Ho Ho Homicide: Mont Rest & Bellevue, IA

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Mont Rest Bed and Breakfast

Ah, Christmas!  Without question it is my favorite time of the year.  I love the feelings of goodwill, the sense of family, the music, the decorations, going to church, the lights, everything.  I also especially enjoy visiting bed and breakfasts during the holiday season just to see how they ring in the holidays.  So, it is with great pleasure that I bring to you the tale of my 5th annual Christmas B & B review.

For this journey, I would be visiting Iowa’s most luxurious inn, Mont Rest Bed and Breakfast of Bellevue, IA, owned by Christine Zraick.  I had been looking forward to this inn for quite a long time due to its penchant for offering nearly weekly murder mystery events.  When I found out the inn also really enjoys going all out for Christmas, I finally booked the trip.

Mont Rest has a very interesting history.  It was built in 1893 by Seth Luellyn Baker, a wealthy land developer for the price of $6,000.  Nicknamed “The Castle”, Mont Rest soon developed a reputation for illegal high stakes poker games.  His passion for poker would end up biting Baker hard as he once put the deed to Mont Rest up against a doctor for a $6,000 pot.  After the hand, Baker went downstairs and told his wife they had 2 weeks to vacate the property.

Fast forward to 1986, when the property, long since dilapidated and falling to pieces, was purchased by its current owner, Christine Zraick.  She began the long arduous process of refurbishing it back to its Victorian glory and opening it as a country inn.  It soon developed a stellar reputation for its murder mystery parties.

On Dec 24, 1996, the tale of Mont Rest almost came to an end when a devastating fire broke out and gutted the house from top to bottom.  Christine almost threw in the towel, but support from the citizens of Bellevue and her own sense of stewardship compelled her to roll up her sleeves and begin the process of rebuilding Mont Rest in the spring of 1997.

Needless to say, it was a massive success and today Mont Rest stands as Iowa’s most luxurious inn.

I was truly blessed with some unseasonably beautiful weather for my long trek to Bellevue.  When I arrived in town, I was immediately struck by its quaintness.  It is a peaceful town right on the coast of the Mississippi River.

I readily found the inn where my eyes confirmed what the photos had suggested.  This was easily the biggest inn I had ever seen.  The nickname of “The Castle” was well suited as the inn stands alone on top of a large hill and takes up the equivalent of a city block or two and holds an astonishing 13 bedrooms.

As I made the way from my car to the large wraparound porch, I smiled at the visage of Jolly old Saint Nick meeting me on the porch.  The inn was already into the spirit of Christmas as tinsel decorated the porch and decorations were being set up in the front yard.

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The kindly staff warmly welcomed me inside and gave me the nickel tour culminating in a stop at the gift shop which holds a representation of the World’s Fair complete with lights, sound, and animation.

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From there, I was led to Ginny’s Woodlawn View, my base of operations for the next few days.

When I think of B & B rooms, Ginny’s Woodlawn View is what springs to mind.  It has an understated elegance with its soft, blue-green carpet, electric wood fireplace, and Jacuzzi bathtub.  With Christmas on the horizon, it even had a lovely little Christmas tree and a stocking hung by the chimney with care.

From there, I did my normal explorations which took a little longer than normal.  As I said, this mansion is huge.  One could easily get lost in here.  I wandered about the house enjoying the numerous Christmas trees and decorations littered throughout the home.  The inn even has an observation deck on the top of the home which holds a hot tub as well as magnificent views of Bellevue and the Mississippi.

I had very little time to get settled in as I had a heavy night of activities planned.  Within an hour of my arrival, I was already back on the road seeking an early dinner.  I opted for a little good old fashioned comfort food as I stopped at Richman’s Café.

Like the name suggests, it’s a quiet little diner, but it dishes up a mean patty melt and shoestring fries.  Having the cavity filled, I was then off to the nearby town of Dubuque, IA to begin my night’s activities.

As I truly love holiday lighting displays, the staff at Mont Rest told me about Reflections in the Park, an elaborate display showcased at Louis Murphy Park.  This event has been a Christmas tradition for over two decades and I would like to thank the staff at the event for giving me a free pass to experience this tradition.

If you are in or near Dubuque during the holidays, visit Reflections in the Park.  It is a truly beautiful and entrancing display of lights and holiday cheer that will brighten your night both literally and emotionally.

