A Bit of German Americana: Bingham Hall & New Ulm, MN

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Bingham Hall

Today the road has brought me to New Ulm, MN.

Truly this has been one of my most enjoyable trips.  The primary reason for this is that New Ulm is the home of my second oldest friend, Lee Harrington, whom I hadn’t seen in nearly 20 years and a visit with him was my top reason for coming to visit this pleasant little hamlet.

I got an early start for this journey, leaving at 6:30am.  Omaha had experienced a bit of a dusting the previous night so I slowly drove through the metro area.  I was surprised at how many cars were actually out on the road on a frosty Saturday morning, but once I hit I-29, I pretty much had the road to myself and the roads cleared up remarkably.

It was a real pleasure to have a whole new route to drive as I enjoyed the countryside and listened to some tunes.  I made a brief stop in Whiting, IA for some gas and noted a quaint little café that I may have to visit at a future time, but gasoline is quite expensive in this little town.  I paid nearly $2.30 a gallon to fuel up my car, yet if I’d been able to last another 30-40 miles I could have paid $1.90 a gallon.  Ah, well, what can one do?

I was actually on the interstate for only a short period of time as the route is mostly highways.  Surprisingly, I did not pass through many small towns though I did pass through a couple and the cold weather had me thinking of what they might look like at Christmas.

Shortly before noon, I reached the German town of New Ulm, the polka capital of America.  Its Germanic history was readily apparent as a large sign bid me “Wilkommen” as I entered the town.  New Ulm is a pretty easy town to navigate as everything seems built around its main street of Broadway and I’ve learned that there is a lot to do in the area with breweries, Renaissance faires, and music festivals.

I made my way to Happy Joe’s Pizza and Ice Cream where I met my old friend Lee and his daughter, Caitie, and her boyfriend, Joe.  It was as if no time had passed as Lee greeted me with a hug and paid the tab for lunch (thanks, btw).

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Happy Joe’s Pizza and Ice Cream

Happy Joe’s serves a smorgasboard luncheon and it is a pretty good spread.  They have a decent salad bar and serve a good set of hot entrees including a mean piece of fried chicken and their pizza wasn’t too bad as I sampled slices of pepperoni, chicken, bacon, and ranch, and taco.  I spent about an hour and a half conversing with Lee and his family (truthfully, the two of us did most of the yakking) where we caught up on things and shared a lot of old stories about some of the adventures and wacky hijinks we experienced in our childhood and teen years.  Tears were streaming down my face by the end of the visit as I was laughing so hard.

Sadly, it did have to come to an end, but I look forward to another visit in the future where more stories can be shared over a round of HeroQuest (a fantasy role-playing game we played as teens).

From Happy Joe’s, I made my way to the August Schell Brewery.  The brewery is the biggest in Minnesota and the second oldest family owned brewery in the country.  The business has been in the family for five generations and is heading into a sixth one which is highly unusual as most family run businesses only last into the third generation.

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Schell’s Brewery

For a brewery that does such big business, Schell’s is actually quite small.  Only several buildings are on the property which includes one which holds a mini-museum, gift shop, and tasting room; the actual plant; the former boardinghouse, now office for the company’s president, Theodore Marti; and the old family mansion which is now used for events as the current family lives elsewhere.

I highly recommend a tour as it only costs $5 and includes a free tasting session at the end.  At the end, adult tour visitors get to sample at least six different kinds of beer (the kiddos get Schell’s 1919 root beer) and then get a free 12 oz serving of whatever beer they liked the best.

While guests were encouraged to sample 2 oz servings, I limited it to just sips as I still had to drive and I’m a borderline teetotaler anyway.  However, of the samples, I especially enjoyed a seasonal beer called Goosetown which was honestly the second best tasting beer I have ever had.  Had I not had to be on my way, I would have taken a 12 oz glass of that.  I did, however, have a glass of the root beer which was quite tasty.

From the brewery I headed off to Loretto Park to walk The Way of The Cross.  The Way of the Cross are walking Stations of the Cross (a Catholic meditation going through Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection) and can be found all over the country.  Unfortunately, I’m guessing it, too, must be seasonal as the way was covered in snow and the stations had no statues.  I will have to file that away for another visit.

