Here I Go A Wassailing: Old Rittenhouse Inn & Bayfield, WI

Old Rittenhouse Inn

Today the road has brought me to Bayfield, WI.

It’s time once again for my favorite review of the year:  the annual Christmas B & B review.

This review has been 3 years in the making, but at long last I was able to make my way to this tiny village at the tip of northern Wisconsin to experience Old Rittenhouse Inn, owned and operated by the Phillips family, and its famous Wassail Weekend which was back in action after being suspended due to COVID for a few years.  This has been one of my favorite reviews and an inn that I would visit again in a heartbeat.

As I stated, Bayfield is a small village located at Wisconsin’s northern tip.  It also sits at the base of Lake Superior which means there is always the danger of a lake effect blizzard.  Due to this threat, I took the precaution of insuring my trip through Travel Guard.  For the cost of $35, I was able to have the peace of mind knowing that I wouldn’t be out financially in case things went south and the insurance would also fund lodging to the tune of $100 a day for five days if weather prevented me from returning home.

Fortunately, the weather report called for cold, but clear, weather for my jaunt.  So I was ready to rock.

I took an alternate route to Bayfield through the highways of Wisconsin for the double purpose of avoiding the Twin Cities which had just gone through a winter storm and for the hope of passing through small towns and seeing some local Christmas flavor.  A hope which was fulfilled as I made the long, but quaint, drive through the state.

I finally arrived in Bayfield around 3:30pm on Friday afternoon.  When you think small town, Bayfield is what leaps to mind.  It only has a total population of 584, has no chain restaurants, and a movie theater with one screen.  Truly it is the place to get away from it all.

The town had been bopped by its own storm on Tuesday and snow lined the streets and lawns.  But, hey, what’s a Christmas review without the magic of some winter snow?

I made my way to Old Rittenhouse Inn which practically kisses Lake Superior.  It is a Queen Anne Victorian mansion built in the Painted Lady architectural style and was originally built as a summer residence in 1890.  Jerry and Mary Phillips bought the home in 1973 and began operating it as Wisconsin’s first B & B. 

The mansion boasts an impressive 12 rooms which hold amenities such as whirlpool tubs, fireplaces, and views of Lake Superior.  Old Rittenhouse also has a sister inn called Le Chateau which holds an additional seven rooms for lodgers.  Old Rittenhouse also contains its own gourmet restaurant, Landmark Restaurant, on property and is open to the general public.  As the restaurant only holds 62, reservations are highly recommended, even as a guest of the inn.

I crunched my way to the front door of the inn where I checked in at an honest to goodness front desk and was led to Room 6.  This is one of the five biggest rooms I’ve stayed in and could have hosted a small party.  The room’s tan walls hold some lovely paintings along with a comfortable leather couch, rocking chair, coffee table, private table for two, a king-sized bed, and a whirlpool tub in the corner.  I also shared a private balcony with the room down the hall.

Once settled in, I explored the mansion and admired the Christmas festiveness on the first floor as well as the inn’s highly regarded stained glass windows.

Once my explorations were done, I donned my hat and coat and went to the downtown area to look around.  Downtown is just a few blocks away so there’d be no need for the car for this journey.  Downtown Bayfield looked properly Christmassy with the pine boughs wrapped around the street lamps and the storefronts shining with decorations, lights, and trees.

I was visiting during the off season so many activities and restaurants weren’t available to me which simply means I’ll have to come back during the spring or summer to experience ferries to the Apostle Islands and other seasonal events.  But I did enjoy gazing into the various shops and stores and saw the Christmas spirit in full swing.

For my dinner, I headed to Morty’s Pub.  This small bar and grill exuded a great deal of fun with sports showing on several TVs, a pool table, and seating at tables or the bar.  Morty’s Pub also had a goodie table laid out with desserts and chips and some hot items for the patrons to enjoy.

For myself, I enjoyed a tasty Bourbon BBQ Burger while I continued working my way thought my latest book of Sherlock Holmes pastiches.  A light snow had started to fall as I hiked my way back to the inn and I felt a long day of driving hit me as I entered my room.  I drew a whirlpool bath, added some aloe and green tea bath salts and just soaked for a long while before crawling under the thick quilt and blankets and reading myself to sleep.

