Today the road has brought me to Hannibal, MO.
I had actually had this journey on my mind for quite a while. When the opportunity arose to review a professional production of Cotton Patch Gospel, I knew I would be making my way to Hannibal and a visit to Garth Woodside Mansion, owned and operated by John and Julie Rolsen.
It was an absolutely perfect day for a road trip. The sky was sunny and clear and the temperatures were downright springish. I had a fairly smooth ride into Hannibal, though Google Maps tried to make me take a left turn at Albuquerque. I ended up finding the road I needed anyway, so neener neener Google!
The inn is located in a secluded area along a gravel road and is of great historical interest as it has a direct connection to the town’s most famous resident, Samuel Clemens AKA Mark Twain.
The original owners of the inn were John Garth, a successful Hannibal businessman, and his wife, Helen. The home was built on his farm, Woodside, in the late 1800s. John and Helen were lifelong friends of Twain who often visited the mansion. In fact, one of the rooms in the inn is called the Samuel Clemens and Twain actually stayed in the room whenever he visited the Garths.
As I pulled up to the inn, I took a moment to soak in the impressive structure. When you think bed & breakfast, this is the type of building that springs to mind. If the inside was anything like the outside, I knew I was falling into the lap of luxury. I bumped into another couple on my way to the front door and we were met by Julie Rolsen. Julie is easily one of the most gregarious innkeepers I have met on my travels and she and her husband have wickedly sharp senses of humor. If you stay here, read the book on the inn in your room and you’ll agree with me.
After giving us the nickel tour, Julie showed me to the Rosewood, my base of operations for the next few days. Admittedly, I wanted to stay in the Samuel Clemens to really absorb the inn’s sense of history, but I had been beaten to the punch. On the other hand, I did get to become a part of a unique piece of inn trivia.
The bed in my room is called the most expensive bed in Missouri. It’s a hand carved piece of artistry insured for $55K.
After settling in, I did my explorations. And there is a lot to explore. Not only is this place one of the most beautiful and luxurious inns I have visited, but it is also one of the largest. The first floor gives you a sense of history as the furniture is original to the home. The entire property is remarkably preserved which I attribute to the small number of owners which the property has had. The Rolsens are only the sixth owners. Pretty impressive for a 100 plus year old mansion.
I had scheduled a ghost tour for 7pm, so I headed to downtown Hannibal for an early dinner before learning about the haunted history of Hannibal.
I opted to try the Mark Twain Dinette and it was a bit of a mixed bag. The ambiance is quite nice, but the food was just OK. I had a Roughin It burger which included pepper jack, chili ranch, and bacon which did fill the cavity.
Afterwards, I explored the main street area. Though I, to my chagrin, failed to observe them, take a look at the artistic fire hydrants. They were all painted by Julie.
Downtown Hannibal is pretty compact and most of the interesting sites are all pretty close to one another. I went down to the Hannibal History Museum and picked up my ticket for the tour. As the trolley wouldn’t load until 6:50pm, I continued looking around the downtown area and found the Bluff City Theater and City Hall. Believe it or not, the two buildings are actually connected for my upcoming play review as the theatre is producing the show, but the play is being presented environmentally at City Hall in the council room located on the second floor.
About 6:50, I returned to the museum where I boarded the trolley. Ghost tours are always an interesting way to learn about a town’s history and Hannibal is reportedly one of the most haunted cities in the country. The tour consists of traveling to various buildings and hearing about the hauntings and there were some very interesting tales.
One such tale was the story of three boys who disappeared when they went off to explore one of the numerous caves under Hannibal. In spite of an intense search costing over one million dollars and lasting over a month, the boys were never found as the caves under the town are deep and labyrinthine.
One of the boys reportedly haunts a family, but it is a good haunting. The ghost is the friend of the family’s little girl, who calls him Shippa. Our guide showed us a photo of Shippa taken by the little girl on her fake tablet and even I admit that it is a pretty impressive piece of evidence that bears a remarkable similarity to one of the missing boys.
The other tale was a sensitive point in the history of Hannibal. There was a wealthy businessman named Amos Stillwell who had a younger wife named Fanny who was the belle of the ball. One winter’s night, Fanny was asleep with her children and her husband came home late from a card party held at the home from his good friend, Captain Munger. Not wanting to disturb his wife and children, Stillwell retired to his bedroom.
Around midnight, Fanny heard her husband stir in the other room and say, “Fanny? Is that you?” At that point a hidden intruder rose out of the darkness and killed Stillwell with a double bladed axe. Fanny stayed hidden with the children until she was certain the coast was clear, left the children with the maid, and rushed to get their family friend, a doctor, who lived a few blocks away.
The doctor told Fanny he’d be over immediately and that’s when things started getting weird. Instead of going to the police who were next door to the doctor, Fanny returned home and started cleaning up the gruesome crime scene. The doctor came over and was shocked at Fanny’s actions and called the police.
The police came with the city physician. Needless to say, the police were very upset that the crime scene had been tampered with. Then another strange thing happened. The city physician refused to let the police question Fanny Stillwell, saying she was too distraught. This further angered the police as they now had a useless crime scene and a witness whom they couldn’t question. Even with the help of the Pinkertons, the police were never able to gather much evidence in the mystery.
