The Night the Music Lived

Buddy Holly Story

Michael Perrie, Jr. as Buddy Holly

His career spanned a year and a half, but in that time he revolutionized rock and roll and left an indelible fingerprint that would inspire some of the greatest performers of all time.  His story is the focus of Buddy:  The Buddy Holly Story by Alan Janes and currently playing at Maples Repertory Theatre.

Janes’ script falls somewhere between a play and a jukebox musical.  Precious little of Holly’s life is covered in the show.  The play part focuses on certain key points in his life from his struggles as a teenager trying to become a rock star in the country music meccas of Texas and Nashville to his nabbing a recording contract with an open minded producer to his legendary Apollo performance to his whirlwind marriage to his break-up with the Crickets and, finally, to his final concert at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, IA.  Needless to say, the jukebox part focuses on Holly’s hits as well as numerous other hits of the day.

Tim Seib masterfully handles the dual direction required of the production.  He musters every ounce of story, nuance, and emotion from the story portion of the production.  In fact, I was incredibly impressed with his work for the romance between Holly and his wife, Maria Elena Santiago, which is the richest part of the story from an acting perspective.  Seib nabs an easy A+ directing the action of the musical part of the show which is good, old fashioned, pulse pounding rock and roll.

Some wonderful featured performances were supplied by Alan Gillespie as Norman Petty, the producer willing to allow Holly the chance to record music his way, but also lives up to his last name by attempting to screw Holly over by keeping the Crickets and taking the band name when Holly decides to change labels; Garrick Vaughan and Nissi Shalome as a pair of Apollo performers who give a rousing rendition of “Shout” and mercilessly heckle Holly and his band before their performance; Mike Brennan is an indefatigable cauldron of energy as J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson and excels with his solo in “Chantilly Lace”.

I’d also like to give some special notice to Alix Rhode who gives a subtle and moving performance as Maria Elena Santiago.  She is strong, bold, and so loving and supportive of Buddy and your heart breaks as you know her fears for Holly’s safety are all too true.

This show lives or dies by the performer playing Buddy Holly and Michael Perrie, Jr. admirably carries the load of this show on his shoulders.

Perrie IS Buddy Holly and practically reincarnates him in front of the eyes of the audience.  Not only does Perrie bear a remarkable physical similarity to the late singer, but he also effortlessly emulates his look, assumes his accent and speech cadences, and even gets that unique hiccup in his voice when he sings.

Perrie brings some serious acting chops to the role.  He manages to show Holly’s politeness and decency, but also his toughness as Holly wouldn’t back down from anyone when it came to his music.  He also well plays Holly’s free-spirited nature.  This was a man who always marched to his own beat no matter what anyone thought about his choices.  He also expertly handles the heartache of Buddy’s life, shedding real tears when the Crickets abandon him and, more or less, yank the band name from him.

Musically, Perrie is also outstanding.  He’s a guitar player par excellence and easily handled rock numbers such as “Not Fade Away”, “Oh, Boy!”, and “That’ll Be the Day”, but he was just as nimble and moving on the softer numbers such as “True Love Ways”, “Words of Love”, and “Heartbeat”.

Cullen Law’s musical direction was exceptional as he and his performers made these classic tunes their own.  Jack Smith’s costumes were superb, from the elegant suits for the men to the pretty gowns for the ladies. Ali Strelchun has created a nice three sided set with a massive band area at center stage, a small radio station at house left, and Petty’s tiny recording studio at house right.  Jess Fialko’s lights are spot on with colors and intensity matching the energy and emotions of the songs and an incredibly poignant blackout for The Day the Music Died.

I want to take a moment and applaud all of the actors for showing great poise under pressure as they battled microphone issues throughout the night, but steamrolled right over them.

Some music experts have argued that, had Holly’s life not been cut short, Buddymania may have ruled the world due to the breakthroughs he was making with music.  Though his life was tragically short, he left behind an amazing legacy that is still inspiring musicians today.  And if you want a taste of musical history and a fun filled time, go see this show.

Music Lived

The Day the Music Died (Left to right: Mike Brennan as the Big Bopper, Michael Perrie, Jr. as Buddy Holly, & Chase Tucker as Ritchie Valens)

Buddy:  The Buddy Holly Story plays at Maples Repertory Theatre through August 11.  Performances are at 2pm on July 28, 31 and August 2-4, 6, 10, 11 and 7:30pm on July 31, August 2, 4, 7, 9-10.  Tickets start at $24 and can be obtained at www.maplesrep.com or contacting the Box Office at 660-385-2924.  Maples Repertory Theatre is located at 102 N Rubey St in Macon, MO.

Pictures supplied through courtesy of Maples Repertory Theatre

This review is dedicated to the memory of Kay McGuigan.  We miss you, friend!

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MRT Will Show You How it’s Gonna Be with ‘Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story’

Maples Repertory Theatre Presents:

Buddy:  The Buddy Holly Story by Alan James

Synopsis

Follow the incredible journey of Buddy Holly’s meteoric rise to the top of the record charts during the golden days of rock ‘n’ roll in this dynamic tribute musical. You’ll be cheering for more, with such rousing fifties favorites as “Peggy Sue,” “Oh Boy,” “Maybe Baby,” “That’ll Be the Day,” “Raining In My Heart,” Ritchie Valens’ “La Bamba” and the Big Bopper’s “Chantilly Lace.” This joyous celebration of a musical legend has audiences on their feet in every corner of the globe and it will explode on the Royal Stage in a toe-tapping, hand-clapping extravaganza! “Oh Boy!”

