Cotton Patch Really Redux, Days 1-2: Experiencing Lincoln & Cotton Patchful

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Sometimes fate gives you a chance at redemption.

As my regular readers may remember, about a year ago I was in Arlington, TX in order to review Cotton Patch Gospel for the Repertory Company Theatre when a series of unfortunate circumstances exploded that attempt.  If you need a refresher or just need to read the story for the first time, click here.  A few months ago I found that the show would be playing in the much, much closer venue of Springfield, IL at the Hoogland Center for the Arts.  I got in touch with their executive and artistic director, Gus Gordon, and arranged a media ticket to review the show and looked forward to a trip to Illinois’ capital city in early March.

My journey did not start with the normal sense of joy that I usually have with these road trips.  Part of it was just general antsyness about wanting to get to Illinois.  The other part was my irritation at being unceremoniously turned away from an event I was asked to be part of on the previous night.

A rest stop in Hannibal, MO served to restore much of my good humor.  After lunching at Wendy’s, I found myself in a decidedly better frame of mind and the rest of the drive felt like my normal road experiences.

A few hours later, I found myself in Petersburg (about 20 miles outside of Springfield) and my home away from home:  Branson House Bed & Breakfast, owned and operated by Norma and John Stiltz.  John also happens to be the mayor of Petersburg.

Branson House is an Eastlake Victorian home built in 1876 by Nathaniel Branson for his wife, Frances.  The house boasts 7 marble fireplaces and, believe it or not, an elevator.  When I rang the doorbell, I was greeted by Norma who gave me the nickel tour of the home before leading me to Uncle Billy’s Retreat, my room for the next few nights.  And, yes, of course I used the elevator.  It would have been impolite not to have used it.

Uncle Billy’s Retreat was a most comfortable room, indeed.  It boasted a large iron framed king bed with an electric fireplace, sitting chair & footstool, and a day bed in the corner.  After doing my usual reconnaissance, I relaxed for a bit before heading over to Springfield to get some dinner and locate the Hoogland.

Downtown Springfield does require a little getting used to as the roads are a criss cross of one way streets, but after I went back and forth a couple of times, I found myself expertly navigating the streets.  Within a short time, I arrived at D & J’s Café for a little old fashioned comfort food.

Any lingering frustrations to the start of my day vanished with that meal.  I enjoyed a patty melt with bacon which was apparently just what the doctor ordered.  A side of crinkle fries and a Mountain Dew helped to complete the cure as I chewed merrily away and completed a rereading of Ellery Queen’s The Siamese Twin Mystery.

Upon returning to the inn, I organized some photos and then hit the sack.

The next morning, I woke up feeling refreshed.  I headed to my bathroom and took a long hot shower before heading downstairs to breakfast.  Norma had prepared some wonderfully thick pancakes with a dish of kiwi, blueberries, and strawberries, plus an egg pizza with cheese and chives.  I’m not usually a fan of strawberries, but these were quite delectable and I savored every mouthful of my meal while reading Sherlock Holmes and the Eisendorf Enigma, the latest novel from my favorite Holmesian pastiche writer, Larry Millet.  I also formally met John who graciously brought me the local paper.

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Pancakes, fruit, and egg pizza

With the inner man restored, I headed to Springfield to indulge in a bit of history.  Springfield was the home of our greatest president, Abraham Lincoln and his tomb, museum, and library are all located in downtown Springfield.

The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum is well worth a visit for a very interactive study of the life of Mr. Lincoln.  I’ve always had a great deal of admiration and respect for Honest Abe, but I was stunned to find out how much I didn’t know about him.

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Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum

His formal schooling lasted less than a year and he was a self-taught reader and lawyer.  I was even more shocked to find out that he began his presidency as our most hated leader.  Let that one sink in.  It was a particularly contentious election with 4 candidates.  Lincoln managed to win a decisive Electoral College victory thanks to the northern states (he actually didn’t make the ballot in many southern states), but only had 40% of the popular vote.  Not exactly a ringing endorsement.  It also seemed like he could do no right as anything and everything he did brought hatred and vitriol upon him.  I was genuinely shocked to see the numerous hateful articles and political cartoons written and drawn about Lincoln.  History, of course, has vindicated him.

The museum is split into several sections.  One is dedicated to his life before the White House, another to his presidency and the Civil War, another to the Library next door, another to rare family treasures, but the best section is an interactive movie theatre that briefly describes Lincoln’s life.  The film showed me that Lincoln had an interesting duality in personality.  Despite being a popular wit and storyteller, Lincoln was also plagued by doubt and melancholy.  I also learned that Lincoln may very well have been near death even without the aid of John Wilkes Booth’s bullet.

Two busts of Lincoln done after he won the presidency each time show the ravage that leading during the Civil War wrought on him.  Underweight to begin with, Lincoln was almost skeletal going into his second term.  One noted sculptor thought the second bust was a death mask.  Studies of pictures of Lincoln after his first term seem to support the theory that he may not have been long for the world.

After my moving and enlightening education, I took a walk down to the Hoogland to get a picture of it.  On my walk, I passed the old and current state capitols and also met a homeless guy who needed a sympathetic ear.  He was quite philosophical and well versed on our current state of politics.  I ended up giving him $5 so he could get a sandwich.

I got my picture of the Hoogland, then returned to my car where I drove back to Branson House to relax a bit before dinner.

At 4:30, I got cleaned up and into my suit for the evening’s activities.  I drove back to Springfield, hoping to eat at the Chesapeake Seafood House, but it was jammed to the rafters.  It would have taken 45 minutes just to seat me.  Luckily, I remembered passing a restaurant called Alexander’s Steakhouse as I entered town, so I rushed back then, where I was able to be seated immediately.

I think I ended up getting the better deal as Alexander’s had one of the best salad bars I have enjoyed.  They also brought me a perfectly chargrilled Atlantic salmon with some hand cut Idaho steak fries.  After a tasty dinner, I hopped over to the Hoogland.

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Hoogland Center for the Arts

It was a magical night of theatre.  The Hoogland is actually home to several theatres and I met Gus Gordon who was a warm and friendly guy.  I also met Ken Bradbury, the director of Cotton Patch Gospel whose expression of “I’ll be damned” still brings a smile to my face when he found out I had traveled from Omaha to review his show.  And the show was excellent.  You can read my review here.

With bluegrass music playing in my head, I returned to the inn to write my review and get a good night’s rest.

A Season of Exploration, Part II: A Triumphant Return

The standing ovation.  The knowledge that we were able to move and enrich the audience with powerful storytelling.  The satisfaction of entertaining others.  What a triumphant night!

Last night was the staged reading of Civil War Voices at the Omaha Playhouse and it was a magical evening.  It was the type of night that reminds me just why I do this thing.  It also got my juices flowing again.  I suddenly want to start telling a lot more stories.  But that’s a road for the future.

Doing Civil War Voices was a very different experience.  After 20 years of acting, I am simply used to a longer, more detailed preparation experience.  Trying to find and mold a character in just 7 short rehearsals is quite a unique challenge.

Not only was Abraham Lincoln my first role in 2 ½ years, but it was also the smallest role I’ve had in nearly six years.  Not that I’m complaining.  It’s just that I had forgotten the very different difficulty of a smaller role.  With a larger role, if you’re not in the proper groove at first, you can use your dialogue to work yourself to where you need to be.  If you have a smaller role, you simply do not have that luxury.  You’ve got to hit the ground running and make your shots count.  For this show, that was more crucial than ever before because it would just be the one bite at the apple.