Nine months later, Fanny married the city physician which was very suspicious and enraged the citizens of Hannibal who literally chased the couple out of town. The couple would return to visit friends several years later and were arrested for the crime. However, with the passage of several years, there was even less evidence than before and the city physician was found not guilty and charges against Fanny were dropped.
A book was written about the case and one of the last remaining copies exists at the Hannibal Public Library. The reason for the book being out of print is that the writer did not get permission from all family members and printing was halted.
Today, it’s reported that the ghost of Amos Stillwell roams the old home of Captain Munger which is now a restaurant known as LaBinnah Bistro. The reason for this being is that Stillwell spent many happy hours at card parties here and his original home was demolished in the hopes of stopping hauntings there.
Our tour ended in an old Baptist cemetery where we were given dowsing rods to sense paranormal activity. Allegedly, spirits exude a magnetic field and the rods will be pulled towards it and cross at the point of activity. Honestly, I did feel the tug and the rods did cross, but dowsing rods also locate water, so while interesting I leave it for the reader to decide if it was science or spirits.
Still, it was a very interesting experience and, as I’ve said, always a good way to learn about local history.
From there it was back to the mansion, where the day’s long drive and activity finally caught up with me. I drew a bath in the clawfoot tub that was just the perfect temperature, soaked, then curled up in my bed to get a $55K sleep.
I awoke refreshed and hungry. About 9am, I headed downstairs to breakfast. John and Julie were clearly born to the B & B business. Both are natural hosts, chatting with guests and making sure they are provided for. I sat down to a goblet of Garth Juice. As John says, “It tastes good and it’s good for you.” Julie prepared a hot chocolate for me and John also brought me water and milk while I worked through a dish of fruit and a muffin.
The main entrée was a quiche filled with broccoli, cheese, eggs, and ham. It was a tasty way to start the day and provided needed fuel for a day filled with activities.
I got things going immediately after breakfast with a visit to Mark Twain Cave.
This name isn’t an attempt to cash in on Twain’s name. Twain often explored this cave as a boy and he uses this cave in several of his books. It’s an entertaining and informative little tour, but you may want to bring a jacket as the cave stays at 53 degrees year round.
I really wanted to explore Cameron Cave as well, but the next available tour wasn’t until noon and that tour is 90 minutes and I had an appointment at 1:30. So, it’s something to look forward to in another visit, especially since you’re provided your own lantern to explore this cave.
From Mark Twain Cave, I headed to the Haunted House on Hill Street. They were offering a special where for $10 I could tour the house and Karlocks Kars and Pop Culture. I took them up on the offer.
There isn’t much to the haunted house. It actually opens with a room filled with 25 intricately sculpted wax figures of Mark Twain, his family, and characters. Narration is provided giving a history of Mark Twain, his family, and the inspiration for his characters. Afterwards, you go through a cheesy little haunted house not unlike ones you’d find at a county fair.
Karlocks was a bit more interesting. It’s a museum filled with vintage cars and sundry pop culture items. There’s even a bit of a vintage arcade, but playing the games costs quarters.
After my brief tours, I headed over to the Mark Twain Riverboat for a little cruise on the Mississippi.
I took a seat on the top deck outside the pilot house. Before setting sail, several blasts are made on the whistle and those by the pilot house need to cover your ears. It was quite a relaxing jaunt as Captain Steve pointed out several points of interests such as Lover’s Leap and Jackson Island which also found its way into the stories of Mark Twain.
During the ride you will actually cross the state line into Illinois and you may just see some wild life. I saw a couple of alligators silently swimming in the Mississippi and I finally understood just how dangerous they could be as the way they swim do make them seem like sticks or logs.
After a journey on the mighty Mississippi, I returned to Garth Woodside to get cleaned up for church and the show.
I attended services at Holy Family Catholic Church and I would like to clone this church and replicate it for all of my journeys. This is what worship needs to be like. Everyone was happy to be there and was ready for Jesus. You could genuinely feel His presence. And they were so welcoming. Father Jim Wheeler asked if there were any visitors and asked us where we were from. The congregation was so welcoming as I had several brief conversations after church. Father Jim also gave a great sermon about us needing to be Jesus with skin on which provided a lot of inspiration and food for thought.
Worship certainly prepped me for the faith inspired play, Cotton Patch Gospel, which was being performed at Hannibal City Hall. It was an interesting and original take on the story and you can read my review here.
After the show, it was back to Garth Woodside and another good night’s sleep.
Somehow the alarm on my clock was turned on and buzzed me up at 6am. Getting back to sleep wasn’t happening so I wrote my review on the play and got back to work on this article. I got to this point and went downstairs to breakfast.
OK, I’m back. Today’s meal consisted of Garth juice, milk, fruit, peach muffin, and breakfast pizza which consisted of egg whites, bacon, sausage, and a pita or sourdough crust. Julie also made me a mug of English Toffee hot chocolate topped with crushed Heath bits because chocolate makes everything better.
I ended up having a lively little conversation with the Rolsen family before returning to my room to finish the article and dilly dally until checkout time at Julie’s insistence. 😉
And that about wraps it up for this edition. If you’re in the Hannibal area, get a room at Garth Woodside Mansion. It’s a wonderful inn hosted by great people in a private locale and the food is fantastic.
Until the next time, happy travels.