From there, I went to the famed Grand Opera House of Dubuque where I took in a production of It’s a Wonderful Life.  For the first time in years, I attended this play purely as a patron, but was so moved and impressed by the production that I decided to review it anyway.  You can read it here.

After the fabulous show, I returned to Mont Rest when I settled into bed with a bone aching weariness where I instantly succumbed to oblivion.

In the morning, I took a long Jacuzzi bath before heading downstairs to breakfast.  There I met Doug & Pamela and Mark & Holly who would also be joining me for the murder mystery dinner later that night.  Breakfast at Mont Rest is served family style so we all enjoyed dishes of fruit along with a repast of blueberry muffins, cherry turnovers, bacon, hash browns, and 2 kinds of omelets along with some conversation.

Normally I like to schedule a lot of activities to get the full experience of the towns I visit.  This time I decided to put the brakes on.  After breakfast, I simply wrote my play review and organized my photos.  Then I took a very long walk along the riverside where I shared a phone conversation with my best friend and stopped in at Grandpa’s Parlor for a vanilla shake.  From there, I went back to inn, sampled some delicious homemade brownies, and caught a quick nap.

When I regained consciousness, I walked the few blocks to attend worship services at St Joseph’s Catholic Church.  After I got my praise on, I returned to the inn for the mystery.

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St Joseph Catholic Church

I went downstairs to the living room where I once again met Mark and Holly and began sharing conversation.  Shortly later, we were joined by Jim and Elizabeth and by Doug and Pamela a little after that.  As we talked, we were treated to some light hors d’ouevres of canapés, bacon wrapped water chestnuts, crackers, cheese, meats, and veggies.

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Mmm!! Hors d’ouevres.

We would take part in the mystery of Where There’s a Will, There’s Away.  We were assigned characters and told that one of us was a murderer, but that the murderer would be unaware of that fact.  A very intriguing twist on the mystery.

I picked the character of Dr. Benjamin Pike.  He was a very successful doctor who had grown bored with his work.  He had been the personal physician of the wealthy businessman for the past 10 years and was preparing to lead a UNICEF group funded by his friend to teach advanced medical techniques to the locals in South America.  Dr. Pike was connected to two other suspects:  the businessman’s widow, Marion, with whom he had an intense and instant dislike and Nurse Freda Moore with whom he’d had a brief fling.  Freda had taken the break-up quite badly and Pike had fired her hoping to put their relationship in the past by keeping her away.

The inn has costumes for the event and I was dressed in a tuxedo dress shirtt, black dress pants, a black vest, gray cravat, and white dinner jacket.  In my room were waiting my personal dress shoes and socks to complete the illusion.  As I read the dossier, I drew on my theatre background and decided Pike should be an arrogant, sharp tongued jerk, but tempered with a powerful sense of morality.

Once downstairs, we were met by Gloria Gottrocks, the queen of accessorizing, who furthered our outfits.  From Ms Gottrocks, I received a gray fedora, stethoscope, and organ transplant bag.  I don’t want to spoil the mystery, but I will say the key is to use your knowledge of the characters and their relationships to ferret out clues that point to the truth.

But the centerpiece of the event is the dinner.  I’d gladly do this again and again simply for the meal.  Our night began with a dinner salad with a berry vinaigrette dressing and some fluffy, buttery croissant rolls.  During the first course, Officer Ima Fuzz joined us and told us of the death of Arthur and to take our preparation orders.  Amazingly, all of us had ordered the Steak Lilli.

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Officer Ima Fuzz

As we discussed the case, the chef brought out the main course of Steak Lilli, butternut squash, and rice pilaf.  As I began to cut my medium steak, I noted how tender it was.  But after that first bite, I was in heaven.  Hands down, the very best steak I have ever tasted.  During the main course, Officer Fuzz came back with the autopsy report and pieces of evidence found at the scene of the crime and to take orders for dessert.

I opted for Death by Chocolate.  As I savored dessert, Officer Fuzz came back one more time to bring Arthur’s will to his lawyer.  We had the reading of the will, a final discussion, and then Officer Fuzz solved the crime.

It was truly a grand evening.  Once done, I got back into my civvies and shared some conversation with Pamela, Doug, Jim, and Elizabeth before retiring to my room for the evening.

This was the best sleep I had enjoyed in ages.  I rose early to begin writing and went down to breakfast at 9am where I met the usual crowd and we were joined by another couple, Steve & Sheryl.

