Wilderness in the City: Otter Creek Inn & Altoona/Eau Claire, WI

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Otter Creek Inn

Today the road has brought me to Altoona, WI.

Here it is, ladies and gents.  My 49th review and my first in the state of Wisconsin.  It is also the maiden voyage of my new 2018 Ford Focus on these excursions.

It was a bit overcast to start this journey.  I chased away the grays with a little conversation with Jesus and making liberal use of my free trial subscription to satellite radio.  Having the Beatles Channel is a little slice of heaven for a Fab Four connoisseur such as myself, let me tell you.

As I got deeper into Minnesota, the skies began to clear and the sun started shining down and the day had become quite beautiful by the time I crossed the border into Wisconsin.  Before I knew it, I had reached the Eau Claire suburb of Altoona and found the Otter Creek Inn.

The inn is located on a little acreage on Hansen Lane which you’ll find just before 10th Street.  I parked the car, stretched out the kinks in my hip, and walked up to the front door and rang the bell.  Almost instantly, I was greeted by the inn’s owner, Lisa Jenkins.  Lisa is actually a very new owner of the establishment.  The inn has been in business since 1987 and the original owners sold the property to Lisa over the summer.  Lisa shut down the inn for a few months for renovations before reopening it in November.

The inn still retains most of its originality and is more similar to a lodge than a house.  By that I mean, Otter Creek Inn is wide and long as opposed to being tall.  One of the first things greeting guests is the common area known as the Grand Room and grand it is.  Not only is the room massive, but it holds some games, some comfortable antique chairs, and a monstrous fireplace.  One will also find the breakfast options and can fill out what they would like to eat as well as time and location of the meal.

“Location?”, I hear you ask.  Unlike many other B & Bs, Otter Creek Inn does not have a communal dining room.  Rather it has several secluded areas where the guests can enjoy their meals in private such as a nook just past the kitchen or the 2nd floor balcony.  If you feel like it, you can even enjoy breakfast in bed.

Added to this sense of privacy is the fact that Otter Creek Inn is an adults only environment so you can really get away from it all.

Lisa led me to my escape for the weekend:  Dream Suite.

The room has blue flowered wallpaper, an incredibly comfy king bed, a 42 inch Smart TV, an electric fireplace, and a jacuzzi tub nestled in the floor by the bay window. It is also important to note that each of the 5 rooms contains a fireplace and jacuzzi which is a hallmark of the inn.

After I settled in, Lisa gave me a tour of the establishment where I snapped photos and got a little inn history.  Afterwards, I went to the hors d’oeuvres table where I had a little chip and dip and a Coca-Cola.  For the evening, a martini bar had also been set up for those who enjoy a good cocktail.

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Martini bar

I feel these long drives a bit more than I used to so I just collapsed on my soft bed, perused the movie menu, and just relaxed.  Before leaving for dinner, I filled out my breakfast choices and opted to enjoy it in bed.

Now most of my readers know that I tend to avoid chain restaurants, but even I had to yield to expediency on a Lenten Friday.  Luckily, there was a Red Lobster just a bit up the road.

The restaurant was packed and I was amazed that they were able to get me seated in about 15 minutes.  I looked through the menu to see what sounded appetizing, made my selection and waited for a server.

And waited. . .

Now I knew the place was busy, but I suddenly stopped to think that I had been seated for 10 or 15 minutes and I hadn’t even been brought water yet.  Just as I had that thought a young lady stopped by my table (I think it was the manager) who apologized for nobody waiting on me and she offered me a free appetizer or alcoholic beverage for the inconvenience.  I don’t know if she, herself, had noticed or if another patron pointed it out, but I thank whomever for the free cup of lobster bisque I ended up getting.

The bisque was rich and creamy and a dash of pepper added just the right amount of kick to it.  A garden salad and a half order of Salmon New Orleans with rice pilaf and mashed potatoes served as my main entrée.  The salmon was served in a creamy Cajun sauce and was garnished with shrimp.  It really hit the spot.

With a great meal in my stomach, I returned to the inn where I found a good meal really makes you notice how exhausted you are.  I dimmed the lights and filled up the Jacuzzi tub while an old episode of Law & Order played on the TV.

Now the jacuzzi tubs in this inn are just soaking tubs.  Soap flakes and salts are provided, but you can’t bathe in them as regular soap and shampoo aren’t good for the tub.  So I just sat and soaked, letting the jets massage my wearied limbs and the hot water unwound my mind.  Yes, sir.  I just sat and soaked until every joule of heat was absorbed from the water.