Showtimes

  • Fri. July 19 – 7:30
  • Sat. July 20 – 2:00
  • Tues. July 23 – 2:00
  • Wed. July 24 – 2:00
  • Sat. July 27 – 7:30
  • Sun. July 28 – 2:00
  • Wed. July 31 – 2:00, 7:30
  • Fri. Aug. 2 – 2:00, 7:30
  • Sat. Aug. 3 – 2:00
  • Sun. Aug. 4 – 2:00, 7:30
  • Tues. Aug. 6 – 2:00
  • Wed. Aug. 7 – 7:30
  • Fri. Aug. 9 – 7:30
  • Sat. Aug. 10 – 2:00, 7:30
  • Sun. Aug. 11 – 2:00

Tickets start at $24 and can be obtained by contacting the Box Office at 660-385-2924 or visiting www.maplesrep.com.  Maples Repertory Theatre is located at 102 N Rubey St in Macon, MO.

The Golden Review: Valparaiso, IN and Songbird Prairie

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Songbird Prairie Bed & Breakfast

Today the road has brought me to Valparaiso, IN.

Welcome to my 50th B & B review.  Having reached this magic number, I wanted this review to be something special.  I needed a destination with lots to do, a top of the line inn, and I wanted it to feel like a bit of a road trip.  I pored over my spreadsheet of inns to find something to fit the bill and as I perused the Indiana section it hit me right between the eyes.  I found Songbird Prairie Bed and Breakfast, a luxury inn which has won numerous “best of” and hospitality awards over the years.  I booked a room and eagerly looked forward to a grand adventure.

Friday evening found me making the trek to Indiana.  I had decided to split up the drive over 2 days so I would have energy for activities once I arrived in Valparaiso so I made an overnight stop at a Travelodge in Iowa City, IA.

 

It had been a fairly pleasant day when the drive started, but by the time I had rolled into Iowa City, it had become a hazy gray and the humidity had shot past the roof.  So humid was it, that I actually saw steam rising from pools of water from a storm that must have dumped on the city before my arrival.  The conditions felt perfect for a tornado and I later learned that one had touched down just outside the city, but nothing came of it.

The hotel was serviceable and even had a swimming pool.  I deposited my luggage in my room and cast a grateful eye on my king-sized bed.  The smell of a Domino’s Pizza down the hall reminded me that I should probably do something about my own hunger.

A restaurant called Los Agaves Mexican Grill was attached to the hotel and solved my problem of finding a place to eat.  My waiter, Jose, brought me a bowl of chips and salsa while I looked over the menu. I opted to try the Chiles Colorado.  Shortly after my order, a plate of grilled beef tips in a spicy red mole sauce with Spanish rice and refried beans appeared before me.  With the use of warm corn tortillas, I made several “tacos” to enjoy the meal.  It plugged the spot dead center and I went back to my room and laid down to sleep.

The bed was quite comfortable as I slept the sleep of the dead.  I’m talking limbs splayed out, slack jawed sleep.  After waking up, I got cleaned up and had the hotel’s deluxe continental breakfast which meant some hot items were available.  I had a biscuit with some sausage gravy and a bowl of Frosted Flakes with a cup of orange juice to wash it down and was back on the road about 90 minutes later.

I enjoyed a very peaceful drive as I listened to the tunes of my MP3 player and wondered if Indiana had finally completed the construction which had bedeviled me several times over the years.

They had.

But it didn’t make much difference as traffic still slowed to a snail’s pace after I crossed over.  However, as I only had to travel about 11 miles to reach my exit, the slower pace didn’t cause me any duress.

So it was that I found myself in Valparaiso, hometown of popcorn magnate, Orville Redenbacher.  The town of Valparaiso is also nearby the Indiana Dunes for those who like the outdoors, Chicago for those seeking big city fun, and South Bend, IN if you’d like to visit Notre Dame.

Songbird Prairie, owned and operated by Barbara and Efrain Rivera, is nestled out on a wooded acreage just outside of Valparaiso.  The large, red mansion is at the end of a long gravel road.  I was met at the door by Barbara who gave me a tour of the home.

Luxurious is indeed the word to describe this inn as it not only boasts very fancy and comfortable rooms, but it also has a spa room and gift shop.

Barbara led me to the Robin Suite, the inn’s best room.  This elegant room had a king-sized Ethan Allen bed, carpet so soft that my feet practically sank in the fibers, brownish-green walls with an outdoor mural of blue sky and clouds painted on the ceiling, a fireplace (only operable during colder months), and a huge bathroom which featured a chromotherapy Jacuzzi.

 

After getting settled, I headed off to services at St Elizabeth Ann Seton.  Due to the size of the parking lot, I thought this would be a good sized church, but it was actually quite small.  The service was quite energetic and you could see that Father was full of the Spirit as he talked about the glory of the Resurrection and even used the traditional Protestant greeting of “He is risen” and the congregation actually responded with “Indeed He is risen.”

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St Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic Church

After a vigorous service, I was ready for dinner and I decided to try the Industrial Revolution.  This restaurant  celebrates America’s technological advancements and each week a different pioneer is featured.  This week, it was the man who brought Atari to America.  For dinner, I decided to try the Garlic Parmesan Burger with a side of garlic potato wedges.  The burger was actually quite tasty, but could have benefited from some more vegetables.