Since I tend to rise early, I decided to eat early as well and had made a reservation to have breakfast at 8am.  In fact, I was the only guest eating at that early hour.  A menu was available and breakfast is free to guests of the inn ($16 for the general public).  The menu had several intriguing entrees, but I went with the special du jour:  Virginia Ham Scramble with a side of Yukon Gold Potatoes. 

Breakfast started with goblets of water and orange juice and a popover with crabapple ginger jelly.  For those of you unfamiliar with them, it’s a hollowed-out muffin.  Now I don’t typically eat jams or jellies, but this jelly was exquisite and the ginger really enhanced the flavor of the fruit.  My entrée was perfect in every way, shape, and form.  It was the perfect size and didn’t leave me feeling stuffed.  The potatoes were nice and crisp and eminently seasoned.  The scramble was right on the mark and a little cracked pepper upped the ante on the taste.

This, my friends, was dining.  I spent 45 minutes eating this delectable faire as I vacillated from reading and watching the lake smoke (due to the water being warmer than the air) waft off of Lake Superior.  I left a generous tip for the service (remember this is a working restaurant) and returned to my room for a bit of writing and reading.

About 11:30am I headed back downtown as I had a 90 minute massage scheduled at Superior Body Massage & Spa with Jen Banowetz.  Might I say that if you’re seeking a massage in Bayfield, make an appointment with Jen.  Jen’s knowledge of massage is unparalleled and she explained her techniques as she worked my muscles.  Jen used a variety of techniques including acupressure, Thai, Chinese, and even a bit of chiropractic adjustment when she stretched out my lower back.  The best moment was when she found a knot the size of a marble in my jaw and dissolved it with her fingers.  I felt my jaw hang loose in a way I haven’t felt in ages.

After untying my knots, Jen led me to the infrared sauna to close out my treatment.  Infrared sauna is a fairly new treatment that is more effective than traditional sauna as the infrared heaters warm you up from the inside out instead of just heating the air.  This lets one have a longer treatment and also purges more toxins from the system, increases relaxation, helps in weight loss, and promotes better sleep just to name a few benefits.

After a great sweat, I made a stop at the spirits shop across the hall and picked up a six pack of Wisconsin’s famed Spotted Cow beer to enjoy with my siblings during our own Christmas celebration in a few weeks.  I then returned to the inn for a brief rest before heading off to worship at Holy Family.

Holy Family Parish

It was a good Advent service with the deacon giving a strong sermon on how easy it is to justify sin and accepting the challenge of Jesus to change those patterns of thinking.  It was definitely a meaty subject to mull over.  But what moved me the most was what happened when I was leaving the chapel.

Holy Family has had a substitute pastor and I shook his hand on the way out and he gave me the warmest handshake I think I have ever experienced.  I was struck by his sincerity and his servant’s spirit which taught me a lesson in being Christian more powerfully than words ever could.

I mulled over that lesson as I walked back to Old Rittenhouse where I took another whirlpool bath and dressed for the Wassail dinner.

About 6pm I headed downstairs and found Landmark packed to capacity.  I was seated at a table with a pair of lovely couples:  Cheryl & Ed and Gail & Paul.  I enjoyed conversing with them throughout the eve.

At 6:30pm, the Old Rittenhouse Singers lined the cherry staircase and Jerry Phillips appeared in the doorway, shook his tambourine, and shouted, “Wassail!!” which the diners/audience heartily repeated.

Jerry Phillips welcomes the diners to Wassail.

This launched the Wassail Weekend.  Through the month of December, Old Rittenhouse Inn hosts 3 course luncheons ($65) and 5 course dinners ($95) where you are serenaded by the Old Rittenhouse Singers who will entertain you with a variety of Christmas hymns and carols.  Normally, the singers go from dining room to dining room to serenade, but sang to us from the stairs this year as a precaution.  Next year, the plan is to return to the traditional format.

Old Rittenhouse Singers

Now five courses may sound like a lot of food and it is filling, but the portions are not excessive (though the main entrée, understandably, is the most filling) and the courses are paced out over the night.  To give you an idea of the pacing, the first course was served shortly after 6:30pm and the final course was served around 10pm.