I think the late singer, Gene Pitney, described a great live performance the best when he said, “On a given night, when everything works.  When the lights are right.  When the sound is right.  When you’re up for the game and you’re feeling right.  Some of them are intangibles.  They’re either going to happen or they’re not going to happen.  But on the given night when they do happen, it’s just an amazing feeling.  You can feel the electricity going back and forth.  Fantastic.”  And last night was just such a night.

I had a feeling we were onto something special last night when we had to hold at the top of the show because so many people wanted to get in to watch.  Our director, Jeff Horger, had said these events normally draw about 100 people and I believe the Howard Drew holds around 250-300 people.  Additional chairs had to be brought in to create two more front rows plus seating around the sides of theatre because of the overflow.

The lower stakes of a staged reading allowed me to be in sync with an audience in a way I never had before.  I really can’t describe the feeling of feeding off the merriment of the audience during the more humorous segments of the show to the sensation of knowing you’ve got them in the palm of your hand during a particularly powerful moment.  But it’s splendid, awesome, and humbling all at the same time.

The work of the cast was just spot-on and I was very pleased with my own take on Honest Abe.  More importantly, I nailed one of the most difficult lines that I think I have ever had in all of my years of theatre.

A few paragraphs ago, I had mentioned the difficulty and importance of making your shots count in a smaller role.  I believe the most important line I had in the show occurred when Lincoln looks at the body of his dead son, Willie, and simply says, “My poor boy.  He was too good for this Earth.”  I knew what I wanted to do with the line.  But in working at home and at rehearsal, I never thought I got it just right.  But last night it came.

If I never understood the importance of listening in acting before last night, I certainly do now.  Last night, I heard the words of Elizabeth Keckley (beautifully played and sung by Camille Metoyer Moten) describing the terrible burden of grief and weariness on Lincoln’s shoulders from the pressures of the Civil War and the death of Willie as if I were hearing them for the first time.  I began falling into the proper emotional state and, remembering my lessons with Doug Blackburn, began dipping into my own wells of grief to empathize with Lincoln.  Real tears began flowing as I barely choked out the crucial line and I could feel the grip of emotion on the audience as well.  Such an amazing moment.

When the night was done, we received a standing ovation and I was truly sorry that we couldn’t do the reading a few more times.  I didn’t get to know this cast that well due to the compressed nature of preparation, but I liked them and it was a true community theatre cast from seasoned veterans to first timers and all levels in between.

My proudest moment occurred after the show when an elderly gentleman came up to me and asked, “Young man, are you playing Abe when they do this show in Lincoln?”  I replied that I was not and, with a disappointed look in his face said, “I really loved what you did with the character.”  One could not ask for a finer review than that one statement.  If I was able to convince one person, then I did my job.

Last night reminded me of all the glorious thrills that theatre provides.  It was a wonderful night and I look forward to doing it again and again and again and again. . .

Until we meet again.

“Civil War Voices” to Play on Sept 28 at Omaha Community Playhouse

Staged Reading | Howard Drew Theatre
Written by James R Harris | Music by Mark Hayes | Directed by Jeff Horger

Civil War Voices is a collection of compelling and passionate true stories of real individuals who lived through the Civil War, often using the actual words they left behind in diaries, letters and other writings. This is a creative presentation of the history of the Civil War with chilling stories of battle and death, injustices and hope for the future, all intertwined with songs of that time period. Appropriate for all audiences.

Location:  Omaha Community Playhouse (6915 Cass St in Omaha, NE)

Date & Time:  Monday, September 28 at 7:30pm

The performance is free.

Cast

Lauren Anderson: Second Master, Confederate Woman
Chris Elston: Abraham Lincoln
Peggy A Holloway: Fire-Eater #1, St. Louis Woman
Stacy Hopkins: Narrator’s Father, Cook
Megan Ingram: Harriet Perry
Frank Insolera Jr.: Sgt. George Buck
Angela Jenson-Fey: Cornelia Harris
Emma Johnson: Governor Washburn, General Lee, Celebrant #2
Zach Kloppenborg: Theo Perry
Julie Livingston: Mrs. Jefferson Davis, Old Mistress, Confederate Medic
Emily Mokrycki: Mary Todd Lincoln
Camille Metoyer Moten: Elizabeth Keckley
Bridget Mueting: Stage Directions
Brian Priesman: Narrator/Joe Harris
Tony Schik: First Master, Union General, Confederate Officer
Ryann Woods: Keckley’s Mother, General Hunt, Celebrant #1
Mark Thornburg: Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain

Meandering in Missouri, Day 3: A Fantastic Tour & Breakfast

I slept like a rock.  I awoke the next morning revitalized, refreshed, and ravenous.

The chef had prepared a sweet potato casserole with homemade sausage, onions, green peppers, and cheese.  On the side was a slice of toast and some fruit.  I munched away as I continued reading the investigations of Nero Wolfe.  During the meal, I met Gary, owner of Walnut Street Inn, and found him to be a most gregarious and gracious host.

Sweet potato casserole, toast, and fruit.

Sweet potato casserole, toast, and fruit.

After my meal, I requested breakfast for the same time on Monday and left for my big event of the day:  a tour of Fantastic Caverns.

Fantastic Caverns is the only driving cave tour in the Americas and one of only ten in the world.  It was discovered in 1862 by a farmer’s dog who found the proverbial needle in the haystack when he clambered through a small hold hidden by an overgrowth of ivy and grass.  The cave did not get a proper exploration until 1867.  Astonishingly, for the time, the explorers were 12 members of a women’s athletics club who answered an ad for explorers.  Their ages ranged from 13-18 and they signed one of the walls.

The first explorers of Fantastic Caverns.  They were 12 women of a local athletics club.

The first explorers of Fantastic Caverns. They were 12 women of a local athletics club.

It was a blisteringly hot day, so the cave, which remains a constant 60 degrees year round, was quite a relief from the heat and humidity.  I’m not partial to puns in my writing, but Fantastic Caverns was, well, cavernous.  I’ve toured several caves, but have not seen anything to compare with the sheer massiveness of Fantastic Caverns.  Descriptions fail me.  It must be experienced, but I hope my pictures do the tour some modicum of justice.

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The tour was helped by our guides, Brandon and Joey.  Joey, in particular, was a very animated talker who gave a lot of zip to the stories of Fantastic Caverns and there were plenty.  One of the most intriguing tales was that Fantastic Caverns was the birthplace of Ozark music.  A radio/stage show called Farmarama took place in the caves from 1961 to 1968 and featured many of the big names of country music.

After 55 minutes, the tour came to an end, but I highly suggest taking some time to experience Fantastic Caverns for yourself and I’d like to thank the staff of Fantastic Caverns for allowing me to tour the caves for free for my article.

The spring of Fantastic Caverns' Spring Trail

The spring of Fantastic Caverns’ Spring Trail

Back in the swelter, I walked a couple of small trails near the caverns before driving back into town.  I wandered around the town a bit and paid a brief visit to Battlefield Mall.  It was too hot for walking around so I returned to Walnut Street Inn where I caught a small nap and finished The League of Frightened Men.

