Arcade Nirvana

Jeff enters Galloping Ghost

And now for a travel tale of a different type.

For my regular readers, you know that I was once a serious video gamer and that I’ve occasionally visited retro arcades to revisit that aspect of my childhood.  A few months ago, I read of a place in Brookfield, IL called Galloping Ghost that claimed to be the world’s biggest retro arcade.  I told my old friend, Jeff Bevirt, about it.  Jeff is still a serious gamer and he was intrigued, so we decided to take a weekend road trip to visit this arcade.

It had been a really long time since I had a true buddy road trip.  Having a friend along not only makes the time go faster, but it also helps to have someone with whom to share the driving duties so neither of us gets overly fatigued.

We got an early start, leaving Omaha around 8:30am.  I took the first leg of the drive and took us to Walcott, IA where we took a lunch break at Gramma’s Kitchen at the world’s largest truck stop.

Gramma’s Kitchen

Gramma’s Kitchen serves old-fashioned comfort food (and some not so old-fashioned, as well), includes a gift shop, and just has the feeling of yesteryear with its vintage signs and knickknacks.  Jeff ordered a meat loaf dinner which included a trip to the tiny salad bar where he got some prime rib and mushroom soup.  For myself, I decided to try the Frisco Burger.  My burger was delicious with its crispy bacon, vegetables, Swiss cheese, and toasted sourdough bun.  Should I ever eat here again and get a burger, I’ll be certain to get it medium well, as my choice of medium was just a bit underdone for my tastes, though tasty.  I ate half of my burger and saved the rest for my evening meal and Jeff took over the drive from this point.

A few hours later found us in Chicagoland where I had a premium king suite reserved at Embassy Suites in Naperville, IL. 

This Embassy Suites was a bit different from others in its construction.  Embassy Suites tend to be built in an atrium style, but this one was actually designed like a regular hotel.  Our room wasn’t quite ready when we arrived, but we got it about 10 minutes after our arrival.  We deposited our gear and Jeff ordered some bedding for the hide-a-bed and we left for Galloping Ghost.

About 40 minutes later, we arrived and managed to get a spot in the parking lot.  A few minutes later, we entered a place I can only describe as arcade nirvana.

Galloping Ghost is owned by Doc Mack who co-founded the business back in 2010.  Originally the arcade boasted 130 games, but Mack has multiplied that many times over and, today, the arcade contains over 700 video games and a separate venue contains 75 pinball machines.

For $20 you can play all day and that’s a bargain as you will play an equivalent amount in about an hour or so and you’ll need far more time to truly get a feel for this place.

Jeff and I spent the first half hour just wandering through the rooms admiring the games and marveling at the variety.  Not only did I see games that I see at nearly every retro arcade, but I also saw rare treasures, games imported from Japan, prototypes that never had a formal release, plus some originals.  In the second to last room we explored, we found a roped off area consisting of numerous games being prepped for future release as the arcade features a new release each week.

Interestingly, some of the games actually share a cabinet and a switch is available so you can toggle between them.  From watching various interviews online, I’ve learned that Mack and his crew hope to get each game its own cabinet.  But it’s a painstaking process as they try to get an original cabinet and, failing that, they create a similar one for the game.  Truly these are people who appreciate classic games.

Then it was game time!

I made a point of mostly avoiding games that I have played at other retro arcades to focus on the ones I had never played.  Jeff and I teamed up to defeat Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles:  Turtles in Time, and Contra:  Evolution (an updated version of Contra released in 2011).  Later Jeff would join me to help me finish off Two-Face in Batman Forever, a prototype game.

Then we split and I wandered about and was stunned to find either limited release or never released sequels to Joust (Joust 2:  Survival of the Fittest) and Mappy (Hopping Mappy).  Then I started playing long missed favorites such as Crime Patrol and Mad Dog II:  The Lost Gold from American Laser Games.  I also enjoyed Biohazard: Code Veronica, an import shoot em up from Japan better known as Resident Evil in America.  I also dabbled in Timber, a spin-off of Tapper where you chop down trees while avoiding obstacles.  I took a crack at Super Burgertime which beat me to a pulp.  I also rescued the children and stopped Mr. Big in Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker; played a Dragon’s Lair II cabinet for the first time since a video game convention in 2010; came within 2 Sinibombs of destroying Sinistar; got creamed in Cliff Hanger, a diabolically difficult Dragon’s Lair style game based off two Lupin III movies; experimented with Hologram Time Traveler, but threw in the towel as I had trouble viewing the screen.