But what an amazing and festive night!!

The Christmas spirit was in full swing as the Old Rittenhouse Singers sang their hearts out and I enjoyed a sumptuous meal which began with a special Christmas cocktail called a White Christmas which was like a grasshopper without the green coloring.  Throughout the night I enjoyed a sumptuous feast consisting of the following courses:

Course 1:  Mushroom Consommé
Course 2:  Wassail Salad
Course 3:  Sorbet
Course 4:  Shaved Prime Rib with asparagus and mashed potatoes
Course 5:  Turtle Sundae with a rum syrup

With a full stomach and a peaceful soul, I slept soundly until morning dreaming of attending Wassail again in its full glory.

I dined early again as I had a long drive ahead of me and got to eat in the Blue Room (due to the color of the walls).  This was the inn’s original dining room before the Phillips family expanded it into the restaurant in the early 1980s.  I enjoyed the daily special again which was a Denver Scramble though I opted for bacon as the side dish and had V8 for the beverage.

Once I’d breakfasted, I settled the bill and began the long trek home.

If you want to experience Christmas in a way you never thought, you need to come to Old Rittenhouse Inn.  You will have an experience that will have you light of heart and full in stomach.  And the accommodations are luxurious and comfortable.  It will truly be a weekend you will remember always.

Until the next time. . .happy travels. . .and happy holidays!

‘Tilly’ is Silly

Tilly is having a rough holiday season.  Her sister ran off with a guy and left her in sole control of their diner which is in danger of going out of business.  She misses her father.  She’s lonely and her beau hasn’t proposed to her.  And her Christmas Extravaganza talent show is lacking star power and talent.  Will her apprentice guardian angel be able to help her find her Christmas spirit?  Find out by watching Tilly’s Holiday Extravaganza currently performing at Harold’s Koffee House under the auspices of 2×4 Planck Productions.

For full disclosure, the show’s playwright, Doug Marr, was a friend of mine and I performed in several of his original works so I have a good feeling for his style of writing.  This show definitely has the feel of an early work (it hasn’t been performed for 30 years) and seemed like a tale of two plays.  The first act needed a bit of polish.  It sets up Tilly’s woes and introduces Novice Betty whose “help” just seems to make things worse and then she vanishes and Tilly’s day just goes from bad to worse with various mishaps.  Act II jumps ahead to Christmas Eve and the extravaganza and is a much stronger act centering on the, ahem, “talent show” and the turn things take when a pair of strangers arrive at the café before everything gets wrapped up in a bow (Christmas pun intended).

Though it has some weaknesses, Doug’s love of Christmas and nostalgia are palpable and the play does feature some of his hallmarks.  Witty one-liners.  Ridiculous situations.  Frenemy characters.  And the energy of his family and friends who came together to produce this show definitely boost the production.

Lorie Obradovich does a laudable job of directing this play and does a very strong job of staging the actors, though there are points where the actors are out of the view of some patrons depending on where they’re seated in the diner.  Her coaching is quite solid as she really got her actors to embrace the silliness of their characters and just have some fun.

Some amusing performances come from Mike Downey as a dumb as a brick mechanic whose angry singing of “Frosty the Snowman” to the tune of “The Little Drummer Boy” is the play’s highlight; Dylan Marr and Elizabeth Planck make for a cute newlywed couple with an enjoyable pair of bad songs; Rob Baker brings some smiles as a never will be singer whose act is more lounge lizard than Sinatra; Ann Downey serves as a capable “straight man” to her goofball husband; Daniel Baye supplies some yuks as a befuddled thief; Wes Clowers has a nice everyman quality as Tilly’s boyfriend, Dale.

Rose Glock is an absolute delight in the dual roles of Novice Betty and Marlene.  As Novice Betty, apprentice guardian angel, Glock summons the spirit of Jean Stapleton’s Edith Bunker with the Queens accent and her good hearted ditziness.  As Marlene, Glock comes off as a mannish Lucy Van Pelt.  She’s crabby and she’s the boss (especially with her dominance of her brother, Pee Wee) and few are the people she can stand (and probably vice versa) for more than 5 minutes.