I killed a little bit of time at the library before I headed over to Bingham Hall, owned and operated by Shannon McKeeth, to check in.

Bingham Hall is a fine old-fashioned inn.  I was greeted at the door by Shannon’s husband, Todd, who ran my card and led me to the Hemle.

Quiet elegance is the best way to describe this room.  The walls are painted cranberry which had a remarkable calming effect.  The centerpiece of the room is its canopy queen bed and memory foam topper.  The room also boasts a uber comfortable easy chair with massage pad, gas fireplace, and a 42 inch cable TV with accesses to over 2,000 free movies.  The bathroom contains an ergonomic one person Jacuzzi bath.

Once I got organized I let the massage pad give me a rubdown before resting on the bed until it was time for church.

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Church of St Mary

Today I attended services at The Church of St Mary and it was quite convenient as it was literally across the street from the inn.  I found the service quite enjoyable as Father was quite earnest in the faith.  Afterwards, I returned to the inn as the temperature was plunging into the sub-zero temps.

I got a fire going, posted some pictures, and took advantage of the film library to watch Play Misty for Me.  The film was Clint Eastwood’s directorial debut and though it had a few pacing issues, I rather liked it as it featured a strong, somewhat un-Eastwood performance as he plays a not entirely likable DJ and an especially creepy performance from Jessica Walter who played his deranged stalker.

The day’s travel and escapades began to catch up with me so I drew a bath where I soaked for a while, shaved, and just enjoyed the jetted water.  I attempted to start a new novel about Blight County sheriff, Bo Tully, but found my lights going out, so I called it a night.

Memory foam is the best.  I slept straight through to dawn.  I took it easy in the morning before heading down to breakfast.

Breakfast was toast, fruit (honeydew, orange, and pineapple), cheese & mushroom quiche, seasoned potatoes, and ham with a glass of orange juice.  I also had a great conversation with Todd and Shannon who are quite proud of their little town and all of its history and things to do.

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Orange juice, ham, fruit, cheese & mushroom quiche, and toast.

I had to cut things a bit short as there is a threat of heavy snowfall over the area and there is a polar vortex blasting the region with sub-zero temps.  But stop in New Ulm if you have a chance.  Bingham Hall is a cozy, comfortable inn of understated elegance and there’s plenty to do in this little German town especially after winter when the town’s activities really get going.

Until the next time, happy travels.

Eureka, Ho!!, Day 3: The Faith Spelunker

After sipping my sherry, I made use of the Jacuzzi tub and enjoyed a long hot bath before turning in for the night.  It was one of the most comfortable sleeps I have ever enjoyed.  The mattress almost seemed to consist of memory foam and perhaps it did.  All I know is that the combination of comfy mattress and lull of my trusty fan put my lights out good and proper.

When I awoke the next morning, I did a quick news check to find out who won at the Omaha Playhouse’s Awards Night and did a brief write-up for the theatre news part of my website.  I had a shave and then went downstairs to breakfast.

A glass of water and a carafe of orange-cranberry juice waited on my table.  Zoie placed a small dish of grapes and cream in front of me along with my massage certificate and tickets for a few events I had paid for online.  After the fruit had been eaten, Zoie presented me with 3 sausage links nestled on a bed of Mexican eggs.  A little dash of hot sauce made this meal a delicious and zesty affair.

A dish of grapes and cream to start the day.

A dish of grapes and cream to start the day.

Sausage links on a bed of Mexican eggs.

Sausage links on a bed of Mexican eggs.

I went back to my room and finished my Cannon novel.  Then I grabbed my keys and headed to Focus Massage for a one hour massage at the hands of Mimi Vail who bore a strong resemblance to the actress, Linda Hunt.  Her ministrations brought full mobility to my shoulders and energized me for the rest of the day.

From there, I drove to Berryville, AR so I could experience the Cosmic Caverns.  I was part of a small tour group led by Griffin (a surprisingly mature looking 17 year old) who spent the better part of an hour showing us the myriad rock formations, pure natural onyx (he flashed a light through it to show the translucence), and the two bottomless lakes (no, not literally, they’re just very deep).

The OMG room.

The OMG room.

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Would you believe this guy is only 17?

Would you believe this guy is only 17?

On the drive back to Eureka Springs, I made a quick pullover to enjoy the view of a scenic outlook.  After snapping some quick photos I made my way to Thorncrown Chapel.