Something’s brewin in Gainesville. Wonder what it could be? Something’s brewin in Gainesville. Come on down and see. Come on down and see the Gospel of Matthew told Southern style and an extra twist as well. It’s Cotton Patch Gospel by Tom Key with music and lyrics by Harry Chapin and based off a book by Clarence Jordan. It is playing at Hannibal City Hall under the auspices of Bluff City Theater.
In the intro I alluded to an extra twist with this particular rendition of Cotton Patch Gospel. In keeping with its tradition of turning established shows on their heads, this production is comprised almost entirely of female performers and that includes the two primary roles of the Narrator and Jesus.
Some might think that’s shocking, but it really isn’t and this is why. Tom Key wrote this play in a very unique way. It can be done as a full cast or a small cast or, in true storytelling format, a one person show. That last style is exactly how this show is presented. The Narrator (Taylor Pietz) starts telling the story as an audience member after the first number and then takes over the stage as she becomes most of the main characters as she shares the story of Jesus.
Herbie Barnes does a pretty sophisticated bit of direction with this piece. I greatly admired his staging of the show as he made stellar use of the fixedness of the council room. The chorus would pop in and out from behind the bench for certain scenes and numbers and his narrator used every inch of the space to tell this story. He also thoroughly understood the twists and beats of this tale and led his two primary actors to capable and potent performances as they told that story.
Taylor Pietz plays. . .pretty much everyone who isn’t Jesus. It is a grueling and grand performance as Ms Pietz effortlessly and easily transforms herself into numerous different characters and she does it with such subtlety. She pulls her shoulders back and adopts a slight sneer and she’s a rather vile Herod. Putting on a stole, she’s a high energy John the Baptist. With a slump of her shoulders and tears in her eyes, she’s a sympathetic Jud who believes betraying Jesus will ultimately save him. That particular performance is one of her strongest of the night as she plays both the broken Jud and the villainous Dr. Caiaphas (done with veiled, disdainful eyes and miming the smoking of a cigarette) in an intense conversation as the plot to arrest Jesus is created.
Ms Pietz’s voice is quite heavenly. She’s got a glorious soprano that goes almost operatic on occasion and she has that ability to act through her songs as she never drops character. Notable numbers were her Herod proudly taking credit for the murder of innocent children in “I Did It”. A harried Simon “Rock” Johnson trying to organize Jesus’ takeover in “We Gotta Get Organized”. Two of my favorites of hers were a somber take on “Are We Ready?” that kicks off Act II and a hopeful, joyous rendition of “Jubilation”.
Courtney Friday pulls double duty as Jesus and as Assistant Musical Director for the show. She has the right qualities for the Son of Man as she projects a real sense of innocence and goodness. But I also see loads of untapped potential in her lines and I would love to see her play with the words a bit more to maximize the full force of her role.
Her musical chops are quite top of the line. Not only did she and musical director Colin Healy lead the band to top notch performances of the score, they also rearranged it a bit which I believe added a bit of vitality to the show. Ms Friday is also a wonderful singer with a wide range as she could sing alto and soprano equally well. Top songs from her were a sad, haunted take on “Goin’ to Atlanta” as her Jesus fears his imminent lynching and the joyous “Well I Wonder” to close the show.
The two ladies are supported by a chorus of little girls who have voices of angels and flesh out crowd scenes and provide a little choreography to some of the musical numbers. But I would like to single out Evie Rodenbaugh for a stellar performance. She has a natural instinct for acting as she was fully invested in the action of the play and added tiny little details that added so much. Most impressive was a touching moment when she was weeping over the dead daughter of a government official that Jesus raises from the dead.
Chris Davis’ lights are quite amazing, especially considering his having to adapt them to a most unusual performance space. His idea of using flashlights for the night of Jesus’ arrest is inspired. The band of Erich Eastman, Jacob Mreen, and Brendan Rodgers provide some great music and a few comedic moments as well. Eastman, in particular, has a beautiful tenor singing voice well utilized in a few solos.
All in all, I found it to be a very satisfying night of theatre, especially with the superhuman storytelling abilities of Taylor Pietz. This production truly gives truth to the line “The Greatest Story Ever Retold”.
Cotton Patch Gospel plays at Hannibal City Hall through August 4. Performances are Wed-Sat at 7:30pm plus a Saturday matinee at 2pm. Tickets cost $26 for adults and $15 for children. For tickets, visit www.bluffcitytheater.com or www.eventshannibal.org or call 573-719-3226. Hannibal City Hall is located at 320 Broadway in Hannibal, MO.
What: Cotton Patch Gospel by Tom Key and Russell Treyz with music & lyrics by Harry Chapin
Where: Hoogland Center for the Arts (420 S 6th St, Springfield, IL)
When: March 3-12
This “Greatest Story Ever Retold” is based on the book The Cotton Patch Version of Matthew and John by Clarence Jordan in which the Gospel is presented in a setting of rural Georgia with country music songs. The music is the final, and perhaps best, work of Harry Chapin.
As this Gospel begins, they sing that “Somethin’s a-brewin’ in Gainesville.” Herod is the mayor of Atlanta and, inevitably, Christ is lynched by local thugs only to rise again.