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Industrial Revolution

The day started to catch up with me, so I went back to the inn to give the Jacuzzi a spin.  This was a smart bathtub.  A light goes on when the tub has reached the proper level of water.  You can set the duration and intensity of the jets which are pinpoint and built into the walls of the tub.  The tub even uses chromotherapy which means that the tub cycles through a series of colored lights to help bring you into a deeper state of relaxation.  I stayed in the tub for nearly 45 minutes soaking up every joule of heat.  From there, I crawled into bed and set a white noise machine to the sound of rainfall to fall into the blissful arms of slumber.

I awoke the next morning to see that real rain had actually fallen during the night.  A light sprinkle was still falling, but it wouldn’t derail any of the day’s plans.  But, first, I needed some breakfast.

Breakfast is held in the sun room which is miked so guests will be serenaded with the music of songbirds.  Now I have had the privilege of enjoying some very fine dining in my travels, but this had to be the best presented meal I had ever had.  Each course was a piece of artistry in how it was framed on the plate.  The artistic description especially suited the first course as Barbara had carved watermelon into the shape of birds and served them with a cranberry scone.

The main entrée was French Toast souffle with sausage patties and the souffle was incredibly on point especially with the wonderful aftertaste of cinnamon.  For dessert there was strawberry sorbet and beverages were orange juice and water served with lemon and a bit of mint, I believe.

 

I had a big day planned and got started immediately.  I headed to the nearby town of St John to visit The Shrine of Christ’s Passion.

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The Shrine of Christ’s Passion

The Shrine is a walking version of Christ’s Passion or The Stations of the Cross as they are known in Catholicism.  Members of all branches of Christianity visit every year and it is a profound experience.  If you’re a believer, you must experience this place.  If you’re not, you just might become one after visiting.

The Shrine is absolutely free and survives solely on donations and sales from the gift shop.  The gift shop is pretty impressive and has a wide variety of Christian gifts, literature, and a second floor where it’s Christmas year-round.

The walking area contains 40 life sized bronze statues that feature the Stations with a few extras such as the Agony in the Garden, the Last Supper, Jesus appearing to Mary Magdalene after His Resurrection, the Ascension, and Moses on Mt Sinai.  The detail of the statues is incredible, especially with the eyes which brilliantly communicate the emotions of the various moments.  I was transformed as I walked the path and truly felt like I was watching my Savior walk the path of the cross.

 

I spent nearly 2 hours at the Shrine and bought a meditational called Jesus Today by Sarah Young on my way out.

I reflected on the experience as I drove back to Valparaiso where I would visit Zao Island.

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The dragon of Zao Island

Zao Island is a little fun park that features batting cages, an arcade, laser tag, go-karts, a super slide, a small gator farm, and two mini-golf courses that USA Today called the most interesting in the country.

That last part is what really caught my attention.  I wouldn’t normally play mini-golf by myself, but I wanted to experience this one given the newspaper’s statement.  The course didn’t quite meet my standards.  For me, the fun in mini-golf is gimmickry and challenging holes.  While there were a few complex holes, they were pretty much straightforward putting greens and failed to scratch my itch.  My own personal tastes aside, the park has more than enough to do for an afternoon of family fun.

I returned to the inn to begin a bit of writing and headed out to dinner at about 5:30.

I decided to try Yats Cajun Creole.  This is a small eatery near Valparaiso University with a daily changing menu.  I decided to have some gumbo and this time it truly was a stew as it was served on a plate.  The stew part of the gumbo was tasty, but I would have preferred a little more of the stew and a little less rice.

From there, it was back to the inn for a quiet evening of writing and reading before another Jacuzzi bath and setting the white noise machine to waterfall to help put me out.

Breakfast the next morning consisted of water with lemon and mint, orange juice, a fruit cocktail of apples, kiwi, grapes, strawberries, and oranges, lemon poppy and banana nut muffins, bacon, herb baked potatoes, omelet stuffed with cheese, peppers, and ham, croissant, with a choice of several small cheesecakes for dessert.  I had just enough room to sample the lemon cheesecake with edible butterfly.

 

And that, my friends, brings an end to the Golden Review.  I will actually be slowing down the B & B portion of this blog for a bit to focus on some other things.  I still fully intend to continue with an annual Christmas review, but other reviews will be sporadic for a little while.

But, if you find yourselves in the Valparaiso area, enjoy a bit of luxury at Songbird Prairie while you’re exploring.  You may find it hard to tear yourself away after having a taste, both literal and metaphorical, of its elegance.

Until the next time. . .happy travels.

A Bridge Between Them

Francesca Johnson, an Iowa housewife originally from Italy, looks forward to a few days to herself when her family heads off to the 4H Nationals at the Indiana State Fair.  When her family leaves, a well-traveled National Geographic photographer, Robert Kincaid, arrives to ask for directions to the Roseman Bridge to complete his photo assignment.  Robert has recently visited Italy which sparks a fast friendship between himself and Francesca which evolves into something more and forces the two to make some life altering choices.  This is The Bridges of Madison County by Marsha Norman with music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown and based on Robert James Waller’s novel.  It is currently playing at the Omaha Community Playhouse.