Scenic overlook

Scenic overlook

Called “one of the finest religious spaces of modern times” by critics and ranked fourth on the list of the top buildings of the twentieth century by the AIA, Thorncrown Chapel is a awe-inspiring structure of wood and glass.  So skillfully designed, you may, like I did, make the mistake of assuming that the clear space is merely “open” space.  In reality it is 6,000 feet of glass divided into 425 windows.

Thorncrown Chapel

Thorncrown Chapel

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Thorncrown Chapel’s construction also had an interesting story behind it.  In 1971, Jim Reed purchased the land where Thorncrown Chapel would eventually be built.  People often stopped by to admire the property and the view of the Ozark hills, so Jim decided to build a glass chapel so visitors would have a place to relax in an inspiring way.

On March 23, 1979, work began on the chapel.  But halfway through construction the money ran out and, despite his best efforts, Jim was unable to gain more funding.  One night, Jim took what he thought would be his last walk to look at his half-finished chapel and then had an experience.  As Jim said, “I am not proud of the fact, but the first time I ever got down on my knees was on the chapel floor.  I prayed more seriously than ever before.  All the trials and tribulations gave me the humility to get on my knees.”  A few days later, a miracle occurred when a generous woman from Illinois loaned Jim the money to complete construction.  On July 10, 1980, Thorncrown Chapel was open to the public.

Thorncrown Chapel is dedicated to Jesus’ words that all would be welcome at His Father’s table.  The chapel actually does hold 2 worship services on Sunday and stresses that all are invited to attend.  An attendant is present during visiting hours to pray with those who wish to accept Jesus’ gift of salvation.

Visiting this chapel had a profound effect on me.  My faith has always been an important part of my life and I can honestly say I felt the presence of God clearly as I sat in that chapel.  I just felt such a feeling of peace and warmth that tears began to fill my eyes.  If you’re in Eureka Springs, you must visit this chapel.  For those who believe, you’ll feel closer to the Lord.  For those who don’t or simply aren’t sure, well, you just might before your visit is over.

I returned to the inn for a few hours of relaxation and compiling my notes.  Then it was time for my big event of the evening:  watching The Great Passion Play.

Originally, I had intended to actually review the show.  However, I ended up deciding against it for two very important reasons:

  1. There was no program, so writing a proper review would have been very difficult.
  2. This wasn’t a typical play as its purpose was to tell the story of Jesus’ redeeming of humanity as opposed to being an ordinary play.

The play is held in an outdoor amphitheatre and the grounds also contain a Bible museum, a replica of the Holy Land, as well as the famous Christ of the Ozarks statue (the biggest in the United States).  The play is world famous having been seen by 7.8 million people since it began in 1968.

Christ of the Ozarks

Christ of the Ozarks

The set is the most impressive I have ever seen.  It really gives one the feeling of being in Jerusalem back in the time of Christ.  The costumes are also well suited to the show and there are some pretty nifty special and lighting effects to the production.  It features a cast of over 140 actors and a menagerie of live animals.

Set of The Great Passion Play

Set of The Great Passion Play

The dialogue for the show is pre-recorded so the performers pantomime over the dialogue and the mimed performances were quite good.  Putting on my critic’s hat for a moment, the interpretation of the dialogue was mediocre and sounded like the records I liked to listen to as a child.  Then again, this play was meant to share a message as opposed to being a proper production.

All in all, it was a memorable and moving show and I would highly recommend watching it if you find yourself in Eureka Springs.  As for myself, I was whipped after the day’s shenanigans and have returned wearily to the inn to climb into bed.

Until the next time. . .

Superstar Soars

From the first notes of Jim Boggess and his superlative orchestra, you will be catapulted on an amazing journey for the eyes, ears, and heart as you experience the last week of Jesus’ life told in the style of a rock opera.  This is Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar currently playing at the Omaha Community Playhouse.

This is, by far, the best musical ever mounted on an Omaha stage and Kimberly Faith Hickman deserves a standing ovation of her own for an extraordinary display of direction and choreography.  Never is there a wasted beat, nuance, or moment and you will be riveted to this incredibly powerful story from beginning to end.  It has been updated so that the tale now takes place in modern times which I believe strengthens its relevance.  Jesus and his followers are now street people living in a derelict shantytown while Pilate and the high priests are well dressed businessmen.  Lydia Dawson’s masterful costuming and Jim Othuse’s deceptively simple set perfectly catch the mood of this update.