Laura Marr shines as the titular Tilly.  There’s definitely a flavor of Vicki Lawrence’s Mama character in her performance.  Marr’s Tilly is, more or less, the level headed leader of this neurotic group.  She never seems short of a snarky one liner, has a real take charge attitude, and can deliver extemporaneous, subtle sarcasm like a champ.  Still, she has a good heart and you genuinely want her to find her Christmas cheer.

The costumes supplied by Laura Marr, Paula Clowers, Robyn Baker are well done, indeed.  Most enjoyable were Tilly’s waitress outfit and poofy wig, Murray’s ugly as sin “tuxedo”, the coveralls for the mechanics, and Novice Betty’s flapper outfit.  There’s even a few clever light tricks from the director and cast as flickering lights (both regular and Christmas) abound whenever divine intervention is afoot.

It’s a sweet show for the holiday season and a worthy tribute to the late Doug Marr.  Come for the show.  Come for the pie.  Come for some Christmas cheer.

Tilly’s Holiday Extravaganza plays at Harold’s Koffee House through Dec 21.  Showtimes are 7:30pm Thurs-Sat (Dec 21 is a special added Tuesday show).  Tickets cost $18 for the show and $25 for show, pie, and coffee or soft drink.  Harold’s Koffee House is located at 8327 N 30th St in Omaha, NE.

Camille Metoyer Moten to Grace Omaha with Some Christmas From Her Heart at OCP

Omaha, NE.– Christmas in My Heart: A Concert Featuring Camille Metoyer Moten will open on Friday, November 26th, 2021. The show will run in the Howard Drew Theatre through December 23rd. Performances will be held Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m. and Wednesday, December 22nd at 7:00 p.m. Tickets are on sale now starting at $30 with prices varying by performance. Tickets may be purchased at the OCP Box Office, 6915 Cass St., Omaha, NE 68132, by phone at (402) 553-0800 or online at OmahaPlayhouse.com.

SYNOPSIS

OCP legend Camille Metoyer Moten makes her highly anticipated return to the stage for an intimate holiday affair. Christmas in My Heart is all the wonder and magic of the season in concert. Cozy up in our Howard Drew Theatre and let Camille’s soaring voice warm your heart with beloved holiday classics, contemporary Christmas melodies and everything in between!

Photo provided by Richardson Photography

A Needed Shot of Christmas

Is holiday stress getting you down?  Pandemic isolation making you blue?  Well, then I’ve got the cure for you.  What you need is a shot of Christmas and Camille Metoyer Moten brings it to you in spades with Christmas In My Heart:  A Concert Featuring Camille Metoyer Moten.  This streaming performance is courtesy of the Omaha Community Playhouse.

I think what I love most about Christmas is its simple beauty and that sums up this concert.  There’s nothing flashy or showy about it.  It’s as if Metoyer Moten has simply invited you into her home for a fun night of Christmas cheer.  And if you love Christmas music, then this will most assuredly be a show for you with Christmas tunes ranging from traditional carols, sacred hymns and even an original or two.

Camille Metoyer Moten is the total package as a singer.  She has a crystal clear alto voice.  A warm, welcoming presence that fills the theatre.  And animation that adds that little cherry to the sundae of her performance.  So absorbed will you become with her golden voice that you’ll find yourself swaying and singing along with the music.

Metoyer Moten opened the night with a ringing rendition of “Do You Hear What I Hear?” and the night only went up from there.  Personal favorite numbers were her haunting take on “Mary, Did You Know?”, the sweet “Christmas Lullaby”, a vulnerable and beautiful recitation of some of her Christmas memories that segued into “Joy to the World” and her closing with the Judy Garland classic, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”.

Metoyer Moten didn’t come alone and her friends helped further enliven the night.  Her sister, Lanette Moore, shared the wonderful short story Mary’s Precious Little Lamb.  John Morrissey gave an energetic performance of one of my favorite Christmas tunes, “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year”.  Paul Tranisi’s powerful baritone mesmerized with “Christmas Love Song”.  Dave Wingert supplied a bit of humor with the mirthful “Another Christmas Song”.  And Kathy Tyree kicked things up a notch with her cover of the Yuletide rocker “Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home)”.