Drama critics loved this show and so did a broad spectrum of religious commentators:
“Entertaining and inspiring, it will lift your spirits and renew your hope.” —The Long Island Catholic
“Rollicking, foot-stomping, hand-clapping new musical!” —The Messenger
The Hoogland’s production will be directed by the popular local director and playwright, Ken Bradbury. Ken directed a very successful production of the show years ago in Jacksonville, and to this day it is the show he is most often asked to stage again. We are thrilled that he has agreed to present the show at the Hoogland!
The stellar cast features Greg Floyd as Jesus, Nathan Carls as Matthew, Ken Bradbury on accordion, Mark Mathewson on guitar and other strings, Carrie Carls on vocals and autoharp, Barry Cloyd on banjo, dobro and other strings, Steve Vincent on fiddle and other strings and Rob Killiam on bass.
Tickets are $18 for adults, and $16 for seniors and students. Showtimes are Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 2pm. For tickets contact the Hoogland Center for the Arts at 217-523-2787 or visit their website at www.hcfta.org.
Cotton Patch Gospel is being sponsored by Concordia Village:http://lssliving.org/communities/concordia-village
One thing I’ve always liked about traveling on Sunday is that it’s (usually) peaceful and quiet. This one was no exception and the traffic was so light through the construction that it was as if no work was being done.
For this final leg of the journey I would be stopping in Wichita, KS where I would be staying at the Serenity Bed & Breakfast Inn. I was more than ready to stop for the night after a long day of driving and sketchy sleep over the two previous evenings.
This was actually a bit of a milestone as Serenity Inn was the 30th B & B I have visited and I must say that I really hit the jackpot with this one. Serenity Inn, owned and operated by Ken Elliott, has all of those features of interest that make for a fine B & B. It’s an older, elegant home with a lot of interesting history as Ken gave me a brief walking tour of the estate. It’s also famed for its murder mystery dinners.
After the tour, Ken led me to Jordan’s Suite which served as my final home away from home for this little jaunt. It was perfect. From the four poster, canopy bed to the Jacuzzi bathtub, it just radiated comfort and peace. In short, it was just what I needed.
I was so weary that I was unable to engage in any sort of exploration of the area. Heck, I was so exhausted that I didn’t even eat that night. I just arranged my things and had just enough juice to watch the Denver Broncos win the Super Bowl and, more likely than not, send Peyton Manning into the sunset as a champion.
I slept like a baby that night. My lights went out and didn’t relight until the next morning. I awoke, fully refreshed, and enjoyed a nice long bath in the morning.
I was starving after having nothing to eat, aside from a small snack, since the previous morning. The Serenity Inn is famed for its LARGE breakfasts and that is a truthful claim. I opted for room service and goggled at the huge meal Ken brought to my room. A massive Mexican omelet, a full banana, a cinnamon roll, grapefruit, salsa, water, coffee, orange juice, and tortillas.
The cinnamon roll was piping hot and one of the best I had ever eaten. The Mexican omelet was light and fluffy and stuffed with black beans, cheese, and corn. Under ordinary circumstances, I would not have been able to eat very much. Hungry as I was, I still didn’t do much damage to the meal, but more than I would have thought possible. I would recommend that the portions be trimmed down to at least half their size, but there are certainly no gripes about the quality of the food.
After breakfast, I said my good-byes to Ken and drove the final leg to Omaha. If you want to enjoy a classic B & B and you find yourself in Wichita, do yourself a favor and get a room at Serenity Inn where you will enjoy a fabulous house and a fine, filling meal.
And on a final note, don’t feel too bad for me because I missed out on the play. Outside of a mild disappointment, it did nothing to damper the trip. I enjoyed some great inns, met some great people, and had a great adventure. I’ll get another shot at Cotton Patch Gospel as either actor, reviewer, or both. Hopefully, it will be showing somewhere in or around my homestead in the not too distant future.
I imagine you saw the title and thought, “Huh?” Unfortunately, it is true. Have you ever had one of those days where fate seemed to conspire against you? Well, I had that day on Friday and that conspiracy caused me to miss Cotton Patch Gospel. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
The drive to Arlington was a shorter trip though somewhat marred by bumpy roads, construction, and heavy Friday traffic. After weeding through the obstacles, I finally found myself in the town of Arlington where I would be staying at the Thornton Inn owned and operated by Sunny and Terry Graham.
Thornton Inn is quite unique in the sense that it is actually a renovated fraternity house. The house is actually one of the oldest homes in Arlington being built in the early 1900s. Eventually it became a frat house until a ruling by the University of Texas-Arlington decreed that all fraternity and sorority houses had to be located on campus. The home was bought by the Grahams to be used as an office for Sunny’s real estate brokerage. A suggestion that the home would make a good B & B inspired the Grahams to restore the house to its former scholarly glory and open it to guests in 2013.
Sunny and Terry are very kind hosts and great conversationalists. Terry, in particular, is full of many incredible tales. Terry led me to my room, the Remington, which housed a massive king bed which has been one of the most comfortable I have ever slept in and a beautiful modern bathroom with a shower that reminded me of the “Car Wash” in the now defunct Quill and Quilt of Cannon Falls, MN.
After settling in, Terry was kind enough to print out better directions for the Repertory Company Theatre. After dressing for the play, I briefly toyed with the idea of arranging for a taxi to take me as I was tired after several days of driving. In hindsight, I wish I had gone with the idea.