Today’s meal consisted of fried potatoes (perhaps with some rosemary), a dish of fruit, sausage, and a quiche made of eggs, peppers, and mushrooms.  Again it was another fantastic meal made all the more memorable by great conversation.  Sadly, it all had to come to an end and we had to break up the group to go our separate ways.  This was the best group of people I had met at an inn and I hope to stay in touch and, God willing, I hope our paths cross again.

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Quiche, fried potatoes, sausage.

I had a feeling that this particular outing was going to be something special and my instincts were correct.  Mont Rest Inn is a must see experience and it gets my highest recommendation for a visit. If you want to experience a vintage B & B, then you need to go to Mont Rest. Naomi and Company are wonderful cooks and hostesses.  The inn is comfortable and beautiful.  There’s much to do in the area.  And there is a plethora of dining events to be enjoyed at the inn, though I certainly would recommend your taking part in a murder mystery.  This is an inn that I’m going to make a point of returning to at some point in the future.  They also know how to do Christmas right.

Until the next time, happy travels.

It’s a Wonderful Play

George Bailey is a good man who has been pushed to his breaking point.  Deciding that the world would be better off without him, George contemplates suicide.  But a kindly angel trying to earn his wings is about to show George the difference one person can make.  This is It’s a Wonderful Life by Phillip Grecian and it is currently playing at the Grand Opera House.

It’s rare, but once in a great while I actually get to attend a show purely as a patron.  However, I was so touched and impressed by this production that I felt compelled to put fingers to keyboard and share its wonderfulness.  This is a terrific show for the holidays and Grecian has written a beautiful script that is full of warmth, sensitivity, strong dialogue, a bit of melancholy, and is so full of hope.  His words are brought to incredible life by a powerhouse cast that maximizes the fullest potential of the script.

Michelle Blanchard deserves the highest, possible praise for her direction of this story.  It is so strong and confident.  She knows exactly where this story is going and knows how to get her cast to that destination.  Every beat is a bullseye.  Every emotional shift is spot on.  Ms Blanchard has coached her cast to superb performances and this cast, without question, projected better than any I have previously heard.

With a cast of excellent actors, it’s very hard to limit myself to just a few choice performances.  But some of the quality performances you will see in this show come from Helen Waldmeier who brings a sweetness and fun to her portrayal of Mary Hatch-Bailey; Trenton Sanchez who ably plays the younger version of George Bailey with his integrity and gentleness; and John Gunther whose rich baritone voice rings with a kindly authority as Joseph, God’s right hand angel.

Stephen Green is all aces as George Bailey.  Green’s Bailey is so full of decency and goodness that you feel better about yourself for having met him.  Green is so, so convincing as a man who has constantly sacrificed his dreams and desires in order to fulfill a greater good.  He also wisely adds just the right touch of sadness to Bailey to show that he often muses about what might have been which makes his joy when he realizes his true value all the more moving.  The only slight difficulty with his performance is that Green seems to suffer from the same issue as Gregory Peck.  He’s so good at being good that his rare moments of anger and frustration seem a pinch off the target.

Robert Armstrong brings a quiet strength to his take on Clarence.  He’s a simple angel second class who has been trying to earn his wings for 200 years.  He’s a good listener and has genuine empathy for people.  Armstrong also gives his Clarence the ability to think fast on his feet as his idea of jumping into the river to get George to save him seems very extemporaneous. He also injects a bit of playfulness into the role with his confrontation with the play’s de facto villain, Mr. Potter.

Danny Fairchild’s Henry Potter is the guy you love to hate.  Fairchild steals his scenes with a Potter who is oily, manipulative, curmudgeonly, and vengeful.  Fairchild is an amazing actor with a grand gift for a turn of the phrase.  His sense of timing was deadly accurate and, son of a gun, he managed to be humorous in his unlikability as well.  It is a well constructed and crowd pleasing performance.

Frank McClain’s sounds were some of the best I’ve heard in a production, especially the twinkling sound effects when Clarence was communicating with Heaven.  Jan LaVacek has made a nearly bare bones set with the bridge over Bedford Falls being the only constant.  I liked the efficiency of his set which could rapidly change into Ma Bailey’s home to the Bailey home to the Bailey Building and Loan to Potter’s office.  Gloria Fitzpatrick’s costumes were so natural and suitable that I thought the cast was wearing their own clothes.

As I earlier stated, this is the perfect show for the holiday season.  It’s sweet.  It’s funny.  It’s hopeful.  It also show us just what great gifts we can be and that we all have the power to be that force for good in the lives of others.  There are only 2 performances left.  Don’t miss out on this touching show.