Metoyer Moten was backed by a highly talented three piece band featuring David Murphy on piano, Mark Haar on bass and Mannheim Steamroller drummer, Joey Gulizia on percussion.  The trio even got its own moment to shine with a musical version of “O Christmas Tree”.  Susie Baer-Collins staged the concert with impeccable flair.  Jim Othuse sets the stage with a Christmas tree and holly along with some gorgeous lighting from wintery blue to festive red. 

So take a little time to revisit the fun and faith of Christmas with the music of Camille Metoyer Moten.  It’s balm for a weary spirit.

Christmas In My Heart:  A Concert Featuring Camille Metoyer Moten is available for streaming from the Omaha Community Playhouse through January 3, 2021.  Tickets begin at $30 and the show can be purchased at www.showtix4u.com/events/ocp.

Photo provided by Richardson Photography

‘A Christmas Carol’ Provides Dose of Cheer

Even the pandemic isn’t able to stop A Christmas Carol which is currently available to stream from the Omaha Community Playhouse.

Just when it seemed the pandemic was about to steal Omaha’s annual holiday tradition, Kimberly Faith Hickman was able to give the city one final gift before she steps down as the artistic director of the OCP.  In conjunction with Geoffrey Jones, son of former artistic director Charles Jones, Faith Hickman was able to rewrite the elder Jones’ adaptation of Charles Dickens’ timeless Christmas ghost story.  Slimming down the cast from 40 to 8 and filming one performance for streaming, Faith Hickman was able to mount a version of A Christmas Carol that maintains the charm and cheer of OCP’s traditional, full strength version.

The production was directed by both Kimberly Faith Hickman and Ablan Roblin who did an admirable job of staging the production.  The 8 performers are always well placed on stage and the performers are so animated that one almost doesn’t notice the extremely subtle use of social distancing throughout the production.  Faith Hickman and Roblin have also coaxed solid performances out of their cast, though the pace could have used some quickening and the cue pickups could have been snappier at some points.  I also enjoyed the realism both directors applied to the production as they tamped down some of the show’s historically over the top moments.

Slimming the cast placed an extra burden on their shoulders as they had to play many multiple roles in order to properly tell this story and they do so fairly effectively and sometimes quite sublimely.  Some fine moments of the show include Jonathan Berger’s magisterial and effervescent Ghost of Christmas Present; Brandon Fisher’s genuinely good hearted Fred; Serena Johnson’s angelic Ghost of Christmas Past; Megan Kelly’s skittish rendition of Mrs. Dilber; and Brinlee Roeder and Dominic Torres provide some levity as the various children. 

But I’d like to cite Josh Peyton’s acting range for his disparate portrayals of the kindly and put upon Bob Cratchit and his supernatural Jacob Marley.  His Marley was especially impressive as he had an otherworldly quality and his voice was tinged with a menace and authority certain to put the fear of God into Scrooge’s heart.

Even after a decade and a half, Jerry Longe is still able to find ways to make his take on Ebenezer Scrooge fresh and original.  Longe underplayed the tar out of Scrooge and I loved it.  That underplaying made his Scrooge ice, ice cold and clearly a man who needed salvation.  And you could see the iciness of his heart get chipped away bit by bit as he slowly came to understand that he was a real scoundrel.  As much as I enjoyed his performance, there were a few moments when his reactions didn’t quite suit the moment.

Jim Othuse utilized a less is more set for this particular version of A Christmas Carol.  A beautiful backdrop became London at Christmas and just a few set pieces (a bed, a fireplace, a streetlamp) managed to become the various locales of the play.  Lindsay Pape’s Victorian costumes transport the viewer to the proper time and place.  John Gibilisco added some nice effects to the voices of the ghosts to give them that phantasmagorical presence.  Jim Boggess and Anita Clark Jaynes do the work of an entire orchestra in performing the show’s full contingent of Christmas carols.

I salute OCP in managing to preserve its 45 year tradition and bring a little Christmas at a point where we could use a little joy.  Take a moment and enjoy some Christmas cheer with your family and make an evening of A Christmas Carol in the comfort of your home.

A Christmas Carol is available for streaming from the Omaha Community Playhouse at https://www.showtix4u.com/event-details/43126  until January 3.  Rental prices begin at $40.