I was quite surprised by this show.  I had been expecting a schmaltzy love story, but what I got was a well framed tale that built slowly, organically, and subtly.  This story is about much, much more than a man and a woman falling in love.  It’s about the circumstances that brought them together, the forces that drive them, and the hard choices they have to make about their respective futures.  I especially liked how natural the affair comes about.  There’s nothing forced about it.  It was just something that happened which leaves it up to the viewer to decide on the morality of what goes down.  The show is aided by Brown’s score, especially as interpreted by Jim Boggess and his splendid orchestra.  The songs are almost internal monologues and span a series of emotions that I have never seen before in a musical.

A story that builds as methodically as this one requires a very gentle touch with the direction and Kimberly Faith Hickman provides that touch and then some.  Ms Hickman strikes each emotional beat dead on the mark.  It’s never too much or too little.  The pacing is phenomenal and keeps the attention of the audience with every gradual revelation of the plot.  She also has a killer set of performers to tell this story, especially in her 4 leads.

That previous sentence may have made you take pause, but there are 4 leads for this production.  Kimberly Faith Hickman made the decision to double cast the two leads and each pairing takes one down a very interesting variant of the story.  In order to give readers a complete vision of this play, I watched the show twice so I could see how each set of leads interpreted the tale.

Mackenzie Dehmer is deadly accurate with her character choices in the role of Francesca.  She seems. . .not happy, but settled in her role as a farm wife.  She loves her children.  She loves her friends.  She even loves her husband, but it isn’t the same love that she once shared with him.  Her body language indicates that there is a void in her life that she doesn’t know how to fill.

Then Robert comes into her life.

Suddenly Ms Dehmer just lights up with passion and life as she now has someone with whom she can truly relate.  As their friendship grows, Ms Dehmer really makes you see the happiness blooming in her soul, yet it is still tinged with a thorn as she is always constantly aware of the potential effect on her family.  Her anguish as she wrestles with the decision to be with Robert or her family is heartbreakingly real and well essayed.

I think Ms Dehmer would have a fine career in opera with her devastating vocal range.  A natural alto who effortlessly hits soprano notes, Ms Dehmer shone musically as she wonders about Robert in “What Do You Call a Man Like That?”, consummates her relationship with him in “Falling Into You”, and sings about her haunting final decision in “Before and After You/One Second and a Million Miles”.

Angela Jenson-Frey gives us a Francesca who is actually quite happy with her life.  Yes, she misses her native country, but is comfortable with her life in Iowa and is mostly satisfied with her choices in life.  When Robert appears in her life, there isn’t that immediate spark of attraction.  It is a friendship that quickly transforms into a passionate love.  Ms Jenson-Frey’s Francesca also seems a bit more assured in her decisions as her final choice seems to come a bit more easily and confidently.

Ms Jenson-Frey also has a beautiful soprano singing voice which she uses to full emotional potential in her numbers whether she’s gladly telling the audience part of her life story in “To Build a Home”, tenderly asking Robert to simply “Look At Me”, or sharing the rest of her life story with Robert in “Almost Real”.

I was crushed by James Verderamo’s take on Robert.  He projects a palpable aura of loneliness.  His Robert is a man who lives apart from the rest of the world.  He’s never in one place very long and has made the decision not to get involved with people because he always has to get to the next assignment.  His chemistry with Mackenzie Dehmer is pitch perfect as each truly seems to fill a missing part of the other.  When he falls for Francesca, you really feel the wonder of a man who is experiencing happiness for, perhaps, the first time in his life.

Verderamo’s tenor is velvet smooth and allowed him to emote his songs to the fullest.  Whether he is “Wondering” about Francesca or describing the life of a photographer in “The World Inside a Frame” or musing about his own mortality in “It All Fades Away”, Verderamo never failed to let the audience see his true thoughts and emotions.

Thomas Gjere’s Robert is far more content in his life.  While he is a bit of a wanderer, he is comfortable with the life he has chosen though he believes he isn’t the greatest company in the world.  What I liked best about this take is that Gjere’s Robert is quite likable and charming, but seems completely unaware of that fact due to his always focusing on the next assignment.  When he falls for Francesca, it seems to truly awaken himself to himself for the first time.

Gjere has a mellow low tenor that you could listen to for hours.  His phrasing is always perfectly precise and he makes you feel his budding happiness in “Temporarily Lost” and the full joy of his personal awakening in “Who We Are and Who We Want to Be”.

While this is primarily a two person show, a supporting cast does periodically appear to show what is going on outside Francesca & Robert’s world and sometimes get involved in it.  Kevin Olsen and Joey Hartshorn provide some levity as an older married couple who are neighbors of the Johnsons.  Ms Hartshorn is especially amusing as the busybody with a heart of gold and has a hilarious solo in “Get Closer”.  Mary Trecek belts out a great hoedown in “State Road 21/The Real World” and Analisa Peyton has a moving solo as Robert’s ex-wife in“Another Life” where she explains why she left him.

Jim Othuse crafts a realistic small town with the farmhouse of the Johnsons and a spot on replica of the Roseman Bridge.  I also liked how he created bars and other homes through the use of windows and bar counters.  Aja Jackson’s lights brilliantly support the story with sunrises, sunsets, and proper mood lighting during the show’s weightier and emotional moments.  Megan Kuehler’s costumes well suit a small town farming community with simple dresses for the adult women and t shirts and jeans for the men and kids.

As I said in the beginning, this is far more than a love story.  This is a story about two people who were missing something vital and found that missing piece in the other.  It is not about their love.  It is about what they will do with that love and it makes for a profound tale indeed.