But the most interesting game I played was an interactive movie called The Spectre Files:  Deathstalkers.  In this game, you take the role of a private eye searching for a missing heiress in a haunted institution.  Whenever the game stops, you have to make a choice.  Choose correctly and the game continues.  Choose wrong and you will come to a premature end.  I really dug the mash-up of cheesy horror film and choose your own adventure.

Not every game works at peak capacity which is to be expected given the age and rarity of these machines, but that number was shockingly small and most worked like a dream.  The games are also packed tightly together so gaming could get a bit snug when the arcade is super busy.

After 6 ½ hours of gaming, my feet were done in and Jeff was a bit tired so we headed back to Embassy Suites.  Jeff’s bedding hadn’t been delivered so both of us ended up having to call the front desk to finally get some sheets and a blanket for him before finally retiring about midnight.

The next morning, we enjoyed Embassy Suites’ famed cooked to order breakfast before heading back to Omaha, planning to possibly return next year to enjoy Galloping Ghost once more and explore Chicago a bit.

But if you’re in the Chicago area and you are a video gamer, visit Galloping Ghost (9415 Ogden Ave in Brookfield, IL).  Once you visit this retro arcade, you’ll be hard pressed to want to visit another.

I Never Promised You a Victorian Rose Garden: Algonquin, IL and Victorian Rose Garden B & B

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Today the road has brought me to Algonquin, IL.

A trip to this region had been steadily growing in my mind for the past few months.  I had actually been in this area back in 2015 when I stopped in the village of West Dundee, IL en route to a review of Cotton Patch Gospel at the Howmet Playhouse in Whitehall, MI.

I had been talking about the locale with a friend and started to reminisce about the fun I had in West Dundee.  The vintage arcade.  The lovely meal at The Village Squire.  The awesome elegance of The Mansion.  I began to get the itch to revisit the place.

I tried to convince several of my friends to go, but one had just got back from a trip while another was getting ready to take a small family trip and the other simply wasn’t interested in going.  I really didn’t want to go alone. . .unless I could stay at a B & B.

I contacted The Mansion to find out if they had any available rooms towards the end of August, but was out of luck.  Acting on an idle thought, I did a search on B & Bs around the West Dundee area and found one for the Victorian Rose Garden in Algonquin.  Then I checked to see how far Algonquin was from West Dundee.  Hmm, only 4 miles.  Did they have any rooms available?  Yes, they did.  I immediately booked the Presidential Chamber for what I would dub the Decompression Trip.

After the end of a hard month which included beginning rehearsals for my first full scale production in almost 6 years, I was ready for a trip.

Unlike my other trips where I take a day off to make the drive, I actually began this one after work on Friday.  The plan was to drive to the Iowa City region where I would stop to rest for the night before finishing the journey the next day.

I had thought to drive just slightly past Iowa City and find a decent place outside the hubbub of a major city, but fate decided to call my bluff as I had difficulty finding any inn, let alone a decent one.  I ended up driving nearly an hour longer than I planned and ultimately stopped in Walcott, IA, home of the world’s largest truck stop.

As I hoped the world’s largest truck stop held a pair of hotels, one of which was a Comfort Inn (bada book bada boom!).  It was a tiny hotel (only 3 floors), but I got a room on the top floor which I prefer on the rare occasions I stay at a hotel.  For an extra $5, I was able to get a king bed and I heaved a contented sigh as my eyes alighted on a small, but comfortable room.

I still needed to eat, but, as the hour was late, I stopped at a nearby Arby’s for a sandwich before returning to the hotel for a bath and a good night’s sleep.

And it truly was a good night’s sleep.  I awoke truly well rested and even had the benefit of having a hot breakfast at the hotel where I enjoyed a pair of sausage links with a biscuit and gravy and some apple juice before heading off on the road again.

Driving the extra hour ended up being a good decision as it not only got me closer to my destination, but helped me stay on my schedule as this route was still doing construction as they were back in 2015 which slowed me down a bit.

About 1pm, I had arrived in West Dundee and immediately made a beeline for the Underground Retrocade.  For those of you reading my blog for the first time, the Underground Retrocade is a vintage arcade where you pay $15 and get unlimited play for the day.   Some new games had been added since I had last visited including. . .a Dragon’s Lair cabinet!!

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Dragon’s Lair. The greatest video game of all time.

Dragon’s Lair is my all time favorite video game and revolutionized the industry when it came out in 1983.  It was the first interactive animated movie and told the tale of a brave, if slightly clumsy, knight named Dirk the Daring trying to rescue Princess Daphne from the clutches of the dragon, Singe.  Make the right move at the right time and you get one step closer to the dragon’s lair.  Make the wrong move and Dirk meets an untimely demise.