For dinner, I walked down to Ebbets Field for my dinner.  Ebbets Field is a sports bar and several TVs featuring multiple sports played throughout the establishment.  I decided to try the Da Sandy, a cheeseburger basted in Ebbets homemade hot sauce with fresh made fries.  It was quite tasty and actually hit the spot.

Afterwards, it was back to Walnut Street Inn for a quiet and relaxing evening.

I enjoyed a long bath and shave the next morning and was met with a breakfast of scrambled eggs with Tabasco, bacon, fruit, toast, and orange juice.

Scrambled eggs, toast, fruit, and bacon.

Scrambled eggs, toast, fruit, and bacon.

Breakfast was a pleasant affair as I enjoyed a good conversation with Jennifer Wilkinson, the Study Abroad Manager for the University of Roehampton in London and another family visiting Springfield.  I swapped business cards with Jennifer, then returned to my room to begin preparing for my journey home.

I wish I had a few more days to spend in Springfield due to all of the things to do and places to go.  It’s a fine place to visit and if chance or design brings you to the region, get a room for yourself at Walnut Street Inn.  The hospitality is top notch.  The rooms are unique and comfortable.  The food is great and the company cannot be beat.

2015 Playhouse Awards Night

Last night the Omaha Playhouse held its annual Awards Night to honor the contributions of its numerous volunteers on all sides of the stage.

Volunteer Awards

PRESIDENT’S AWARD:  Trish Liakos and Steph Gould, Act II

EDWARD F. OWEN AWARD:  Carter and Vernie Jones

TRUSTEES’ AWARD:  Mary Dew and Bob Fischbach

Acting Awards

FONDA-MCGURE AWARD (Best Actor)

Brennan Thomas for his performance as George in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Melanie Walters for her performance as The Lady of the Lake in Spamalot

MARY PECKHAM AWARD (Best Featured Actor)

Musical

Dave Wingert for his performance as Man in Chair in The Drowsy Chaperone

(Tie)  Megan McGuire for her performance as the Drowsy Chaperone in The Drowsy Chaperone and Molly McGuire as Janet Van De Graaf in The Drowsy Chaperone

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Matthew Pyle for his performance as Jeffrey Skilling in Enron

Charleen Willoughby for her performance as Martha in Who’s Afraid of Viriginia Woolf?

BARBARA FORD AWARD (Best Supporting Actor)

Musical

Brian Priesman for his performance as Patsy in Spamalot

Rebecca Noble for her performance as Norma Valverde in Hands On a Hardbody

Play

Andrew Prescott for his performance as Caleb DeLeon in The Whipping Man

Megan Friend for her performance as Honey in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

ELAINE JABENIS CAMEO AWARD (Best Cameo Performance)

Musical

Matthias Jeske for multiple roles in Spamalot

Roni Shelley Perez for her performance as Mary Magdalene in Jesus Christ Superstar

Play

Paul Schnieder for his performance as Kenneth Lay in Enron

Julie Fitzgerald Ryan for her performance as Felicia Dantine in I Hate Hamlet

BILL BAILEY DEBUT AWARD (Best Debut Performance

Nick Albrecht for his performance as King Arthur in Spamalot

Sarah Query for her performance as Cindy Barnes in Hands On a Hardbody

Eureka, Ho!!, Days 1 and 2: Small Town Americana & A Day in Nature

Grand Avenue Bed and Breakfast

Grand Avenue Bed and Breakfast

It had been several months, but my summer vacation had arrived and I was more than ready for the call of the road.  Ultimately, I would be making my way to Eureka Springs, AR, but I was going to make a layover in Carthage, MO so I could experience the Grand Avenue Bed and Breakfast.

It was a picture perfect day for a road trip.  I enjoyed the lush foliage of Missouri as I made my way down US-71.  After being behind the wheel for nearly 5 ½ hours, I was grateful for the opportunity to stretch my legs a bit as I walked up the crumbled sidewalk which led to Grand Avenue’s front door.

Grand Avenue is a beautiful Queen Anne Victorian home and I soaked up the view before ringing the doorbell.  The door was answered by Michael Goolsby, one of the owners of this establishment.  He gave me the nickel tour and set a door code for me so I could come and go as I pleased before leaving me to my own devices.

Grand Avenue boasts 4 bedrooms and each is named after a famous author:  E.B. White, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and Mark Twain.  I was staying in the Mark Twain Room.  I luxuriated in the blast of cool air that met me after a hot day of driving.  After getting my luggage and other sundry items set up, I stretched out on the comfortable king sized bed and relaxed for a couple of hours.

The Mark Twain Room

The Mark Twain Room

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Then I decided to do a little exploration of the town.  Carthage, MO is a classic example of small town Americana.  It’s the type of town where everybody seems to know each other and everything is closed on Sunday.  The town also has historical significance as a major Civil War battle was fought in its environs.  There is a Civil War museum in the town square if you’re in the mood for a little education on the town’s war history.

Carthage is also the home of one the few remaining drive-in theaters in the country.  If I’d been staying for more than one night, I might have tried to catch a flick.  But after a day on the road, getting back behind the wheel was the last thing on my mind.

I was keen on getting a little dinner and had hoped to eat at a famous local drive-in called Whisler’s which was well-known for its hamburgers.  Regrettably, the open light had been mistakenly left on as the eatery, like most of the town’s businesses, was closed on Sunday.  Fortunately, I found the Carthage Family Restaurant open so I was able to experience the local cuisine.

Whislers

Whisler’s Hamburgers

The restaurant was fairly empty when I arrived so I took a booth in the back and enjoyed a club sandwich while I read a new novel featuring the detective, Frank Cannon.  After dinner I returned to the inn where I posted some pictures and watched Jurassic Park III.  I had never seen it before and it was an OK film.  After the film ended I decided to call it a day as the long drive coupled with sketchy sleep the past few nights had worn me out.

The next morning, I took a long, hot shower and went downstairs to a breakfast prepared by Jeanne Goolsby, the other owner of Grand Avenue.  Breakfast began with a dish of bananas, granola, and cream with a goblet of orange juice.  The main entrée was an omelet stuffed with bell peppers, chives, bacon, cheese, and onion with grapes, orange slices, and a cherry scone on the side.

Bananas, granola, and cream

Bananas, granola, and cream

Breakfast at Grand Avenue

Breakfast at Grand Avenue

I enjoyed the leisurely meal while I read a mystery of Lord Darcy (having left my other novel in the car).  After a splendid 30 minutes, I returned to my room to start writing up my escapades and preparing for the last leg of the journey.

Once I had settled my bill, I was back on the road heading to Eureka Springs.  Now this was the way a road trip should be.  The route took me through a number of small towns and had more twists and turns than an anaconda as I wound around the Ozark Mountains.

Ninety minutes later I found myself in Eureka Springs.  I first thought to find the Inn at Rose Hall which would be my home away from home for the next few days.  I ended up missing my turn, so I decided to follow the signs and made a visit to Onyx Cave on the outskirts of town.

Onyx Cave is a self-guided walking tour.  I wore a pair of headphones for the duration and occasionally I would come upon these boxes with a green button.  A push of the button and I would get a little information on the sections of the cave that I was looking at.