The Bridges of Madison County continues through March 24.  Tickets start at $24 and vary by performance and seating zone.  Showtimes are Wed-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm.  Tickets can be obtained at the OCP box office, online at www.omahaplayhouse.com, or calling the OCP box office at 402-553-0800.  The Omaha Community Playhouse is located at 6915 Cass St in Omaha, NE.

The McGuigan Invasion

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On Feb 9, 1964, a group known as The Beatles made an appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show.  Their triumphant American debut not only forever altered the course of American music, but triggered an event known as The British Invasion as a slew of English bands would find their way to our shores to dominate the pop charts.  Last night at the Wilson Performing Arts Center in Red Oak, IA, people got a chance to either relive that era or experience it for the first time with Billy McGuigan’s latest show, The British Invasion.

Like the Beatles, Billy McGuigan continues to churn out hit after hit and his latest show is certainly no exception.  With his one of a kind energy and ability, Billy and his band, the Downliners, took the audience on a blitzkrieg tour of the British Invasion as they snapped out a wide arrangement of songs from a variety of bands such as The Who, Gerry and the Pacemakers, Petula Clark, The Dave Clark 5, Herman’s Hermits, Cream, Them, The Rolling Stones, and, of course, The Beatles.

Billy McGuigan was in especially good voice last night and set the tone for the night with his opening number of The Who’s “Pinball Wizard” complete with some pinwheel guitar playing ala Pete Townshend. From there, he gave his rich tenor quite the hefty workout.  Whether he was belting out hard rocking numbers such as “Under My Thumb” and “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction” from the Rolling Stones complete with Mick Jaggeresque dancing and strutting to singing lighter rock numbers such as Herman’s Hermits’ “Something Tells Me I’m Into Something Good” to gently emoting tender tunes like Peter and Gordon’s “I Go to Pieces”, McGuigan could simply do no wrong.

McGuigan also proved his remarkable versatility by tackling The Animals’ “House of the Rising Sun” with a take that would make Eric Burdon proud.  And he actually made me like a Van Morrison song (my favorite number of the night, actually) with his interpretation of Them’s “Here Comes the Night”.

Billy McGuigan was powerfully supported by his multitalented band, the Downliners, including his brothers, Ryan and Matthew McGuigan, on percussion, bass, and backing vocals who shined in their own numbers.  Matthew worked some magic with The Kinks’ “Tired of Waiting of You” while Ryan was in full John Lennon mode with The Beatles’ “Twist and Shout” before the two joined forces on the awesome “Revolution”.  Tara Vaughan tickled the ivories as only she can and was featured in several numbers as her, oh so gorgeous, alto attacked Dusty Springfield’s “Son of a Preacher Man” and Petula Clark’s “Downtown”.  Omaha’s answer to Pete Townshend, Max Meyer, dazzled the audience with skillful lead guitar playing and solos while Adam Stoltenberg’s drumming was the unbreakable foundation for these numbers.

Early in the night, Billy told the audience that for a fraction of the cost of a Rolling Stones ticket we were actually hearing the same songs complete with lyrics and sung in tune.  Well, the ticket may have been a fraction of the cost, but the talent is absolutely priceless as Billy and the Downliners make these classic songs their own and you should certainly get a ticket the next time you hear that Billy McGuigan and The British Invasion is coming your way.

Locally, Billy McGuigan will be back in action on March 30,2019 when he teams up with the Omaha Symphony at the Holland Performing Arts Center in Omaha, NE with yet another new show, America Rocks the 60s.  Ticket prices start at $19 and can be purchased at Ticket Omaha.

This summer, Billy’s keyboardist, Tara Vaughan, formally debuts her own show, She Rocks!, over at the Omaha Community Playhouse.  This production features the legendary hits of female singers and songwriters and will run for 3 weeks beginning on June 13, 2019.  Tickets begin at $30 and can also be purchased at Ticket Omaha.

A Cavalcade of Christmas, Part II: A Cascade of Christmas

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Oakenwald Terrace

Today the road has brought me to Chatfield, MN.

Welcome to Part II of the Cavalcade of Christmas.  The inn for this trip is Oakenwald Terrace, sometimes known as the Ellen Lovell House, owned and operated by Marion, Bob, and Ruth Ann Lund. When I was originally researching inns for the annual Christmas review, this inn launched itself to the top of my list with its advertisements for how seriously it takes the holiday.  So proud is Oakenwald Terrace of how it celebrates Christmas, that it even hosts an annual open house just so they can show off the inn.  For a Christmas nut like yours truly, it was like ringing the chow bell.  So I booked a stay.

Unlike the wacky weather of last week, this weekend was set to be frigid, but sunny.  Truthfully, this was the most pleasant drive I had enjoyed in a while.  I just felt more at peace than usual and my MP3 player was pulling up some long forgotten classics.  I also had the pleasure of watching the small town Christmases of a number of small towns as I took a scenic route to Chatfield through Fort Dodge to have lunch with my best friend, Josh.

I arrived in town with just a few minutes to spare, but wanted to swing by the old homestead.  When I last passed through in April, I had thought that the people currently living in my old home had finally cleaned up the backyard.  As I drove through the alley, I saw I had been quite mistaken.  All of the overgrowth is simply dead and currently buried under a pile of snow. Ah, well.