This was not the original game.  Rather, it was the officially licensed 2002 Limited Edition reproduction of which only 400 discs were made.  This version included the deleted opening scene on the drawbridge as well as some slightly different timing and moves.  The cabinet also included the original prototype version which has a slew of deleted scenes as well as the games Space Ace and Dragon’s Lair II:  Timewarp.  I didn’t reach the lair, but had fun playing.

I more than got my money’s worth as I played pinball versions of Ghostbusters and Doctor Who.  I also served drinks in Tapper, fought Bluto and the Sea Hag in Popeye, and conquered Dragon’s Lair II:  Timewarp, Bad Dudes vs Dragon Ninja, and Altered Beast as well as dabbled with Crystal Castles, Rampage World Tour, Fix it Felix, Jr., and Track & Field.

About 3:30pm I headed for the village of Algonquin.  As I arrived, I was shocked to see the massive amount of construction being done in the little village, but easily worked my way around it until I found the Victorian Rose Garden, owned and operated by Sherry Brewer.

I rang the doorbell of the inn and glanced around the neighborhood.  As I turned back to the door, Sherry’s smiling face had suddenly materialized in the window and the surprise nearly gave me a heart attack.

While my pumper reset itself, Sherry let me into the inn, led me to the Presidential Chamber, and gave me the nickel tour.  I put my normal explorations on hold as I headed for worship at St Margaret Mary.  This was a very nice and quaint church which holds a Polish service at the second Saturday night service.

It was a moving event which brought back memories of going to church back home in Fort Dodge as we sang hymns that I haven’t sung since my childhood.

After worship, I headed to the Colonial Café and I was starved.

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Colonial Cafe

I actually felt the need for a small appetizer so I opened the meal with a small cup of cheddar cheese chowder which had an interesting, but tasty, flavor especially with a dash of pepper.  My main course was a Smokehouse BBQ burger which was hearty and juicy and really hit the spot.  While I ate, I read The House of Brass by Ellery Queen and met an elderly gentleman who liked the fact that I was reading a book as opposed to being glued to a cell phone.

After dinner I headed back to the inn, where I had some chocolate chocolate chip cookies and a cold glass of milk.

With that dessert, Sherry turned down my bed and left me to my devices.  I went around the inn taking pictures (the last set I will take with this camera as it’s falling apart).  The house has an understated elegance not unlike visiting Grandma’s house with a music room, gorgeous dining room, and a living room that is almost like stepping back in time.  It contains an old-fashioned barber’s chair along with a cupboard of shaving mugs, an old-fashioned gumball machine loaded with marbles, and a rocking horse.

The Presidential Chamber, where I stayed, boasts a very comfy king sized bed as well as some nice easy chairs, a fireplace, a mounted flatscreen TV, and a bathroom with a clawfoot tub and shower and even a bidet.  After a long day of driving and activities, I was more than content to simply put my feet up for the night and write and post pictures before drifting off to the land of Nod.

I slept all the way through the night.  When I woke up, I got a shower and a shave and was ready for a good meal.

And that is exactly what I got along with some lovely company in the form of Mike and Sue of Ohio and Tone and Yvonne of Stockholm, Sweden.  For breakfast there was water, orange juice, and coffee along with an appetizer of fresh fruit, cinnamon scones, and banana nut bread.  The main entrée was French Toast croissants with Granny Smith apples, scrambled eggs with home-grown vegetables, and thick slices of bacon along with a heaping side of conversation which Sherry joined in on.

All too soon the conversation and the meal had to come to an end.  In hindsight, I wish I had another day to spend here for there are still activities to partake of, but I suspect I will be back again, hopefully with friends to really expand on the fun.

But if you’re in the Algonquin region, spend a night with Sherry at Victorian Rose Garden B & B.  It’s a inn as pretty as it sounds with fabulous food and company and quite a bit to do in the region as well as being a hop, skip, and a jump from Chicago.

Until the next time, happy travels.

Sing a Song of Death

This is the story of Sara.  Sara was kind of a wild child who dated a bad boy bartender named Tom.  One day, Sara tires of Tom and meets Michael who is kind, stable, and safe.  Sara and Michael marry.  After a few years, Sara yearns for her former life and contacts Tom and that’s when things take a turn.  This is Murder Ballad, a rock opera written and with lyrics by Julia Jordan with music and lyrics by Juliana Nash and currently playing at the Omaha Community Playhouse.