This is one of those shows where I truly wish I’d be able to single out every performer individually in a review, but for the sake of brevity, let me say that this cast is phenomenal.  Each and every one is always in the moment and exudes an incredible amount of energy that helps propel the show to unimaginable heights.  Among the talented ensemble were a few standout performances that deserve special notice such as Zach Kloppenborg’s portrayal of the obsequious, irritating suck up Annas.   His whining tenor wonderfully grates on your nerves throughout the night.  Jimmy Nguyen’s Peter was a surprising delight as his strong, supple singing voice completely belies his slight frame.  Jerry Van Horn rules the stage as King Herod as he smarmily tries to get Jesus to prove his divinity in “Herod’s Song”.

Roderick Cotton is a marvel as Jesus’ betrayer, Judas Iscariot.  Oddly enough, he is actually the centerpiece of this story as it is told from his point of view.  Cotton makes for a surprisingly sympathetic Judas as he is Jesus’ right hand man, but fears things are getting out of control now that people believe that Jesus is the son of God (Heaven on Their Minds) while he is convinced Jesus is just a wise teacher.  Cotton’s powerful tenor is capable of capturing a wide range of emotion from sneering superiority as he blasts Mary Magdalene for anointing Jesus with expensive ointment in “Everything’s Alright” to desperation as he feels compelled to betray Jesus for his own good in “Damned for All Time/Blood Money” to anger as he confronts Jesus at “The Last Supper”.

Cotton is also a treat to watch in his silent moments as his expressions are crystal clear and tell a story all of their own.  Not only is it a striking performance, I believe it has the potential to be an award winning one at the end of the season.

John Gajewski handles the role of Jesus with grace and aplomb.  His dynamite tenor reaches searing and soaring falsettos that would make Ted Neeley proud.  Gajewski’s Jesus really emphasizes his human nature and reminds us that Jesus felt the same emotions as every other person.  Rarely have I heard such subtle, outstanding nuance in a voice as Gajewski glides from tender love and hope for his followers to understand the truth of his mission in “Simon Zealotes/Poor Jerusalem”, to supreme confidence in his message in “Hosanna”, to fury at the desecration of his Father’s house in “The Temple”, to frustration with his followers not getting it in “The Last Supper”, and caps it off with a haunting acceptance of his death in “Gethsemane”.

Gajewski’s expressions and body language are just as subtle.  Particularly telling were the weariness in his face when he accepts his destiny in “Gethsemane” and his pained suffering as he is scourged in “Trial by Pilate”.  Both moments had me searching for a tissue.

Many experienced performers would be envious of the stage presence and confidence possessed by young Roni Shelley Perez who plays Mary Magdalene.  Her sweet soprano captures utter devotion to Jesus as she comforts him in “Everything’s Alright”, a perplexed confusion in her dominating solo “I Don’t Know How to Love Him”, and a slow understanding of the truth of Jesus in “Could We Start Again, Please?”  Her performance was one of the night’s many highlights.

Also spectacular were Cork Ramer as the high priest, Caiphas, and Michael Markey as Pontius Pilate.  Ramer’s flawless bass exudes a dark menace as he plots to eliminate Jesus in “Jesus Must Die” and a mocking congratulations and thank you to Judas in “Judas’ Death”.  Markey’s facile baritone paints a picture of a man reluctant to execute the innocent Jesus, but who finally buckles under the extreme pressure in “Trial by Pilate”.

A few minor missteps in diction, projection, and dancing did not distract from this entrancing, beautiful, and moving night of theatre.  As Saturday’s sellout crowd indicates, this show is already morphing into a massive success.  Get a ticket before it’s too late to see this epic hit and potential awards season darling.

Jesus Christ Superstar runs until April 4 at the Omaha Community Playhouse.  Showtimes are 7:30pm Wed-Sat and 2pm on Sundays.  Tickets cost $40 for adults and $25 for students.  Contact the box office at 402-553-0800 or visit www.omahaplayhouse.com The Omaha Playhouse is located at 6915 Cass St in Omaha, NE.