Josh and I met at Taco Tico where I enjoyed a few tacos and conversation.  I then suggested that we do a bit of mall walking so I could get a little exercise before driving another 3 hours and to build my strength after a recent illness.  Crossroads Mall was the hangout spot when I was a kid in Fort Dodge.  Not only did it have a stellar arcade in Aladdin’s Castle, but it also did Christmas right for the kids with Santa’s gingerbread castle.  Santa would visit with his kids in the front of the castle while Santa’s talking reindeer, Randolph (Rudolph’s cousin), would visit with kids in the back.

I fear Crossroads is on its last legs.  So much of it is shuttered and it has lost its three major stores of Younkers, J.C. Penney, and Sears.  I would not be surprised to find it permanently shuttered in the not too distant future.

I wished my old pal good-bye and continued the drive to Chatfield.

Chatfield is a tiny town in the Rochester region of Minnesota.  I easily found the house, though the driveway was quite icy from last week’s storm.  I was driving too slow to get up the drive, so I backed up and hit it with a bit more speed and powered my way up.  Keep this in mind for later.

As I walked towards the back door, Bob opened it wide with a smile on his face and welcomed me into the inn.  Once inside, I met Bob’s wife, Ruth Ann, and his sister, Elaine.  Bob and Ruth Ann led me to Mrs. Lovell’s Room, the bedroom of the house’s original owner.

Now I didn’t have a lot of time to explore, but I was blown away by the place just from my little walkaround of the first floor.  I had not been in an inn of this type since the Victorian Villa originally stoked my interest in B & Bs way back when.  And every room was jam packed with Christmas.  Trees, decorations, Nativity scenes, Santa Clauses.  You name it.

As I said, time was at a premium.  I had to head into Rochester in order to attend church for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.

One good thing about Chatfield is that it has easy access to the highway, thus easy access to Rochester.  The downtown area can be a little confusing as the street numbers repeat themselves, quickly change direction (like 1st St SW to 1st St NE), and transform from street to avenues in the blink of an eye.  However, a good map allowed me to easily find St Francis of Assisi.

It was a nice little church that holds services in both English and Spanish though I suspect Spanish is the primary language as the priest made a joke about the bishop coming for a service so that sermon would be in English.  Father was from Colombia and he used the sermon to introduce a tradition popular in the Hispanic culture.  For the feast of Our Lady from Guadalupe, Hispanic families often take part in “The Night of the Little Candles” where a family will light a number of candles equal to the number of people in the family and place them in the main window of the house.  As such, Father had six candles lit on the altar.

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Rochester Civic Theatre

After church I then headed to the Rochester Civic Theatre in order to review their production of Annie:  The Musical.  You can read my review for it here.

When the show was done, I returned to the inn where I once again didn’t give the car enough juice to get to the top of the driveway.  So I started reversing back down to take another run.  Only this time my car turned sideways and I got wedged in at the bottom of the driveway.  No trouble.  I got out of my car to kick some snow away and rock my way free only to find I had locked myself out of the car.

Luckily, Bob was still up and working as he and Ruth Ann were preparing for a luncheon the next day.  He contacted the police for me and within a few minutes the police had arrived and they managed to get my door open.  Bob then guided me out and I got the running start I needed to get back up to the top of the driveway.

Back in the house, Bob whipped up a bowl of chili for me as I had not eaten any dinner.  As I ate, Bob told me a bit about the house before giving me the formal tour of the house.

Oakenwald Terrace is an L-Shape Shingle Style Victorian mansion which boasts 23 rooms and 10,000 square feet.  It was the dream home of Ellen Lovell who had it built in 1897.  The Lund family has owned it since 1973 and, for the first 30 years of their ownership, Marion Lund operated it as an assisted living home.  In 2003, it was changed into a bed and breakfast and a bit of a living museum famed for its 4 course breakfasts.

After my tour, I finally got a good look at my room.  As I said, I was in Mrs. Lovell’s Room and it had originally been Mrs. Lovell’s bedroom. It holds one of the house’s original 4 fireplaces and the room is as Victorian as you can get.  A comfortable sitting room takes up the bulk of the room with several chairs and a settee.  Behind a screen is a bed with a private bedroom to its left.  I admired my Christmas trees and other holiday items before finally crawling into bed and calling it a night.

In the morning I grabbed a shower and sat down to breakfast.  Course #1 was a tiny dish of raspberries, kiwi, and cream.  Course #2 was a banana pancake.  Course #3 was grapes, ham omelet, and English muffin.  Last, but not least, was a piece of lemon sponge cake topped with an Andes mint.  In short, epic deliciousness and no need to eat again until night.  Bob joined me while I ate sharing stories about the history of the house and neighborhood and the history really adds a vital dimension to the experience.

After breakfast, I went back through the house to finally take photos.  Once I got some posted, I headed back to Rochester where I spent a few hours at The Machine Shed.

This is a tiny vintage arcade where $10 lets you play to your fill.  The arcade does not hold many games though there is an emulator that holds over 400 games.  I played a bit of Shinobi, Root Beer Tapper, Dungeons & Dragons, Sunsetriders, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles:  Turtles in Time.

Where I was done gaming, it was back to the inn for some writing and then off to church at Assumption Catholic in Canton, MN.

My directions were. . .less than stellar.  Supposedly the trip would take 35 minutes, but it was 45 minutes before I even reached the town.  There my directions failed me utterly and it was only through divine aid or utter luck that I managed to stumble upon the church so I ended up being a little bit late, but still enjoyed a pleasant service.