Under the best of circumstances, the drive from Thornton Inn to Repertory Company Theatre is about 40 minutes. What I had to deal with was anything but the best of circumstances.
The journey must be experienced as it is very difficult to describe the roads used to travel from Arlington to Richardson. One must use the LBJ Freeway and the George Bush Turnpike which consists of a maze of roads and exits which could easily baffle much better drivers than myself.
I was actually doing pretty well and wasn’t too far from my exit point when I saw an electronic sign flash the message that an accident had occurred right where I needed to exit and traffic ground to a halt. I managed to get around the accident, breathing a sigh of relief that I had given myself 90 minutes just in case. Then I faced my second problem.
My directions said one had to stay to the left in order to make the necessary turn. Well, I followed those instructions to the letter. . .and it put me back on the freeway. Not a problem, I got off at the next exit and got turned back around as precious minutes ticked away.
I found my road and thought I would make it in time to the show, but then I glanced at the road signs where, to my mounting horror, I suddenly saw I was somehow on a different street. It turns out that the roads in Richardson are not unlike the roads in Flagstaff, AZ. In Flagstaff if you turn left, the road is Apple Street. But if you turn left, it’s Blueberry Street. In Richardson, you need to be in just the right lane or you may find yourself on a road other than the one you want.
I desperately tried to find my road again, getting directions from a gas station. I finally got back to my road and found the area where the theatre was located, but knew it was an exercise in futility as the show had already started. I heaved a frustrated sigh and headed back to the inn.
I debated about whether or not I wanted to try again the next night, but there were problems with that. I knew that each performance had less than 3 rows of seats still available before starting the trip so I wasn’t sure if I could still get a ticket. You also cannot buy tickets online once it its 24 hours before showtime. You can call the theatre for a ticket, but the box office doesn’t open until an hour before curtain. Assuming I could still get a ticket, I still would have had the 40+ minute journey to re-endure. It was too much of a gamble. I wrote a letter to the theatre thanking them for Friday’s ticket and explaining why I was unable to make it.
The stress of the failed trip took a toll on my sleep as I woke up during the night with my body going through symptoms similar to a panic attack. A few deep breaths brought my twitching body back under control and the comfort of the bed helped me fall back asleep.
Terry and Sunny were very sympathetic about my plight. Terry felt guilty as he had printed out directions for me, but I assured him he could have done nothing more. The bad luck was completely beyond his control. But the delicious breakfast of breakfast tacos, fruit, bacon, and a hash brown helped perk me up.
Luckily I had a relaxing activity planned for the day. I had arranged for a 90 minute massage at the Sanford House Bed and Breakfast and Spa. Under Margo’s ministrations I felt my body loosen up and unwind and some cheese and water afterwards helped complete the treatment. The Sanford Spa is definitely worth a visit if you want some pampering.
Afterwards, I headed to the Parks at Arlington mall where I wandered around briefly before returning to the inn where I watched some Elementary, finished a video game, and caught a nap.
I attended worship services at St Maria Goretti Catholic Church. This was a beautiful church and the people were so welcoming. It was a nice service with a good sermon from Father.
When worship had ended and under the suggestion from Sunny, I had dinner at Babe’s Chicken Dinner House. Sunny had raved about their food and the crowd that met me certainly testified to the quality of the meal as it was packed to the rafters. Even as the dynamic uno, I had to wait 30 minutes for a table.
But it was worth the wait. Babe’s is better as a group as it is family style dining. You get your choice of one of 5 meats and sides of corn, biscuits, salad, green beans, gravy, and mashed potatoes are brought on. I opted for chicken fried steak which I managed to eat half of and helped myself to a little of each of the sides. The mashed potatoes are the best I’ve ever tasted. Price is about $15 per person, so it is very reasonable for the quality and quantity of food.
When dinner was done, I did a little work posting photos, but found myself uninspired to write. I decided to go to bed.
The next morning I had a filling breakfast of French toast, fruit, bacon, and sausage to strengthen me for the drive home.
I truly did enjoy my time at Thornton Inn and you cannot find better hosts than Sunny and Terry. If you find yourself in Arlington, do yourself a favor and book a room here.
Hello, dear readers, it’s nice to see you again. I’m so glad you are able to join me for one of my biggest projects to date.
For my regular readers, you may remember that over the summer I visited the town of Whitehall, MI so I could review the play Cotton Patch Gospel at the Howmet Playhouse. Due to the success of that review, I pursued an opportunity with the Repertory Company Theatre of Richardson, TX which offered me a free ticket to review its production of that show. So I found myself on a frosty February morning heading down south to enjoy a worshipful play and escape from Old Man Winter’s grip on Omaha.
Continuing the weather trend from my escapades in Iowa over the holiday season, Omaha was hammered by a winter storm the day before I was set to leave for Texas. Thankfully, this time I did not have to drive in it and the road crews had a chance to clean things up pretty well before I went on my way.
One of the more enjoyable things about this drive was that I was finally seeing some new scenery. There are two main interstates out of the city (I-29 and I-80) that I normally have to take whenever I begin these excursions. This time, I got to take Hwy 75 pretty much straight to my first stop in Topeka, KS.