Then I got into my jammies and attempted to go to sleep, but it was too darn quiet.  I normally use a fan for some white noise and this room had no ceiling fan.  No problem, I just turned on the fan to the bathroom and, voila, instant shuteye.

I did some championship lounging the next morning.  Breakfast arrived promptly at 8:30 with my order of a small order of eggs benedict with ham, tomato, and onion served with a side of breakfast potatoes, cheese, and orange juice and hot chocolate.  It was 45 minutes of pure dining bliss and it was only as I was using my toast to get the last of the hollandaise that I realized I had forgotten to take a photo for the article.  But, believe me, it looked every bit as good as it tasted.

As I ate I watched The Mask of Zorro and then caught a shower and shave before heading over to visit the Leinenkugel brewery.

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Leinenkugel brewery

Leinenkugel is a family owned brewery (6 generations running) and was founded in 1867 in the small town of Chippewa Falls.  For $10 one can tour the brewery and have either 2 12 ounce lagers or a sampling of 5 5 ounce lagers.  Our tour guide was John, a former teacher, who was very knowledgeable about the Leinenkugel history and the process of brewing lager.  Most interesting was the revelation that Leinenkugel had to survive 2 threats to its existence.

The first, unsurprisingly, was Prohibition.  Leinenkugel managed to survive it by switching its manufacturing to ginger ale and non-alcoholic beer.  The second, and the bigger threat to its existence, was the great brewery purge of the 80s and 90s where many breweries started going out of business.  Leinenkugel escaped the purge by partnering with Miller which was a win-win for both companies and enabled Leinenkugel to continue thriving.

Leinenkugel is not only known for great lager, but also for being extremely charitable as they donate to or sponsor every charity within Chippewa Falls.  It is definitely worth a visit.

After my tour, I returned to the inn where I did a little writing and filled out a breakfast request for Sunday before I headed out to worship at St Mary’s.

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St Mary’s

It was a bit different, almost a blend of pre and post Vatican II.  Some parts of the service were recited in Latin and there was no sign of peace.  On the other hand, there was an excellent sermon on The Prodigal Son which Father argued should really be called The Merciful Father and it was definitely interesting food for thought seeing the parable from the point of view of the father.

After church, I went to downtown Eau Claire for dinner at Stella Blue’s.  This Cajun restaurant is easy to miss as it holds an unassuming spot in an unassuming building.  You’re probably likely to notice the parking lot first which is actually several blocks past the restaurant.

Despite a well-known reputation, Stella Blue’s has the look and feel of a hole in the wall eatery.  In my opinion that makes it better as those joints usually serve the best food.

It seemed to be my weekend for being overlooked/forgotten at restaurants as I once again waited about 10 minutes before a server got to me.  This time I got a free drink.  I started off with a gumbo appetizer and it was superior gumbo.  Theirs was closer to stew than soup and full of vegetables and even used bits of bacon instead of andouille sausage.  I mused about whether or not I should have just ordered the entrée version of that until they brought my main course of shrimp etouffee.  The spicy brown sauce was amazing, especially when mixed with the rice.

With another fabulous meal digesting, I returned to the inn.  When I entered my room, I picked up a white box which I had mistaken for a recharge port and found it to be a white noise machine.  Sleep would be easy to find tonight.

Another long soak.  A bit more writing.  Then I activated the illusory flames on my fireplace and set up the white noise machine to emulate the crackle of a campfire.  I almost felt like I was in the woods as the fictional fire snapped, crackled, and popped.

I enjoyed Sunday’s breakfast on the 2nd floor balcony.  Bacon fashioned in the shape of a heart along with pancakes with whipped cream, apple pie filling, chocolate chips, and maple syrup joined fruit, water, skim milk, and orange juice. Lisa was a most attentive host and even gave me leads on some new inns and a community theatre in Colorado (her old stomping grounds) which I filed away for potential future visits.

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Alas, all good things come to an end.  It was time to head back home.  But I enjoyed my stay in Altoona and my visit to Otter Creek Inn.  Not only is the inn a bit of big city wilderness retreat, but being near to the Eau Claire area means there’s plenty to do in terms of shopping, activities, and the arts. Otter Creek Inn is the perfect retreat for adults who want to get away from it all, yet still have plenty to keep them occupied.  It’s peaceful, elegant, and luxurious and Lisa will treat you like royalty.