There were some truly fascinating sights in the cave such as natural onyx (I know, go figure).  Natural onyx is nicknamed bacon strips due to its appearance to raw bacon.  Pure onyx, my electronic guide said, is completely transparent.  Other impressive rock formations were the Dragon, the Fireplace, and the Elephant.  Interestingly, the Fireplace and the Elephant are actually the same formation seen from different angles.

Natural onyx AKA bacon strips

Natural onyx AKA bacon strips

The Dragon

The Dragon

The Fireplace

The Fireplace

After the half hour tour, I decided it was time to find the Inn at Rose Hall, after I made a stop at a nearby visitor’s center where the friendly clerk gave me a map of Eureka Springs and walked me through the numerous interesting sights and things to do while I was visiting.

Inn at Rose Hall

Inn at Rose Hall

Then I began the search for the Inn at Rose Hall.  Even with a map, it was a tricky place to find.  According to local legend, Eureka Springs was designed on a napkin in a bar in Chicago.  It is a very steep city (think a much smaller San Francisco) with streets that suddenly end or transform into other streets.  Eventually, I found the inn and was greeted at the door by its owner, Zoie Kaye.

Zoie checked me in and offered me a plate of delicious chocolate chip, peanut butter, and oatmeal cookies that had chips in every bite.  I lingered over my cookie as Zoie brought me to the Treasures Room which would serve as my base of operations for this trip.  I unpacked my clothes and things and laid out on my comfy bed while I made some reservations for some future adventures.

Treasures Room

Treasures Room

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Antique Rose

Antique Rose

The Gallery

The Gallery

Sun Room (Breakfast Room)

Sun Room (Breakfast Room)

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After a few hours, I headed out to find some dinner and found myself at Bubba’s BBQ (It may not look famous, but it is!).  I had a beef brisket sandwich along with some homemade French fries.  This was the best BBQ I had ever enjoyed, especially with the hot & spicy BBQ that I sprinkled over my sandwich my fries.

Bubba's BBQ

Bubba’s BBQ

After dinner, I saw a sign suggesting I visit the Pivot Rock and Natural Bridge.  I followed the wise sign’s suggestion and had a pleasant half hour jaunt where I saw the famed rock formations and walked off my dinner.

Pivot Rock

Pivot Rock

Natural Bridge

Natural Bridge

I decided to go back to the inn to relax for the evening as I was going to need every bit of energy I could muster for the next day’s adventures.  So as I sip a sherry, I bid you a fond good night and invite you back tomorrow for a new set of hijinks.

A Season of Exploration, Part I: The Writer & The Actor

I know.  I know.  You weren’t expecting another story so soon.  Well, I got an early start of things this year.  Earlier than you may think as this tale does not begin with an audition, but with a review.

In early May I went to the Playhouse to review Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and my dear friend, Sonia Keffer, was working the TAG (Theatre Arts Guild) table.  She said she needed to talk to me and asked me if I heard that Bob Fischbach (the critic for our newspaper, Omaha World-Herald) was retiring.  I replied that I had.

Sonia then said Bob had contacted her and the newspaper was not quite certain as to what they were going to do with his position.  The most popular idea was that, at least for the upcoming season, the newspaper would gather a pool of writers, send them out on reviews, and pay them by the article.  He had wanted to include her name and she agreed to be part of it.  Then he asked Sonia, “Do you know a Chris Elston?  I understand he writes reviews.”  She said, “Yes, I know him very well and he writes excellent reviews.”  Bob then asked if she could put him in touch with me and she asked me if it was all right to give him my phone number.

The power of speech momentarily eluded me as I was so pleasantly shocked by this good bit of news.  “The answer is yes,” said Sonia with a smile.  “Yes.  Absolutely yes.  And thank you,” I replied.

When I started this website, I had only hoped to become a viable alternative to the reviews put out by the various papers.  But only now, in less than 2 years’ time, was I beginning to understand the impact my writings had actually had.  And that would be revealed to me even further over the next few weeks.

My review for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? ended up becoming my most acclaimed to date.  It really struck a chord with people at the Playhouse as it promoted the heck out of that play with my words.  I cannot tell you what a joy it was to see my words featured when the Playhouse promoted the show on Twitter, Facebook, and e-mail marketing.  It was every bit as satisfying as enjoying a really great role on stage.  Thanks to the constant promotion, my readership doubled over the 5 week run of the show.

Aside from the review, I did speak to Mr. Fischbach who told me a little about the paper’s potential plan and asked if he could include my name in the pool he was gathering for his editor.  I agreed to be included and am still waiting for news on that end.  Even if the paper opts to go in a different direction, it was still an honor to be asked to be considered.  Though I freely admit, getting paid to write about theatre would be icing on an already delectable cake.

A few weeks after my review I attended a Playhouse even in order to meet the new Associate Artistic Director, Jeff Horger.  As I filled out my name tag, the person behind the table said, “Oh, so you’re Chris Elston” before complimenting me on my writings.  That person was the Playhouse’s Marketing/PR Director, Katie Broman, who put me onto the Playhouse’s press list as of that night.  What this means is that I’ll receive a press pass whenever I’m reviewing a show at the Playhouse.  Winning!!

At the meet and greet, I also bumped into my old friend, Lara Marsh, who is getting to direct Lost Boy Found at Whole Foods at the Playhouse next season after getting to direct it as part of their Alternative Programming season this year.  I may audition for it again this year, but I have not yet decided if I’d rather act in it or learn about directing from it.  I asked Lara about the possibility of shadowing her for it if I decided not to act and if my schedule allowed it.  While nothing is set in stone, it is definitely not out of the realm of possibility that this show may be my foot in the door of directing.

Actually, Lara became the second director I might be able to shadow next season.  The first was Amy Lane, the Playhouse’s former Resident Director now Assistant Professor of Theatre at Creighton University.  My old friend, Sherry Fletcher, recommended her to me as someone who was very big on developing talent in that field and she happens to be a close friend of Sonia’s, too.  Both of us happened to be at TAG Nite Out for Sabrina Fair and I approached her about the possibility of sitting under her learning tree for direction and she asked me to message her closer to the time that she is about to start her guest directing stint at the Playhouse for Love, Loss and What I Wore.  So I may have 2 possibilities to learn a bit about directing next season.

With all of these wonderful opportunities presenting themselves to me, I felt a semi-dormant part of me begin to awaken.  I wanted to tell a story again.

So I auditioned for the Playhouse season premiere, Mauritius, which marks the solo directorial debut of Jeff Horger.  I do not know much about the story except that it centers around 2 half-sisters who may own 2 rare Blue Mauritius stamps.  One girl wants to sell them and three thieves (a charming con artist, a crabby stamp expert, and a dangerous psychopath) want to get their hands on the stamps.  I went into the audition with nothing more than the hope of making a good impression.

It was good to keep my hopes at that level because, like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, this play has a very small cast (2f 3m).  A lot of people came out to audition.  I’d estimate that close to 90 people came out over the two nights meaning that 85 people were going to hear the dreaded “no”.  And there was some keen, heavyweight competition at the auditions.

For my part I was pleased with my work and I believe it had a positive impact.  Based off of my observations, the new style of auditions is designed to make decisions very quickly.  By that I mean, if you do not have the qualities the director is looking for, you will get one read before being dismissed.  I got to read twice so I must have been doing something right.  I read for the con artist and the psychopath.  Of the two I felt that my read for the con artist was probably the better of the two, especially since the psychopath needs a dominating physical presence that I lack.  Putting it in plain terms, I don’t look like the type of guy who would beat someone to a pulp.