When church was done, I returned to Chatfield where I had dinner at Jac’s Bar and Grill.  The joint was jumping and I managed to get the last booth.  I was told it might take 40 minutes to get food and I replied that I had a book.  I suspected it would take less time as I saw diners leave and not get replaced.  So within 15 minutes, I had my food as the restaurant continued to empty due to an Elvis Christmas show taking place at the local Arts Center a few blocks away.

I enjoyed a Monkey Burger which had ranch dressing, bacon, cheese, jalapenos, and a spicy sauce they called monkey sauce.  It was quite delectable and filled the cavity whereupon I returned to the inn for the night.

The first thing I did the next morning was stoke the fire.  Then I drew a hot bath where I just soaked until the heat was gone from the water.  Feeling refreshed, I was ready for some breakfast.

Today’s meal began with another dish of mixed fruit followed by an apple pancake puff.  Then there was a ham and cheese quiche with a peppermint ice cream cake for dessert.  Another filling meal with more conversation including a couple who were visiting Chatfield for the Elvis show last night.

And so ends this chapter of the Cavalcade of Christmas.  Chatfield is a nice little town with some interesting things to do and is near Rochester if you need some big city fun.  And Oakenwald Terrace should be your lodging of choice as it is a living museum loaded with history.  They do Christmas right.  They certainly do meals well.  The innkeepers are aces in hospitality.  And the inn is just a lovely step back to a less cluttered time.

Until the next time. . .happy travels.

A Cavalcade of Christmas, Part I: Storm Front in Storm Lake

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The Gables on Geneseo

Today the road has brought me to Storm Lake, IA.

December has arrived and that’s my favorite time of year because it means that Christmas is just around the corner.  It also means it’s time for my favorite B & B review as I pick an inn just to find out how it does Christmas.

This year I decided to do something a bit different.  I’ve packed my month, weather permitting, with a series of Christmas activities so I welcome you to the first part of the Cavalcade of Christmas.

As I just stated my Christmas reviews always do depend on the weather and I’ve been fortunate to have reasonably good weather except for that blizzard that chased me from Des Moines to Decorah a few years back.  I thought I would be fortunate again this year as weather seemed reasonably decent heading into this first inn, but at the 11th hour, the Storm Lake area was hit with a Winter Storm Warning.

Now the real issue of a storm is simply driving in it.  But if I could beat the storm then I could simply watch it from the comfort of the inn.  This, of course, meant heading down to Storm Lake a night early which would mean having to spend an extra night in a comfortable bed & breakfast.  Oh, me.  Oh, my.  What a horrible fate.

So I dashed home late Friday afternoon and threw a bag together and began the drive to Storm Lake.  It was a very pleasant drive, though I could feel the temperature plummet from the lower 40s of Omaha to the chillier temps of the small Northwest Iowa town.

Storm Lake has a lot of personal sentiment for me.  My grandparents lived here for many, many years.  My parents, older brother, and most of my aunts and uncles were born here and one of my cousins is the current county sheriff.  I spent a great deal of time in this town in my childhood, but haven’t been back much since I moved to Omaha in 1993 as my grandparents relocated to Papillion in 2000.

A lot of feelings and memories washed over me as I drove down the main drag on a frosty Friday.  The streetlights were decked out in Christmas lights and decorations.  Though not the same as the old-fashioned decorations I enjoyed in my childhood, they still retained that special small town quality.  Unlike many of the small towns I’ve passed through on my journeys, Storm Lake has managed to maintain a pretty vibrant economy and even build on it with the addition of a water park.

I pulled over just past the main drag to call The Gables on Geneseo to see if I could extend my stay from one to two nights and was relieved and delighted to find that I could do just that.  I pulled into the driveway, walked to the porch, rang the bell, and was greeted by Pat and Chris Mullaney, the owners of The Gables on Geneseo.

The Gables on Geneseo is an 1895 Queen Anne Victorian mansion built by Lewis Metcalf, who made his fortune in gold and livestock.  For a man of his success and wealth, his home actually had a mortgage of $5,000 on it at the time of his death.  It is believed that he may have refinanced the mortgage on several occasions to fund other business ventures.  The house went through a long period of abandonment before being turned into apartments, then dorms for Buena Vista University students, then was sold to a couple in 1974 who turned it into a B & B.

When I first heard of the inn, it was known as Metcalf House, but the owner ended up selling and relocating.  Then the Mullaneys purchased the property and spent the next 4 years restoring it to its original splendor and it is a beauty.

The house is full of fine oakwork, stained glass and beveled windows, and possesses a large foyer with a comfortable living room with soft leather chairs and a fireplace and a massive wraparound porch around the front of the house.  But it also had a special feeling for me when I entered.  It was just like being back at Grandma’s house.

 

Chris led me to my room, the Vista Suite.  This is the inn’s largest room and is considered the honeymoon suite.  This is the biggest and most comfortable room I have enjoyed yet and at a great value.  It’s a 4 room suite with a sitting room that has a mini-fridge and Keurig, a bathroom with a 2 person jacuzzi tub, a comfy living room with cable TV and some movies, and a master bedroom with a private balcony and an oh so soft bed.

 

Once I got my personal items stowed away, I headed out to visit Santa’s Castle.