Until the next time. . .happy travels.

I’ve Gotta Get Back in Thyme. . .Again

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Friday, July 29:  the day the road took me to my most poignant place.

On this sunny day I began a journey nearly 14 years in the making.  For it was on this day that I headed to Bonner Springs, KS to be a guest at Back in Thyme Bed and Breakfast and to review The Elephant Man for The Barn Players of Mission, KS.

If you’re a first time visitor to this website, The Elephant Man is my favorite play and it played a rather profound moment in my life.  For the full details of that story, click here.  I had long made my peace with the events of that day which is why I was so excited to finally have an opportunity to see the show and come fullish circle.  The timing couldn’t be more appropriate as this article will be posted on the 14th anniversary that I heard the results of that audition.

Bonner Springs is a suburb of Kansas City so it provides a unique blend of small town living with the perks of a nearby major metropolitan area for things to do.  Back in Thyme, owned and operated by Judy Vickers, is a beautiful “new-old” Queen Anne house nestled on a secluded acreage near Nettleton Avenue.

Given the size of the house I was surprised that it only boasted 3 bedrooms for rental.  On the other hand, the limited number of rooms does make it ideal for peace and quiet.  As I climbed the porch steps, I met Brantley and Ashley, fellow guests who were in the area to see a Rascal Flatts concert.  As I reached the top step, I was greeted by Judy, a very hospitable host and a fount of knowledge on fun things to do in the area.

Judy led me to the Bay Laurel Room which would serve as my base of operations.  It’s one of the most comfortable rooms in which I’ve stayed with its soft armchairs, burgundy walls, feather pillows, and a queen bed with a firm mattress.  The room also boasts a fireplace and I mildly wished it were colder so I could get a crackling blaze going.

I unwound in my room for a while before sprucing up for the show and enjoying a 6pm appetizer with Judy and a couple of her friends.  I ended up in a great conversation with Fred, a rather intelligent man who is currently writing three books.  I enjoyed a pleasant hour conversing with Fred as we nibbled on cheese, olives, crackers, and baba ganoush.

When Fred noticed traffic starting to back up on the highway, I decided to head over to the Barn Players.  Once more, Mapquest tried to put one over on me by telling me to make a right turn on a street when it should have been a left.  Shades of Richardson, TX flashed through my brain as I got my bearings and got back on the right track.  Luckily, I made it to the theatre with about 7 minutes to spare.

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The Barn Players is a bit of an institution in Mission and has quite an impressive reputation.  Many of its alumni have gone on to professional acting careers, most notably Chris Cooper.  The show was almost everything that I hoped it would be.  A few flaws kept it out of the excellent region, but it was still very good and thoroughly enjoyable.  You can read my review for the show here.

I returned to Back in Thyme where I wrote my review and curled up in my bed for a good night’s rest.

After a comfy night’s sleep, I awoke ravenous.  I headed downstairs and enjoyed chit-chat with Brantley and Ashley as we dined on Judy’s wonderful scrambled eggs cooked in thyme butter, crispy bacon, French toast, and fried apples.

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Having restored the inner man, I went upstairs to do a little work on the computer before deciding to take advantage of the pleasant day and walk along some trails I found behind the house.  Normally I like communing with nature, but I got a faceful of nature in the most literal sense as I stumbled through myriad spider webs as I wandered through the woods.  I escaped from the woods yanking webbing off of my face and hair.

Judy had suggested several areas of interest, some of which I will save for a future visit to the K.C. area, but I did take time to visit Bonner Springs’ famed Moon Marble Company.

As the name implies, the store is famed for its marbles and even gives demonstrations into a making of marbles, but the store is so much more than that.  The store also specializes in board games, puzzles, and classic toys.  I was amazed at all of the hard to find toys and games located in the shop.  Duncan Yo-yos, rare board games, Jacob’s ladders, Fisher-Price toys that I remembered from my childhood.  If you like vintage toys and games, take some time to visit Moon Marble Company if you find yourselves in Bonner Springs.

After I drove around the downtown area, I returned to the inn where I killed a few hours watching a mystery series before cleaning up for church and dinner.

I attended services at Good Shepherd Catholic Community in Shawnee, KS where I enjoyed a wonderful service preached by Fr. Oswaldo.  When services were done, I headed over to Hereford House for dinner.