I did not receive a callback, so I knew I would be out of the running, but was pleased at the new and fresh faces that did make it into the show.  Luckily, I had another audition all lined up.

The Playhouse is bringing back their Alternative Programming season in full force this season with 9 events.  Three of the shows all had auditions last week.

I had been expecting wall to wall actors for this event, but imagine my surprise when I saw maybe a dozen actors at the second night and I could not imagine the first night being of much greater volume.  I ended up reading 9 times over a 75 minute period.

The first show I read for was A Steady Rain which is a 2 man duologue (meaning that both actors are giving monologues to the audience) about best friends who are cops.  One is dirty and the other is an alcoholic.  It was being directed by Christina Rohling and I first read for the dirty cop.  It was a pretty good read, though I seemed to be fighting myself a bit for some reason.  I instinctively felt the need for physical action and was squashing it to a degree.  Still the read was on target.

After my first read, Christina said, “That was really good” before asking me a bit about my theatrical background.  I told her I had been in theatre for 20 years, but had not performed in 2 and that my past two years had been focused on my website.  When she heard about the website she said, “I think I’ve read some of your stuff”.  It was then that I was struck by the oddity that I had become better known in the  theatre community for 2 years of writing than for 20 years of acting.  Amazing where those roads can take us.

Anyway, I then read a scene as the alcoholic cop with another guy named Tony (who read brilliantly).  It was a pretty good scene, but very tricky to pull off due to not being certain when I was simply telling a story and when, or if, I was interacting with Tony.  It was my last read for that show and I knew it would be the toughest to get into due to the numbers game.

I then read for Take Me Out which tells the story of a baseball player who comes out of the closet.  This one was being directed by Noah Diaz and I first read for the team manager.  Noah asked me to do some big physical action at some point and I had the perfect spot.  I read the letter very professionally.  The thrust of the letter is how the manager admires the player for his bravery in making his revelations and how honored he’d be if he were his son’s teacher or lover.  But he finishes with the whiny cry, “But did it have to be baseball?!!!” and I collapsed to the ground in a loud babyish whine.  In fact, my only regret was that I didn’t go more over the top since I had been given carte blanche to do so.

Noah had me read it again, but told me that he felt the scene had 3 tonal shifts and he wanted me to read it again with those shifts.  I did and Doug Blackburn’s acting boot camp came back to me and I felt I shifted 5 or 6 times and I was pleased with the work.  Finally, Noah had me read it once more with Tony and we read a scene between the baseball player and his best friend.

We read the scene and I made the friend, Kippy, laid back and jokey.  It was a nice read, but I actually reversed one of the jokes since I mistakenly thought Kippy was gay and his comment about being on the same team was a reference to the 2 characters shared orientation.  Noah had us read it one more time with some adjustments and he asked me to make Kippy a bit more serious and dependable and he corrected my mistaken interpretation of Kippy so I got the team joke right on the second go around.

After that, Noah said he seen all he needed to see from me which left me one more show for which to read.

That show was Civil War Voices which is based off of actual letters, diaries, and other writings that took place during the Civil War and will be directed by Jeff Horger.  Again, I was doing something right as Jeff read me three times.  First I read a love letter from a character named Theo.  Then I read a diary entry from a military commander named Chamberlin.  Finally I read a historian, but he asked me to do it in a Presidential voice since I had expressed an interest in Abe Lincoln.  I felt I did well in all of my reads.  Then Jeff asked me a bit about my theatrical background and I gave him the same story I had given to Christina.  After those reads, I went home for the night.

A week passed which I took as a most promising sign.  The longer I avoided rejection, the better my chances, I reasoned.  But late Wednesday afternoon, I took a quick one-two combo to the ego.  I was checking my e-mail and I saw I had rejection notices for both A Steady Rain and Take Me Out waiting for me.

I was quite surprised by how much the wind had been taken out of my sails.  But in a strange way, I was also glad because it told me that my mojo had not faded as I had feared.  I had genuinely wanted to do these shows and was truly disappointed at not being selected.  But there was still hope as I had not yet had any word about Civil War Voices.

Then came Thursday afternoon.  My office phone rang and on the other end was the bright voice of Jeannine Robertson, the Playhouse’s Administrative Assistant.  She said that Jeff wanted to offer me the role of Abraham Lincoln.

That was about the last role I expected to get.  In a full production, I don’t think I would have been seriously considered for the role as I’m not a physical match for Honest Abe.  But in reader’s theatre, I thought there might be a chance.  And it worked out!  After giving one of the firmest yeses I’ve ever given, I hung up the phone with a song in my heart and a jaunty tune on my lips.

And that brings us to the end of this tale.  Rehearsals begin in August just after I get back from a theatre festival in Whitehall, MI where I’ll get to watch one of my favorite shows, Cotton Patch Gospel, and review 3 B & Bs on the long journey.  I look forward to this new adventure as well as more stories during this season of exploration.

Until we meet again. . .

Omaha Playhouse Announces 2015-16 Alternative Programming Schedule

The Omaha Playhouse announced their 2015-16 Alternative Programming schedule at a meet and greet with new Associate Artistic Director, Jeff Horger.  The season promises a little something for everybody with family fare, thought-provoking dramas, and even a musical or two.

Detroit 67

Staged Reading | Howard Drew Theatre
Written by Dominique Morisseau | Directed by Lara Marsh

Set during the explosive Detroit race riots of 1967, Detroit 67 is the story of two siblings trying to make ends meet. They turn their basement into an after-hours joint in an attempt to bring in some money. When a mysterious woman finds her way into their lives, the siblings clash over much more than the family business.

Contains mature content.

Take Me Out

Staged Reading | Howard Drew Theatre

Written by Richard Greenberg | Directed by Noah Diaz

A star center fielder of a major league baseball team is on top of the world. When he comes out as being gay, his announcement brings forth a variety of reactions from friends, fans and teammates. Reaction turns to violence after a bigoted closing pitcher joins the team. A story about our society, our culture and our national pastime.

Contains mature content.

 Civil War Voices

Staged Reading | Howard Drew Theatre
Written by James R Harris | Music by Mark Hayes | Directed by Jeff Horger

Civil War Voices is a collection of compelling and passionate true stories of real individuals who lived through the Civil War, often using the actual words they left behind in diaries, letters and other writings. This is a creative presentation of the history of the Civil War with chilling stories of battle and death, injustices and hope for the future, all intertwined with songs of that time period.

Appropriate for all audiences.


 The Mildred Project

From the Ground Up | Howard Drew Theatre
Written by Denise Chapman

An official collaboration with the Great Plains Theatre Conference, From the Ground Up is a workshop that provides a safe and nurturing playground for artists to develop new work for the theatre. The playwright’s material will be shared with an audience while still in the developmental phase then will continue to be developed to be included in the next Great Plains Theatre Conference.


 A Steady Rain

Staged Reading | Howard Drew Theatre
Written by Keith Huff | Directed by Christina Rohling

Joey and Denny have been best friends since kindergarten. After working together for several years as police officers in Chicago, they are practically family. Joey helps out with Denny’s wife and kids. Denny keeps Joey away from the bottle. When a domestic disturbance call takes a turn for the worse, their friendship is put on the line as they start a harrowing journey into a dark ethical arena.