It was very peaceful to travel through the smaller towns of Nebraska and enjoy traditional Americana. I also considered it to be a fast forward view to spring as I watched winter’s clutch on the state weaken the further south I got. By the time I reached the Nebraska City area, the snow was a mere dusting and by the time I reached Auburn it was gone, though the weather was still quite cold.
The first leg of the drive seemed to go faster than normal as I admired the countryside and listened to the tunes of my MP3. Before I knew it I had arrived in Kansas’ capital city.
My first stop was at the Woodward Inns at Fillmore which is a hop, skip, and jump from the capitol building. The Woodward is far more than a B & B. It’s a little village of its own consisting of one gothic mansion, three stately executive inns, and three family inns with an eighth property set to open later this year that will be a luxury extended stay.
I was staying in the main inn, a Tudor mansion built in 1923 for Chester Woodward who wanted his final estate to be as authentically English as possible. It is an impressive abode which boasts charmingly gothic rooms and a 2 ½ story library modeled after the King Henry VIII library found at London’s Hampton Hall. It also features a year round lap pool heated to 90 degrees, though it was closed for cleaning due to a recent storm.
The mansion was bought by Elizabeth Taylor (not the actress) in 1994 who had built a successful lobbying firm in the Topeka area. Hearing the call of God to take care of others, she gave up her lobbying career to enter the hospitality field and begin building the empire of the Woodward.
Elizabeth was a most gracious host. She is extremely knowledgeable about the Topeka area and is a fascinating conversationalist. She gave me a tour of the mansion and offered to show me some of the other properties after breakfast the next morning. After exploring the main inn, Elizabeth led me to the Master, my home for the night.
This room was almost too much room for one person. The room boasts a large 4 poster bed with a fireplace (put to good use on this chilly night and morning) and sitting room. After getting my stuff settled, my thoughts turned to dinner.
Elizabeth had suggested an eatery run by a friend of hers called the Blind Tiger Brewery and recognized for world championship caliber beers. The building is quite unique. I didn’t notice it from the outside, but once I got indoors, the place reminded me of a 3-D puzzle due to its construction and branching hallways. It would be rather easy to get lost in this place.
For my dinner, I did a rarity and sampled some of the beers due to its championship reputation. I had samples of brown ale, Munich Dunkles, pale ale, and raw wheat. I enjoyed the brown ale and the raw wheat the most. For my entrée, I enjoyed the Texas Roadrunner which was a grilled chicken breast topped with beef brisket, cheeses, and peppers served on a bed of rice and steak fries.
The Blind Tiger Brewery apparently has a haunted history as Elizabeth suggested I ask about the ghost tour which I did, but there wasn’t anybody there who knew enough about the history to tell me the story. So I returned to the mansion, organized some photos, set up the artificial fire for the night and hit the hay.
I awoke the next morning feeling ravenous. I headed to the dining room where I found goblets of water and black cherry/cranberry juice waiting for me. I sipped the glass of juice and found the fusion of the two fruits worked very well.
Within a few moments, Elizabeth brought me my breakfast which was an oven baked pancake with orange maple syrup, cream, blueberries, and bananas. I managed to eat the fruit, but only made it halfway through the pancake before I felt full.
After breakfast, Elizabeth had her associate, Sarah, show me around her new properties called the Woodward Row Houses. These will be luxury extended stay rooms and they look very nice. My favorite was the basement studio apartment which is one of the nicest apartments I have ever seen.
Alas, it seemed my time came to an end too soon. Currently I am putting the finishing touches on this article before beginning the next leg of my journey which will bring me to Norman, OK.
But if you are in the Topeka area, take some time to visit one of the many rooms of the Woodward. You will find rooms suited to all tastes on the financial spectrum and one amazing innkeeper in Elizabeth Taylor.
written by Tom Key & Russell Treyz
with music and lyrics by Harry Chapin
Dates: Feb 5-14
Tickets: $25 adults, $15 youth (18 and under)
Group rates available.
Bibles collected for DALLAS LIFE (the Dallas Life Foundation is designed to meet the needs of homeless men, women, children and families in the Dallas metropolis).
Jason Miller (guitar/mandolin)
Somethin’s brewin’ in Gainesville
Wonder what it could be?
Somethin’s bewin’ in Gainesville
Come on down and see…
After that bracing breakfast, I hit the road. Little did I know that this was going to be one long, agonizing drive.
West Dundee is only 34 miles away from Chicago and I made the astonishing discovery that Chicago area drivers are apparently training for NASCAR. Illinois is doing a ton of construction on the interstate and the speed limit was only supposed to be 55 miles an hour. Based on my observations, I came to the conclusion that the speed limit was apparently just a suggestion because I was the only person who seemed to be obeying the limit. Every other car was just blitzing by me.
To say I was nervous was an understatement. The combination of the heavy construction, massive traffic, and battalion of speedsters actually caused me to feel knuckle whitening, heart palpitating, panic. I had to take a couple of deep breaths to actually bring my nerves back under control. This may be the norm for big city drivers, but this was my first experience driving through a really big metro area and it was a bit of a shock.
My frustrations were further fueled by the fact that I had to watch out for the toll booths. I accidentally missed my first toll booth on Halsted Street. The signs had said to keep to the right so I did. Right before the booth, the road opened up even further to the right. It happened so suddenly that I wasn’t able to change lanes and soared right through the I-Pass. Fortunately, I was able to go online later that night and pay the fee I missed.