 

Santa’s Castle is THE Christmas event in Storm Lake.  Housed in a former Carnegie library, it has entertained thousands of visitors since its creation back in 1962.  It was the brainchild of Bob Laird, the director of the Chamber of Commerce, who bought a set of animated elves and, with the help of Chamber members, displayed them in a vacant building.

Since then Santa’s Castle has grown to include over 70 finely detailed animatronics, some from as far back as the early 1900s and valued at $300,000 which makes it the most extensive and valuable collection of vintage animation in the Midwest.  It is also the home to two highly detailed model train sets.  The Castle also has Santa tracking maps, a scavenger hunt, and children can even write letters to old St Nick who will write back.  The jolly old elf himself is even on hand to visit. This is a wonderful family event that can be enjoyed by the young as well as the young at heart.

I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to the Castle.  The detail of the animations is astonishing and I marveled at the beautiful winter scenes as well as the amusing animations as I watched kids (as in young goats) anxiously await Santa, dogs baking in a kitchen, Santa’s reindeer bobbing their heads in time to great Christmas music, and families (real ones) enjoying that special sensation that can only be caused by Christmas.  I even took part in the scavenger hunt which involved finding a series of stuffed elephants.  I’ve always been pretty good at finding Waldo and hidden pictures, but they were really creative with where they hid their elephants.  If you find yourself in or near Storm Lake this holiday season, visit Santa’s Castle.

 

After my visit to Father Christmas’ abode, I returned to the inn where I enjoyed a long hot soak in the jacuzzi tub before climbing into bed for the night.

I can’t remember the last time that I slept so well.  I didn’t wake up until 7:20am and that is late for me.  I puttered around until 8:30am before going down to the dining room for an amazing breakfast prepared by Pat and Chris.

This is easily one of the top meals I have had with bananas mixed with a bit of cream and brown sugar, sausage links, Kilkenny Eggs, rosemary potatoes, asparagus, and a homemade, fresh out of the oven,  cinnamon pecan roll.

 

With breakfast tucked away, I decided to make a brief visit to the cemetery to visit the graves of my grandparents.  Snow and freezing rain had started so I had to make the visit brief as the icedrops stung something fierce.  I returned to the inn and just relaxed the day away with reading, writing, a bit of gaming, and a touch of movie watching.

Periodically I glanced out the window and watched the ice drizzle transform into snowflakes.  When I left for church, I found that it was the heavy, wet kind which makes it easy to clean off the car, but a swamp to drive through.

I had been looking forward to worship tonight as I would be attending St Mary’s for the first time in 25-30 years.  This was the family church for my grandparents, mother, aunts, uncles, et al.  My grandparents had been pillars of the church and one of their closest friends, and frequent dinner guest, was St Mary’s long time pastor, Msg. Ives.  This friendship was created due to the fact that my great aunt, Laura Kacmarynski, was the housekeeper for Msg. Ives for nearly 30 years.  As my uncle, Tom, said, “I remember having holiday dinners over at Msg. Ives’ on many occasions.”

Msg. Ives was once told he had two guardian angels watching over him and he needed it as Msg. Ives, from the stories I heard, was the single worst driver who ever got behind the wheel of a car.  Grandma told some great stories of his wretched driving over the years and I completely believe in his need for the dual angels on his shoulders because it seems only God’s divine protection could protect Msg. Ives from the holy terror of his driving.

More memories washed over me as I attended church this eve.  They still had the Stations of the Cross I remembered from my childhood and they were always my favorites as the paintings depict the Stations as if they were taking place in modern times.  I had forgotten how small the parish was, but it was like coming home as it still had that warm, intimate feel.  I also noted that a tradition begun by my grandparents was still in place and that’s the congregation holding hands for the Our Father.

Father sped through the service due to the weather so I found myself back on the road looking for a bite to eat.  Surprisingly, quite a few businesses were still open and I found a Mexican restaurant called Plaza Mexico to have some supper.

As I walked through the door, I realized this had been the local McDonald’s once upon a time as I would have recognized those doors anywhere.  As I perused the menu, a dish of chips and homemade salsa were brought to the table.  The salsa was nice and chunky and had just the right amount of zip.

I opted for the Burrito de Fajitas.  Now the menu said it was a giant tortilla, but I didn’t stop to think how big that might be.  It was about the size of a footlong Subway sandwich, but stuffed with strips of beef, bell peppers, beans, and rice.  I was not able to finish it, but what I had was mighty tasty.

Then it was back to the inn where I found a plate of oatmeal raisin cookies waiting by my room.  I bit into one.  Mmmm!  Still warm.  Then I went to my room where I gamed, took another long, hot soak, and went to bed.

When I woke up in the morning, I peeked out the window to see that the snow had pretty much stopped, but was being blown a bit, and that the roads had been cleaned.  I went downstairs to breakfast where Pat and Chris had another great meal waiting for me and I also learned that Pat had cleaned off my car which was greatly appreciated.

Today’s meal consisted of a raisin scone, dish of fruit with melon, grapes, and strawberries, Orange French Toast with holibread, bacon, and an apple cider shake (which was awesome).  Another blissful meal and it was time to go.

 

I was truly glad to have come down early for I would have missed out on a lot of memories and fun if I’d been forced to cancel. Storm Lake is definitely worth a visit during the holiday season and Gables on Geneseo is worth a visit any time of the year.  It’s beautiful, spacious, comfortable, and you’ll get to experience some of the finest breakfasts in the whole state of Iowa.

Until the next time, happy travels.