Contains mature content.


 New Voices

Special Event | Hawks Mainstage

Meet some of the young artists of Omaha. This special evening will showcase the artistic talents of students from local schools.


 Dogfight

Staged Reading | Hawks Mainstage Theatre
Music and Lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul | Book by Peter Duchan
Based on the Warner Bros. film and screenplay by Bob Comfort
Directed by Ablan Roblin

It’s November 21, 1963. On the eve of their deployment to a small but growing conflict in Southeast Asia, three young Marines set out for a final night of debauchery, partying and maybe a little trouble. However, when Corporal Eddie Birdlace meets Rose, an awkward and idealistic waitress he enlists to win a cruel bet with his fellow recruits, she rewrites the rules of the game and teaches him the power of love and compassion.

Contains mature content.


 Treasure Island

Staged Reading | Hawks Mainstage Theatre
Written by Ken Ludwig | Adapted from the novel by Robert Louis Stevenson
Directed by Vincent Carlson-Brown

A stunning yarn of piracy on the tropical seas. At the center of this exhilarating tale of swashbuckling mayhem are Jim Hawkins, a 14-year old boy who longs for adventure, and the infamous Long John Silver, who is a complex study of good and evil, perhaps the most famous hero-villain of all time.

Appropriate for all audiences.

 The Patchwork Play Project

Special Event | Hawks Mainstage

A completely original piece of theatre with a twist! Omaha is home to many talented playwrights, both well established and up-and-coming. A group of local talent will be teaming up to write an original play—one piece at a time. One individual will start writing the piece in the summer of 2015. It will be handed off to another writer to continue the story and will continue to be handed off over the course of the year. Where the story goes…nobody knows! Come watch a staged reading of the final project to find out what the creative minds of Omaha can concoct.


Alternative Programming events are free and open to the public with an opportunity for donations. No tickets or reservations are necessary. The 21 & Over readings are intended for mature audiences and discretion is advised.

2015 Staged Reading Auditions June 8 & 9

A B & B Sojourn

Marsh House

Marsh House

Twas the day before spring

And I had an itch

To travel the road once more

And hoped for no hitch.

Cheesy verse aside, I did once more yield to the call of the road.  This time I was heading to Galena, IL which bills itself as the most beautiful city in America.

Night 1

As I knew this would, more likely than not, be my last B & B outing until the summertime, I wanted to do something special.  So I decided to turn my visit into a B & B sojourn.  In order to have more exploration time in Galena and to kill two birds with one stone, I drove half of the trip on the first day.  I ended up stopping at the town of Grinnell in Iowa so I could visit Marsh House.

Grinnell was actually a surprising little city.  I was expecting a traditional small town, but this place was quite vibrant.  It had a bustling main street, a nice movie theater, a community theatre, and a wide variety of restaurants.  I soaked up the sights of the pleasant little burg and soon found myself at the doorway of Marsh House.

I was greeted by Linda who gave me a brief tour of the place.  I was struck by the elegance of Marsh House.  From the decanter of sherry by the front door to the period furniture throughout the home, I felt transported to a bygone time.  Linda led me to the Prairie Bedroom before leaving me to my own devices.

The Prairie Bedroom.

The Prairie Bedroom.

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That sherry sure hit the spot after dinner.

That sherry sure hit the spot after dinner.

I spent a few hours relaxing before heading out to dinner at the Frontier Café.  It was a quaint establishment and I took a seat at the corner where I ordered a Cowboy Burger that came with a cup of chili and French fries.  The burger was quite delicious, flavored with tortilla chips, bacon bits, and fresh jalapenos.  The chili was tasty enough, but was rather thin and watery.

I returned to Marsh House where I prepared and slowly sipped a sherry.  After an afternoon of driving, I was ready for a long, hot bath and a movie.  Unfortunately, Linda had forgotten to include any soap and shampoo in the bathroom, so my hopes for a bath went poof.  Right before turning my phone off for the evening, I received a call from Dave who was one of the owners of the B & B I would be staying at in Galena.  Apparently there had been an emergency and he would not be available for my 1pm check-in the next day, but would be in at 4pm.

With that news, I settled into bed for the night and enjoyed the solitude.  You see, I was literally the only person in the inn as even the owners did not live on property.

Day 1 & Night 2

The next morning I went downstairs for breakfast where Linda had prepared a vegetarian meal for my Lenten sensibilities.  I enjoyed a delicious fruit parfait, followed by a feta cheese omelet with a side of fried potatoes seasoned with garlic, and a blueberry muffin.  Linda apologized for too much garlic on the potatoes, but I assured her there was no such thing.

I read the newspaper as I ate watching my NCAA bracket go down in flames due to the upsets on the first day.  I polished off everything except the muffin which I decided to feed to the birds.  After breakfast, I asked Linda for some soap and shampoo so I could get cleaned up.  I returned Dave’s phone call where he told me that someone would be able to meet me at 1pm so I could have a base of operations while I explored the town.

I performed my ablutions, settled my bill, and got into the Chrismobile to complete my journey to Galena.  However, do get a room at Marsh House if you happen to be in Grinnell as it was a jewel in an oasis.

Bernadine's Stillman Inn

Bernadine’s Stillman Inn

I arrived at Bernadine’s Stillman Inn, owned by Dave and Bernadette at 1pm.  I called Dave who said Christian would meet me at the front door.  Christian gave me the nickel tour and led me to my room, the Royalty II.  After exploring the inn and snapping photos, I began to explore the town.

The Royalty II

The Royalty II

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Galena is an extremely hilly city, so get ready for a workout as you navigate the terrain.  My first stop was the visit the Grant home which happened to be right across the street.  Ulysses S Grant had lived in Galena where he worked for his family’s leather goods store.  Prior to the Civil War, Grant rented a modest two story home for $100 a year.  Due to his service during the Civil War, a group of wealthy citizens got together and gifted him with a permanent home.

Ironically, Grant did not get to spend a lot of time in his home as he had to be away a lot to wind down operations in the aftermath of the Civil War, then spent 8 years in Washington D.C. as President, and toured over 30 countries after his term of office expired.  Grant’s children decided to gift the home back to the city.  Oddly enough, while it is a nice house, it is fairly modest in its own right.

Grant's home.

Grant’s home.

Grant's dining room.  This is the only room in the house that is exactly the same as it was when Grant and his family lived in the home.

Grant’s dining room. This is the only room in the house that is exactly the same as it was when Grant and his family lived in the home.

After visiting the home, I began touring the city.  Galena calls itself the most beautiful city in America and there may be some argument for that.  This city is littered with historic homes and bed and breakfasts.  Some of these buildings were shipped into the city just to beautify the place.

Ulysses S Grant

Ulysses S Grant

Belvedere Mansion

Belvedere Mansion

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I wandered down to Main Street and discovered they have a rather bustling economy.  Numerous restaurants and shops made up the main drag.  My eye caught a sign called Root Beer Revelry and I decided to visit the establishment.  The sign was quite truthful as the store sold nothing but root beer in all varieties and all shapes and sizes.  I indulged in a root beer float.

I returned to the inn for a little bit, but went back downtown to have dinner at the DeSoto House in the Green Street Tavern.  I enjoyed a grilled salmon sandwich and then went to the lobby where I continued my forays into the supernatural by taking the All About a Ghost Tour, guided by Steven Rupp.