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Hereford House is a Kansas City institution and this was one of the tastiest meals I have ever eaten.  I indulged in a small salad with creamy Italian dressing before supping on the main course of a 12 oz ribeye blackened with garlic butter and a side of Cheddar Ranch potatoes and a bit of bread.  Most of my dinner came back with me where it currently rests in the inn’s guest fridge for a future meal.

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I spent the remainder of the evening working on this article before turning in for the night.

I awoke to a rather gloomy day and am expecting some rain on the drive home.  I spent a bit of time editing this article and then went downstairs for another rousing breakfast.

At the table, I met Courtney and Ashley from Olathe, KS who had just come in from having coffee on the porch and we chatted while Judy served us a sumptuous meal of sausage, green chile egg casserole with salsa (now one of my favorite dishes), zucchini muffins, and cantaloupe.  The pleasant meal and talk was over much too quickly and I began to pack up for the drive home.

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So if you find yourself in the Kansas City area, spend an evening at Back in Thyme in Bonner Springs.  You’ll find some good (and healthy) home cooking on a peaceful estate with plenty to do nearby.

What Makes a Man?

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Take a good, long look at the above photo.  Imagine being caged in a body like that.  Hideously ugly.  Virtually crippled.  But inside that tragic figure your heart beats with the sensibilities of an artist, the innocence of a child, and the charming wit of a gentleman.  This was Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man, who defied his pitiable circumstances to become the toast of London society.  His life story is the focus of The Elephant Man by Bernard Pomerance which is currently playing at the Barn Players Community Theatre.

Time for a little full disclosure.  This is my favorite play.  I know it backwards and forwards and am a cornucopia of knowledge in the history of the real Joseph (misnamed John) Merrick.  As you can imagine, I’ve got some pretty high standards for this show.  I’m very pleased to say that The Barn Players met my standards and even exceeded them at some points in a very powerful and poignant piece of storytelling.

Pomerance’s script is an interesting blend of historical fact (though some events are embellished for dramatic effect) and compelling themes such as strength of spirit, egoism, love, friendship, and what really makes us human.  Despite being the title character, Merrick’s presence is more of a force that touches the lives of everyone he meets in some form or another.  Some realize their own humanity while others lose theirs.  Interestingly, many of the other characters project their own qualities onto Merrick and only two actually see Merrick for the beautiful soul that he is.

These ideals make for storytelling at its finest and the cast and crew do a very good job on the whole in telling that story.

Mark Hamilton should be especially proud of his direction.  His staging is excellent and he has coached performances ranging from very good to superior from his actors.  I did note a couple of beats that could be mined for greater dramatic impact, but those moments can still bloom during this show’s run.

I consider the role of Merrick to be one of the most difficult and grueling an actor can undertake.  Not only does the actor playing the role need to be unbelievably versatile to handle the complexities of the character, he must also adopt an awkward and demanding body language to communicate the infirmities of Merrick.  With that being said, Coleman Crenshaw does extreme honor to the role.

Crenshaw certainly did his homework as he understands Merrick right down to the ground.  His physicality was tremendous, though he needs to keep that body language in mind at all times.  He made some movements that would either have been impossible for the real Merrick or done only with excruciating difficulty.  That quibble aside, his interpretation of the dialogue blew me away.

Crenshaw’s delivery is so nuanced it almost staggers the imagination.  With incredible ease, he captures Merrick’s innocence, wit, genius, fears, awkwardness, and goodness.  And he does it with a clogged and slobbering speech that still retains flawless diction.  His evolving of Merrick from frightened creature to bold man over the course of the show is a tour de force and I foresee Crenshaw being in the running for many local acting awards.

David Innis does a fairly good job as Dr. Frederick Treves, the doctor who found Merrick and gave him a home at the London Hospital.  Innis presents Treves as a full of himself young doctor who originally gets involved with Merrick solely because he is a good subject for study. His inherent decency appears when he brings Merrick to live at the London Hospital after he is abandoned by his manager.

From there, Innis does a marvelous job showing Treves’ awakening to his own humanity and ugliness as he comes to know Merrick’s internal beauty.  Treves grows to hate himself as he believes he has turned Merrick into a freak, albeit a high class one, as he introduces him to London society and bitterly regrets seeing him as a mere research subject.

One thing Innis must master during this run is to project.  He was so quiet that, had I not known the dialogue so well, I would not have understood large portions of his speeches.

Stefanie Stevens brings depth and intelligence to the role of Mrs. Kendal, the actress who befriends Merrick.  Originally brought in to visit Merrick because she is trained to hide her true emotions, Mrs. Kendal instantly recognizes the man within the monstrous body and forms a kinship with him.  Ms Stevens plays the role with an elegant sincerity and is especially impressive in the moment when she decides to grant Merrick’s fond desire of seeing a real woman in all of her naturalness.