After I got out of the Chicago area, the traffic slowed to more normal speeds, but the speed limit stayed at 55 miles an hour. Even worse, when I finally crossed the border into Indiana, I found that they were still doing the construction being done when I last passed through in 2008. Traffic was so congested that it ground to a halt and I plodded along at a rate that had snails making fun of me.
It took 3.5 hours to make the journey from West Dundee to the Michigan border where I finally was able to resume the normal speed limit of 70 miles an hour. The drive became a lot more pleasant after that. . .until I reached Holland, MI.
Traffic was going along pretty well and I saw a Wal-Mart Supercenter in the distance. I needed a few toiletries and decided I’d just get them now. After buying my supplies, I got back on the road and traffic ground to a halt again! Apparently the road I was on was the main thoroughfare for a few cities and it was now rush hour.
What should have been a four hour journey ended up being a 6.5 hour drudgery and I arrived in Whitehall, MI much, much later than intended. I was tired, frazzled, and starved when I finally pulled up to the White Swan Bed and Breakfast.
Then things began looking up.
The first break I caught that day was that the Howmet Playhouse where I would watch and review Cotton Patch Gospel was literally right across the street from the bed and breakfast. The second break was that I met Cathy Russell, the sweet and kindly owner of the White Swan.
Cathy showed me to my home away from home, the Jasmine Room. The soft white of the room and the plush looking bed seemed to scream comfort and I felt myself begin to loosen up. I think Cathy noticed my weariness as she asked if I had eaten and I told her that my journey woes prevented me from having anything since breakfast. She prepared a plate of Michigan blueberries, cheese, and sweet potato Triscuits along with a glass of white wine. I stepped onto the screened in porch and began to read and munch. I felt better almost all at once.
After getting some much needed food into my stomach I began my explorations. The White Swan is a circa 1884 Queen Anne house. It’s very homey and has a pleasant lived-in quality well suited to an inn. After I finished taking pictures, I freshened up and walked across the street to enjoy Cotton Patch Gospel.
And enjoy it, I did. In fact, you can read the review right here.
After the show, I returned to the inn and darn near collapsed into bed and didn’t wake until the next day.
When I awoke today, I was ravenous and ready for a rousing meal. Cathy served up a dish of mixed fruit and cream, a vegetable quiche, homemade sausage, and orange juice. With my stomach full, I was ready to begin exploring the area.
My first stop of the day was at the Country Dairy. This family owned dairy farm has been in the Van Gunst family for 5 generations and it credits their great dairy products to their happy cows. No, that isn’t a joke. The Van Gunsts take pride that their 1,400 head of cattle have great lives. Their lives consist of milking, birthing, sleeping, and eating 100 pounds of food a day which is the secret to great milk.
It was a very interesting tour as I watched how milk goes from the cow to the carton, went into a cheese locker, visited a bovine maternity ward, and saw a group of newborn calves (even petted a few). I even learned about the value of good breeding. The number one rated polled Hereford was born at Country Dairy and he and another cow sold for a combined $1.2 million dollars.
When the tour ended, we were treated to free samples of cheddar cheese (the best I’ve ever tasted) and chocolate milk. This milk is farm fresh which means no fat has been skimmed from it. Whole milk has got nothing on farm fresh milk. This moo juice was so tasty and rich that I actually bought a pint for myself.
The dairy also boasts a small restaurant which feeds more people than any other eatery in the region. Trucks come three times a week to restock the food items not produced by the dairy itself.
After my tour, I drove around a bit to see what there was to see. After viewing a few sights, I returned to the inn and took a long walk around the area and stopped to enjoy a vanilla shake at Dairy Treat (supplied by Country Dairy products). I then returned to my room to relax for a little bit.
I had intended to attend worship services at St James Catholic Church, but my travel woes returned when Mapquest epically failed me. The directions I got brought me to downtown Muskegon where I found no church. I went to a nearby hotel where the desk clerk informed me that the church was actually in Montague. Another clerk informed me there was another church three blocks up the road. I dashed off to it, but found they did not hold Saturday night services.
I returned to the White Swan and found that St James was a mere two miles from the inn. I could have walked there and back several times in the time I spent driving to and from Muskegon. Thankfully, they have an 8:30am service tomorrow so I can worship in the morning, have breakfast, and hit the road.
I decided to go Montague and have dinner at the Old Channel Inn. This restaurant is very popular and was jammed to capacity when I arrived. After a short wait, I was led to a table when I decided to have the charbroiled Alaskan salmon with a side of Creole corn and salad. Now I was wearing a suit which is crucial to the story.
I took off my coat so I could prepare a salad for myself. When I returned to my table, I said grace and started eating. A few minutes later a gentleman came over to my table and said, “I have an embarrassing question to ask you. Are you a priest?”
“No,” I replied, somewhat baffled.
“I’ll tell you why I asked that in a moment,” said the man as he walked away.
He returned a few minutes later and said, “You’re probably wondering why I asked if you were a priest.”
“Was it because you saw me praying?”
“No. I’m the owner of this place and there was a woman who saw you, asked for me and said, ‘I saw that young man cross himself. I think he’s a priest and I want to buy his meal.”
A gentle poke would have felled me at that point. This is where my suit comes into play. I was wearing a black dress shirt under my sport coat and my arms would have been blocking my yellow tie while I prayed. The generous stranger mistook my dress shirt for clerical garb.