Steven works at the Galena library and has accumulated quite a bit of knowledge about the city.  It ended up being a personally guided tour as I was the only who showed up.  Another couple seemed interested, but left to get some cash and never returned.  Could they have been. . .spirits????  Nah!

It was a pleasant evening for a walk and Steven shared all sorts of tales about the city.  It was more history and less mystery, though there were a few tales about the supernatural peppered throughout the night.  The most interesting tale was when a businesswoman contacted Steven and asked him if he had ever heard about a haunting in a new house.  He had to confess that he had not.

The businesswoman had rented a newly built house in Galena for a weekend so she could do some shopping in town after a seminar.  After the seminar, she was putting her feet up in the rental home when she happened to look towards the bathroom.  She saw a little girl staring into the bathroom, her back to the businesswoman.  Suddenly the girl’s head turned to face the businesswoman and just the head.  The body stayed still.  Then she went into the bathroom where she disappeared.  Steven was unable to discover any stories about the area, but theorized that old homes may have been demolished to make room for these rental homes which is why a ghost could be in a new home.

After the tour, I walked back to the inn where I had the best night’s sleep I’ve experienced in quite a while.  I didn’t wake up during the night and didn’t budge a muscle.

Day 2 & Night 3

In the morning, I was finally able to meet Dave and Bernadette.  Dave and I had been exchanging phone calls over most of Friday, but never had the chance to meet until breakfast that morning.  The repast began with a cream and peach yogurt sprinkled with pumpkin flaxseed granola.  Superb!!  After that, I elected to have a ham and cheese omelet with a side of turkey bacon and some cinnamon swirl toast.  The omelet and bacon were perfect, but they forgot my toast.  But that was okay because I was full from the other items.

Galena Trolley Tour

Galena Trolley Tour

I spent most of the morning writing before heading downtown for a trolley tour.  I was a little taken aback by the $19.50 price tag, but the tour would last for an hour.  I had a good time seeing some more of Galena’s beautiful architecture and learning something of Galena’s unique history.  In its heyday, Galena was the richest city in the country due to a lead rush.  In fact, 90% of the lead used in America is from Galena or the nearby area.

The conductor/tour guide also had a terrific story about how Ulysses S Grant came into the Presidency.  There was a powerful political family known as the Washburnes and Elihu Washburne badly wanted to be President, but would not be elected because his family already held powerful political positions which would make people be unwilling to vote for him.  Instead he and some friends decided to find a quiet, shy man they could propel into the office as a proxy.  They decided to support Grant as he was riding a tidal wave of popularity.  Grant was elected into office and he gave Washburne the position of Secretary of State.  However, Washburne had underestimated Grant’s backbone and integrity as he refused to govern the way Washburne wanted him and bounced him from the post after 11 days, through he did appoint him as a minister to France.

When the tour ended, the group was given a coupon for a free small popcorn at the American Old Fashioned Ice Cream Parlor.  I decided to get a little snack and was hoping I could get an old fashioned ice cream soda, too, but the dispenser was broken.  I ended up returning to Root Beer Revelry and enjoyed another root beer float.

I returned to the inn to relax for a bit and then headed to St Michael’s for worship services.  It was a particularly good sermon from Father Reese who talked removing the “I” or emptying ourselves for Jesus and why the cross offends.

After a nice service, I headed over to Gobbie’s for a bit of dinner.  The food at Gobbie’s must be amazing because the wait was unbelievable.  If I wanted a table, I would have had to wait for 45 minutes as there were 21 people waiting.  I ended up taking a seat at the bar and ordered the gyro platter with a Greek salad.  This was probably the tastiest gyro I have ever eaten so I definitely recommend a visit to this eatery.

Once I had finished eating, I went to the P.T. Murphy magic show where I met two new acquaintances, Ken & Cindy of Davenport, IA.  This was an intimate performance.  The theater can only hold about 24 people, so all of the illusions and tricks are performed up close and personal.  P.T. Murphy is an excellent magician and performer with a sharp sense of humor and a well developed sense of improvisation.

Yours truly even got involved in the act.  At one point, P.T. Murphy asked the audience if anybody had a $50 bill as he was dedicating the trick to Ulysses S Grant.  Nobody had one, though one audience member was reluctant to part with a $100 bill.  I offered up $20 which P.T. Murphy had me sign on Jackson’s forehead.  Then I folded up the bill a number of times and placed it into an envelope.  P.T. Murphy then brought out two other envelopes with similarly folded pieces of paper.  Then he mixed up the envelopes and labeled them 1, 2, and 3.

P.T. Murphy asked me to select an audience member to pick an envelope so I picked my new friend, Cindy, who selected 2.  P.T. Murphy then proceeded to burn the other 2 envelopes.  He opened number 2 and iniside was a white piece of paper.  He carefully unfolded it to reveal the message, “Oops”.

Then P.T. Murphy asked me to bring over a box that was sitting in the corner.  He gave me the key and I unlocked the box and inside. . .was another box.  P.T. Murphy gave me the key to that box which I unlocked and inside. . .was a paper bag.  Inside the paper bag was on orange.  P.T. Murphy cut the orange in half and in the center was my signed $20 bill.

This was truly one of the most enjoyable events of my project.  If you find yourself in the Galena area, get a ticket to this show.  Afterwards, I returned to my room for a well deserved rest.

Last Morning

I had awoken at what I believed to be 6:30am according to the clock in my bedroom.  Since breakfast wasn’t served until 8:30, I just decided to putter around, relax, watch the news, repack,  and take a long shower.  After 90 minutes, I decided to go online to check the news and discovered that it was actually nearly 9am!!  My clock was an hour slow.

I threw on some clothes, quickly cleaned up, and made a speedy appearance in the dining room.  Today’s menus featured lovecakes (heart shaped pancakes) infused with cinnamon, banana, and/or blueberries, cinnamon swirl toast, a spinach quiche (with or without sausage), and linkers (sausages) or turkey bacon.  I opted for cinnamon lovecakes with the sausage and spinach quiche, turkey bacon, and cinnamon swirl toast (which I did get this time).  Once more it was a tasty meal with some delightful conversation.

With the end of breakfast came the end of my little sojourn.  Galena is a fun little town and my only regret was similar to my time in Abilene, KS as I came a little off-season.  There is so much to do here, but you need to come during the May-October season.  But there was more than enough to keep me occupied, interested, and entertained for the weekend.

And if you’re in the Galena area, get a room at Bernadine’s Stillman Inn.  You’ll enjoy some great food and a most entertaining host and you just may have a bit of fun, educational or otherwise.

Rivercene Plantation: A Most Mysterious Mansion

Rivercene Plantation

Rivercene Plantation

I started this project to share the incredible tales of inns and their towns, but I think I am going to be hard pressed to find a tale to match that woven by Rivercene Plantation, owned by Donn Upp and Dr. Joe Ely.

It was an atypically warm day in February as I answered the call of the road which would be bringing me to the dual cities of New Franklin and Boonville.  New Franklin is the home of Rivercene Plantation while Boonville (a mere 500 feet away) is a historical town of forgotten significance.

I actually made it into the region much earlier than planned due to basing my drive time on Mapquest’s estimates.  I’ve concluded that Mapquest estimates are clearly made by someone who drives about 30 miles under the limit.  In any event, I puzzled over how to spend my extra time and passed a sign suggesting I visit historic Blackwater.  Why not?