Special notice also goes out to Jeph Scanlon and Sean Leistico who play the roles of Carr-Gomm and Ross.  As Carr-Gomm, the administrator of the London Hospital, Scanlon manages to be kindly if a little stiff and serious.  And I never thought I would make a critique like this, but he actually needs to enunciate a little less.  He was hitting his syllables so hard that it made his dialogue a little staccato.  Softening his syllables will let his speech have a more natural flow.

Leistico adds a third dimension to Ross with sheer force of acting ability.  The role could be treated as a throwaway, but Leistico is pathetically oily as the manager who robs Merrick of his life savings and is just pathetic when he comes crawling back, sick and dying, in the hopes that Merrick will throw away the life he’s created to be a high class freak.

Holly Daniel’s costumes are gorgeous and a perfect fit for Victorian era London.  Laura Burkhart has developed a wonderful “less is more” set that easily shifts from Merrick’s room to the hospital to Belgium.  I would also be remiss if I did not mention the music of Daniel Yung.  He provides all of the sounds and music of the show with a superior piece of cello playing that he suits to each and every moment of the play.

What ultimately makes the show so compelling is Merrick’s humanity and that teaches a valuable lesson to us all.  Life dealt him the worst possible hand and he did not become embittered by it. He rose above it and taught us all what it means to be human.

The Elephant Man plays at the Barn Players Community Theatre through August 14.  Showtimes are Fri-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm.  There will be an industry night performance on Monday, August 8.  Tickets cost $18 for adults, $15 for seniors, and $12 for students (w/ID) and groups of 10 or more.  Industry night tickets are $12 at the door.  To order tickets, visit the Barn Players website at www.thebarnplayers.org or call 913-432-9100.  Parental discretion is advised due to a scene of partial nudity.  The Barn Players Community Theatre is located at 6219 Martway in Mission, KS.

‘The Elephant Man’ Opens at Barn Players on July 29

The Elephant Man by Bernard Pomerance opens on July 29th! Get your tickets today at www.thebarnplayers.org/tickets

Directed by Mark Hamilton

Stage Managed by Diane Bulan
Set Design by Laura Burkhart & Mark Hamilton
Lighting Design by Phil Leonard
Costume Coordination by Ashley Christopher
Choreography & Movement Coaching by Meghann Deveroux
Assistant Stage Management by Amanda Rhodes
Sound Design by Sean Leistico
Production Intern: Alicia Miro

July 29th – August 14th
Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30pm
Sunday at 2:00pm
(Industry Night: Monday, August 8th)

STARRING
Coleman Crenshaw, David Innis & Stefanie Stevens
FEATURING
Eli Biesemeyer, Richard J. Burt, Meghann Deveroux, Dee Dee Diemer, Sean Leistico, Lindsay Lovejoy, Alicia Miro, Jeph Scanlon, Scott Turner & Daniel Yung

SYNOPSIS:
The Elephant Man is based on the life of John Merrick, who lived in London during the latter part of the nineteenth century. A horribly deformed young man, victim of rare skin and bone diseases, he has become the star freak attraction in traveling side shows. Found abandoned and helpless, he is admitted to London’s prestigious Whitechapel Hospital. Under the care of celebrated young physician Frederick Treves, Merrick is introduced to London society and slowly evolves from an object of pity to an urbane and witty favorite of the aristocracy and literati only to be denied his ultimate dream, to become a man like any other.

All performances are at:
The Barn Players Theatre, 6219 Martway, Mission, KS.

Ticket pricing:
REGULAR – $18.00
SENIORS – $ 15.00
GROUPS (10 OR MORE) – $12.00
STUDENTS (WITH A VALID STUDENT ID) – $12.00

WE ACCEPT CREDIT CARDS!
VISA, MASTERCARD & DISCOVER!
The box office opens one hour before curtain time.
For reservations, please call or call 1-800-838-3006
or visit our website at www.thebarnplayers.org

Production support provided by…
The Mainstreet Credit Union
Northeast Johnson County Chamber of Commerce
St. Pius School
Media partner support provided by…
94.9 KCMO
710 AM / 103.7 KCMO Talk Radio

The Barn Players embraces diversity in all aspects of our organization. Non-traditional and equal-opportunity casting is encouraged.