I could make this the quickest review in history and just say it’s phenomenal.  Go see it.

But you’d probably like to know a little more.

While I was intrigued by the plot of this play, little did I know I would end up watching one of the 5 best shows ever produced at the Playhouse.  Ms Jordan has written a tight, crisp story full of little twists and tragedies and Ms Nash’s music is one of the best musical soundtracks I have ever had the pleasure to hear.

The direction of Jeff Horger is utterly beyond reproach.  The energy of his actors never wanes and his staging is impeccable with his performers never taking a static moment and making use of the entire theatre for their movements.  Horger has also guided his thespians to universally marvelous performances with each actor not only being a top flight singer, but possessed of the ability to act through the songs of this opera.

The highest compliment I can pay to Leanne Hill Carlson’s portrayal of Sara is that I felt not one ounce of sympathy for her.  Zip.  Nada.  Zero.  Ms Hill Carlson has complete mastery of her character as she neatly travels the labyrinth of Sara’s arc.

She begins as the party girl living a vapid existence of partying and sex with Tom.  Then she longs for something of substance and meets Michael.  She seems quite content with a life of domesticity, but still has the appetites of her previous life to which she all too readily succumbs. The guilt of her poor choices clearly weighs on her shoulders, but it’s hard to feel much sympathy for her with her tendency to jerk around both men in her life.

Ms Hill Carlson also has a terrific higher alto/lower soprano voice with which she emotes the heck out of her songs.  From a bit of sultriness when she tries to seduce Michael when she first meets him, to her boredom of family life, to her regrets at her lousy decisions, Ms Hill Carlson was just a joy to listen to.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a character I wanted to put my arm around and buck up more than John E. Jones’ Michael.  Jones has a sweet and haunting tenor voice that added such an emotional purity to his characterization of Michael.  His portrayal of Michael was so full of decency and goodness that I felt my heart drop when Sara began cheating on him and he still sang about how much he loved her and wanted to fix whatever was wrong with their marriage.

But watch out when he learns the truth of his wife’s liaisons.  Then Jones is perfectly believable with his righteous anger at being cuckolded and his determination for vengeance against Tom.

Thomas Gjere’s Tom is a most complex character, indeed.  What I liked most about Tom was that he truly was the reverse of Michael.  Where Michael was all about stability, Tom is instability at its peak.  He begins as being not too bad of a person except for his lust for Sara and I actually felt sympathy for him when he was still toiling away as a bartender regretting not fighting for Sara when she left him.

But that decency rapidly vanishes when he engages in a tawdry affair with a now married Sara and becomes quite the obsessed stalker oozing danger and menace as he darkly tells Sara she belongs to him.  Like Jones, Gjere also has a fantastic tenor voice but he makes certain to mine it for all the malevolence of which it’s capable.

Last, but certainly not least, is Mackenzie Dehmer who makes a stunning debut at the Playhouse with her role of the Narrator.  Trust me, Ms Dehmer is no mere storyteller.  Her Narrator is an integral part of this play as she involves herself in the lives of these characters.  I found myself often watching her just to see her reactions to the events swirling around her.  Ms Dehmer’s Narrator is a pretty dark character, often seeming to enjoy the chaos going on around her, yet seems to have a soft spot for Michael’s plight.  Ms Dehmer also has a powerful alto as she belted out her numbers and her movements were so lithe and smooth.

Technically this show was also a perfect ten.  Jim Othuse has turned the Howard Drew into a perfect dive bar while Darin Kuehler’s properties complete the picture.  And, believe it or not, the audience can order drinks from the bar and play billiards and pinball before the show starts.  Chris Wood’s lighting design was brilliant as his lights transformed with the emotional beats ranging from a sad blue to a hostile red.  Amanda Fehlner costumed her actors precisely to their personalities from Michael’s white collar nature to Tom’s blue collar dangerousness to Sara’s seductiveness and finally to the Narrator’s fun, but dark essence.  Doran Schmidt and her house band rocked all night long.

This is a truly can’t miss spectacle.  In fact, I liked it so much I just may go see it again.  If you want to see a well sung story with compelling characters, you must see Murder Ballad.  It’s the most original and rewarding play produced in years.

Murder Ballad plays at the Omaha Community Playhouse through November 20.  Showtimes are Thurs-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm.  Tickets are $42 for adults and $25 for students.  For tickets call 402-553-0800 or visit www.omahaplayhouse.com or www.ticketomaha.com.  Due to some strong language and adult situations, Murder Ballad is not suitable for children.  The Omaha Community Playhouse is located at 6915 Cass St in Omaha, NE.