So I made my unexpected side trip and passed through the microscopic town (the population is only 199) and noted that it did have the feel of a bygone era.  The main drag actually seems more like an old west town.  I quickly said hello and good-bye to historic Blackwater and made my way to the historic site of Arrow Rock.

Now I was expecting Arrow Rock to be, well, a rock.  In actuality, it is a pioneer village covering about a mile and a half.  Tours are actually available, but are very limited during the winter months.  But I was able to amuse myself with a little jaunt around the village, snapping a photo here and there until it was nearly time to check in to Rivercene.

As I said earlier, Rivercene Plantation is a hop, skip, and jump from the town of Boonville and is located just beyond the Boonslick Bridge which crosses the mighty Missouri River.  The mansion, itself, is on a very secluded acreage.  I bounded up the stairs and turned the old fashioned doorbell key and was soon greeted by Donn Upp.

Donn is not only one of the owners of the mansion, but he is also an author of horror novels.  He is also, without question, one of the most energetic people I have ever met and a raconteur par excellence.  Donn led me up to Cora’s Room which would serve as my base of operations for the next couple of days.  I was floored by the sheer massiveness of the room.  Easily, the largest room I have ever stayed in.  For an avid reader like myself, I especially appreciated the sitting area by the gas fireplace.

Cora's Room.

Cora’s Room.

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After being left to my own devices, I quickly settled in and discovered a history of the mansion in my room.  And, trust me, this mansion is chock full of history.  The house was paid for by Matilda Clarke Kinney, the second wife of Captain Joseph Kinney (founder of Kinney’s Shoes and a steamboat magnate) after her husband gave her a wedding gift of $50,000 to build her dream home.  Construction of the house began in 1864 and would be completed in 1869.  Rivercene Plantation served as the Kinney’s summer home until Captain Kinney’s retirement, at which point they relocated to the mansion permanently.

Aside from the history of the mansion, the folder also contained Donn’s story of how he became the owner of Rivercene and the many ideas he has for the place over the coming years.  One of his most intriguing plans is what he calls Ridgecliffe Manor.

Ridgecliffe Manor (set to begin in 2016) is going to be a mystery event unlike any other.  Essentially, the guests are going to get to live one of Donn’s novels and the groundwork is actually going to begin next month with YouTube videos, a Facebook page, and a website.  Characters will be introduced and people can get to know the story before getting dropped into the middle of it with Ridgecliffe Manor.  From listening to Donn, Ridgecliffe Manor sounds like it will be a combination of interactive theatre and a top flight Hollywood production and I will certainly do my best to attend one of those events.

Speaking of mysteries, Rivercene Plantation has an unsolved mystery of its own.  In 1895, Nobel Kinney, the son of Joseph and Matilda, died under mysterious circumstances when he fell over the second floor balcony and landed on the 8th and 9th steps of the main staircase.  The truth of what happened never left the house.  Nobel was the favored child of Matilda who mourned herself to death over the next year.

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The mystery of that night hangs over the inn to this day.  When Donn and Joe were preparing Nobel’s room to be rented out, strange things happened from the start.  The shower would spontaneously turn off and on.  Temperatures would go from one extreme to the other.  Donn said there was a sensation that nobody was allowed to use that room.  The room is not available for rent.

The home has been visited by paranormal investigators who say that the place is a hotbed for EVP (Electronic Voice Phenomena).  So if you are into ghost chasing, chances are you’ll want to visit this place and Donn will have some stories for you.

After Donn’s tour, I made the walk into Boonville to do a little exploring and then decided to get some dinner.  I had read of a restaurant called the 87 Diner which claimed to have “The Best Darn Cooking in the County”.  Well, I certainly had to put that to the test.

I arrived at the diner and it was packed!!  That certainly seemed to be a testament to the cooking.  I managed to find a table in the corner and was soon presented with a menu.  Nothing flashy.  Just good old fashioned comfort food.  I went for a turkey club and got it in an amazingly short amount of time considering how busy things were.

I can officially say there is some credence to the 87 Diner’s claims.  This was the best club sandwich I had ever eaten.  The bread was toasted just right, the bacon was firm, but chewy, and the turkey was the freshest I think I have ever tasted.  Definitely get a meal here.

I returned to the inn where I spent the rest of the evening organizing photos and enjoying the adventures of Maurice LeBlanc’s gentleman burglar, Arsene Lupin, on my Kindle.

After a good night’s sleep I made my way downstairs to breakfast and met the other owner and chef, Dr. Joe Ely.  It was a fabulous meal due to both food and the company.  The inn was fully booked, so there was a large group to converse with and the food couldn’t have been better.  Mixed fruit, pecan cinnamon rolls, and a breakfast casserole fleshed out this excellent repast.  After 2 hours and buoyed by a good meal, I headed outside to begin a historical walking tour of Boonville.

The Grand Dining Room

The Grand Dining Room

As I’ve said, Boonville is a city of forgotten historical significance.  The Civil War plays a big role in Boonville’s history.  Heck, one battle was fought in the front yard of Rivercene Plantation.  The city is loaded with historical buildings such as the famed Kemper Military School which became defunct back in 2002.  Part of the campus has now been transformed into State Fair Community College.

Do you enjoy being outdoors?  If so, then take a walk on the Katy Trail.  This is a 225 mile hiking and biking trail.  Given that it was a blustery day and I had no food and water with me, I skipped the trail and settled for the 10 mile historical tour.

About halfway through the tour, my camera batteries died, so I finished the tour and then headed back to the inn, hoping to get back out later to finish my photography.  Unfortunately, I was not able to make it back out as the sharp wind and massive temperature changed caused a whanging headache so I rested in my room until it was time for worship.

I attended Saints Peter and Paul Catholic Church which was very elegant, for lack of a better word.  It just seemed to possess a unique quality.  What made it better was that you could feel Jesus’ presence all throughout the service.  The deacon, who was an excellent speaker, gave an awesome sermon about the power of touch (both God’s and actual contact) based off the story in the Gospel of Mark where Jesus heals the leper.  It was the type of service that makes you feel like you’re floating 5 feet off the ground when the service is done.

Once services ended, I headed over to The Palace for some dinner.  Once again I had found a restaurant that was crammed to the rafters which is a good sign.  The place was so full that they actually had to makeshift a table for me behind the salad bar.  I enjoyed a gyro sandwich which filled the cavity nicely.

From there, I headed back to Rivercene where I joined other guests and Donn in the parlor where we talked into the night about a variety of subjects.  About 10:30pm, I dragged myself up to my room where I crawled wearily into bed.

Breakfast the next morning featured a fully loaded table of guests as well as a repeat of yesterday’s morning meal though the sausage in yesterday’s soufflé had been replaced with spiral cut ham, plus Joe had prepared some orange rolls.  I chatted amiably with my new acquaintances, Tim and Christina, over the meal and about my future projects.  Donn appeared and announced that snow was set to begin falling, so I polished up my meal so I could finish the article and hit the road.

Due to its history and mystery, I would rate Rivercene Plantation as the most intriguing inn I have visited for this project.  If your journeys should bring you to this region, spend a night here.  You will hear some amazing stories, get some history, enjoy the company of a master storyteller, and taste some excellent cuisine.