossom. How did it get its name? Walk up the hill and find out – you were pooped, Kym laughs today.

Always with an eye to the future, Dick had another idea – to sell drinks and beer in a bar. The Topsider was conceived in an effort to have a business on shore with a season longer than 100 days. The off-season could be brutal in those days.

“We were told it would never work, but in November 1981 -- of all times of the year in the winter -- we opened,” Dick said.

The original bar was a cozy, little place with a fireplace built to accommodate 50 people. The Eblings wondered that first winter if the advice they got was correct. But, in retrospect, their decision was the right decision. It was the first such facility at the lake and quickly surged in popularity.

Business did improve and soon the Eblings had to expand. Every year they changed something whether it was the entrance, exit, deck or service bar.

Kym admits today they knew nothing about selling or making drinks. Dick went to bartender school with Joe Boer (now deceased), another iconic restauranteur at the lake. Dick learned how to market drinks and he and Kym came up with unique drink names that included such favorites as The Skinny Dipper, Osage Beach Comber, Grand Glaize Coconut, Poop Deck Donna, Lake Water, Ha Ha Tonka Zonka and Hook Line and Sinker.

“I was a bartender, bouncer and janitor,” Dick recalls.

The Topsider’s first bartender was Rose Signorelli, who today the Eblings say was a key to the Topsider’s early success.

“People followed her from all over,” Kym said. “Our Happy Hour became very popular, especially with local business people.”

In 1987, The Topsider outgrew the space and the Eblings undertook the big addition of a dance floor with high tech lights and video.

The Eblings visited several night clubs around the country to “steal” ideas they could implement at The Topsider. Among the more unique ideas was to add a foggy atmosphere.

“We used liquid Co2 for the haze effect and it became an attraction. It was the feature of a club that nobody had ever seen here,” Kym said.

The Lake of the Ozarks was beginning to flourish about that time. More condos were being sold, more second homes were being built and the boats were getting bigger and big-boat traffic was getting more frequent causing massive wakes and damage to docks.

“It was ripping up our docks and we just couldn’t afford to keep our docks and keep The Clown going,” Kym said. “We had to decide to make the repairs or let it go.”

The final summer for The Clown was 2006, a statement for 46 years.

Another addition to the entertainment complex was a sand volleyball court in the 1990s. Dick quickly realized, however, the court was on one of the best parts of the property and wasn’t making any money. And so the Tiki Bar was built.

It became an overnight success like many of the other ideas the Eblings brought to The Topsider complex.

The complexion and culture of the Lake continued to change, and the Eblings were toying with retirement. They began to consider a change in their lives as well, and thought they had a buyer for their entertainment venue. But that fell through and left them exhausted after 43 years of working seven days a week.

Three years ago this month, the Eblings closed that chapter of their lives. It had served them well. It raised two daughters. It employed thousands of young men and women. It was an icon and an industry leader at the lake.

It’s a memory now. They will keep a virtual eye on the new venue as it grows into what everyone all hopes is another highly successful venture for not only Osage Beach but the Lake of the Ozarks.

Today, Kym recalls the words paraphrased from a popular song at the time used on a radio commercial to promote their variety of businesses: We’re still the one, we’re still the one. We’re still having fun, and we’re still the one.

And so it was.

Clown Golf Tournament

Sometimes lost in the shuffle of the moment is a chance to make a difference.

As a celebration of The Clown’s 25th birthday in 1985, Dick and Kym started The Clown Golf Tournament as a charity event to support The Dream Factory.

The Dream Factory is the largest all-volunteer-driven event that grants wishes to children who have a life-threatening illness or those with chronic illnesses and disorders who suffer substantial emotional and physical pain.

The tournament gave way to COVID-19 concerns this year, but to date the charity event has raised more than $1 million to support granting wishes.

The Topsider and Dick and Kym no longer host the event. The Re/MAX community of Realtors has taken on the worthwhile tournament.

Watch for 2021 Dream Factory Golf Tournament details early next year.

Dick, Susan, Kym and Katie Ebling.