It’s a Wonderful Life continues at the Grand Opera House until Dec 3.  There is a performance tonight at 7:30pm and tomorrow at 2pm.  For tickets, contact the theatre at 563-588-1305 or visit www.thegrandoperahouse.com.  Tickets cost $20 for adults and $12 for 17 and younger.  The Grand Opera House is located at 135 W 8th St in Dubuque, IA.

Deck the Halls with Gales of Laughter. Fa La La La La Ha Ha Ha Ha

“Marley was dead to begin with.”

And then everything goes to hell.  This is Every Christmas Story Ever Told. . .And Then Some currently playing at the Blue Barn Theatre.

Less a play than a piece of Christmas metafiction, this show features three actors, playing highly exaggerated versions of themselves, who delightfully and hilariously educate the audience on Christmas beliefs and traditions from around the world while lampooning various Christmas tales.  Susan Clement-Toberer’s masterful direction hits all the right notes as her trio of comic geniuses will have your sides splitting by the time the night is over.

Ben Beck plays the leader of the troupe.  A serious actor, he simply wants to share the story of A Christmas Carol.  He is constantly thwarted by his two cohorts who would rather run through every Christmas story know to humanity.  Beck reluctantly goes along for the ride on the condition that A Christmas Carol is performed as part of the anthology.

Beck is a bit of a hapless sad sack as he constantly gets the short end of the stick in this spectacle.  He is forced to play the Grinch, receives impossible questions during a fruitcake quiz show, and is accused of not believing in Santa Claus (which he does not).  Yet he bravely soldiers on in pursuit of performing his beloved story.  When he finally gets his opportunity, he becomes a manic force of energy as he effortlessly and blitzingly changes identities from Scrooge to George Bailey (doing a Jimmy Stewart that Stewart would envy) on the turn of a dime due to his story getting hijacked by one of the other performers.  Beck did trip over his lines on a couple of occasions, but that appeared to be due to the breakneck pace of the show.

Bill Grennan is a riot as he plays a naïve, lovable man-child.  He is truly a wide-eyed innocent who loves the Christmas specials of his childhood and still believes in Santa Claus.  Grennan’s role is arduous as he constantly zips around the stage and theatre, almost warping between various unusual spots.  He’s allowed the chance to do some brilliant character works as he portrays Gustav, the Green-Nosed Reingoat (to avoid copyright infringement), a slightly lascivious Frosty the Snowman (who sounded like Charlie in the Box from Rudolph, the Red Nosed Reindeer), a pirate searching for the white bearded whale, Moby Nick, and a sweet, dramatic turn as Linus Van Pelt delivering the “what Christmas is all about” monologue from A Charlie Brown Christmas.

Grennan also subtly shows that his character may not be as innocent and dimwitted as he appears.  He is determined to get his own way and is the one who actually gets the ball rolling on sharing Christmas tales due to his refusal to do A Christmas Carol.  Grennan’s usurping Beck’s A Christmas Carol with It’s a Wonderful Life is quite a sly move from someone Beck claims “isn’t the brightest bulb on the tree”.

Teresa Sindelar’s comic acumen has never been sharper than with this performance.  Ms Sindelar willingly goes along with Grennan to present all of these Christmas stories, but seems to do it because she simply wants to have fun and not to avoid A Christmas Carol as she willingly assists Beck in his telling of that story in Act II.  Her chameleon-like ability to assume any character is allowed to shine as she transforms herself from a slightly psychotic Yukon Cornelius, to a parody of Barbara Walters commentating (sometimes under her breath) on the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, to the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come earnestly pantomiming an important message to Beck’s Scrooge that nearly had this writer falling out of his chair.

In the end, words cannot do justice to this show.  It must be experienced.  The sureness of the direction and the devastatingly accurate comic timing of the three performers played out on a stage beautifully designed by Martin Scott Marchitto, painted by Craig Lee, and lit by Carol Wisner makes Every Christmas Ever Told. . .And Then Some a hit for the holidays.

Every Christmas Story Ever Told. . .And Then Some plays at the Blue Barn Theatre though December 21.   Tickets are going fast.  The only shows with tickets remaining are Dec 11 and 18 at 7:30pm and December 21 at 6pm.  Tickets are $30 for adults and $25 for students, seniors (65+), TAG members, and groups of ten or more.  For reservations, call 402-345-1576.  The Blue Barn Theatre is located 614 S 11th St in Omaha, NE.