I don’t even know what this mysterious woman looks like, but I’d certainly like to thank her for paying for my supper. It made the rough day I’d had yesterday and my travel woes today vanish in the breeze.
I returned to the White Swan to sip a 7-Up while I wrote this story. Now it’s about time to hit the hay before I hit the road tomorrow.
It’s the Gospel of Matthew told Southern style. This is Cotton Patch Gospel by Tom Key & Russel Treyz with music by Harry Chapin and inspired by a novel from Clarence Jordan. This musical will have your feet tapping, your hands clapping, and your fingers snapping throughout the night and is currently playing at the Howmet Playhouse.
This musical has long been a personal favorite of mine, though I imagine many have not heard of it. It was a big hit when it first came out in 1982 and even netted a Los Angeles Dramalogue nomination for Best Actor for Tom Key (who also co-wrote the script). From an epic score by Harry Chapin to the vibrant, colorful characters created by Key and Treyz, Cotton Patch Gospel has all of the elements for a hit show. I had long hoped for the opportunity to see this play and when I discovered it would be produced at the Howmet Playhouse, I drove 16 ½ hours to see it live.
No, that was not a misprint.
I drove 16 ½ hours to watch this show and it was well worth the drive. Backed by a powerful quartet of musicians, the 5 person cast, under the direction of Debra Freeberg, provided a very entertaining night of theatre. Ms Freeburg is to be complimented for some very creative and inventive directing, though there were beats that could have been delved into more deeply. She also coached solid to excellent performances from her cast. I was also intrigued by the use of a small cast. Tom Key wrote the play so it could be performed as a one man show or a full scale production, but this is the first time I have seen a small cast used and that decision worked very well indeed.
Steven Barre was one of the two standout performers of the night. Barre has a good sense of body language and voice as he easily switched between the humble, but harried, Joe (Jesus’ stepfather), the arrogant and dangerous, Governor Herod, and the conflicted Jud, who ultimately betrays Jesus. Barre is a very animated actor and his energy and enthusiasm added greatly to his work which was a treat for the eyes and ears. My only criticism is that Barre’s take on John the Baptizer was too restrained and he needs to let loose and go full force with the zealous preacher.
Barre also has a wonderful 2nd tenor singing voice which was capable of subtle and rich nuances. From the cold-blooded gloating of Herod’s arranging the murder of innocent children (I Did It) to the sad Joe wondering why Jesus won’t see him (You Are Still My Boy) to a jubilant Apostle (Jubilation), Barre proved himself to be a well rounded performer and a great asset for the show.
Brianna June Clark was the other standout performer of the night. Ms June Clark had a beautiful, clear soprano singing voice and she knows how to find the emotional beats of a song. From a soulful, haunting number from a mother who cannot accept the death of her child (Mama is Here) to a wistful dream that Jesus wasn’t dead (One More Tomorrow), Ms June Clark knocked one musical pitch after another out of the park.
She was also just as adept on the acting side of things. Ms June Clark has an incredible presence and excellent facial expressions along with a good sense of improv. Whether she was the slightly befuddled Andy, the menacing Governor Pilate, or the Virgin Mary, Ms June Clark was, quite simply, an utter delight. She also had the funniest moment of the night with her audible nausea at the sight of the victim when Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan.
I wish the show had more than a one weekend run as I sensed a great deal of potential in the performances of Alex Cooke and Annie Bulthuis which could be realized with a longer run. Both gave solid performances, but they needed a bit of fine tuning.
Both (and the rest of the cast at various points) needed to project more and talk louder to overcome the nearly black box nature of the theatre’s acoustics. They also need to slow down their delivery a bit and focus a bit more on the beats and nuances of their dialogue. A lot of humorous lines and dramatic moments didn’t get the emphasis they needed due to their rushing the lines. I understand that the entire rehearsal process only lasted two weeks which isn’t enough time to get into the grit and gristle of a script. So they deserve kudos for the solid foundation they developed with their limited preparation time.
Ms Bulthuis has a skillful alto voice which she put to good use in numbers such as “Love the Lord Your God” and “We Gotta Get Organized”. She also has one of the most expressive faces I have ever seen. With a slight cock of her eyebrow or a tiny purse of her lips, I was able to follow the thoughts of Ms Bulthuis’ characters without her uttering a single word. I also thought her interpretation of Rock as slightly less than intelligent to be a very fine and funny bit of acting.
Cooke’s 2nd tenor voice also demonstrated a knack for subtle shades of emotion. His primary role was that of Jesus and his portrayal of Jesus’ fears and sadness at his imminent lynching in “Goin’ to Atlanta” was not only spot on, but had me shedding a few tears as well.
Though he has no lines, Tim Todd does have a good grasp of pantomime which allowed him to tell his own story and kept him involved in each moment of the show.
There were a few technical flaws during the night. There was some wicked feedback coming from a speaker at a few points and the actors’ microphones were either failing or their volume was constantly adjusted throughout the show.
Musical Director, Karen Burek, and her Band (Josh Bourdon, Alex Johnson, David Russell, and Lare Williams) do superior work with their stellar musicianship and flawless playing. Tom Klonowski’s light design was award worthy and Jessica Reilly’s bare bones set was a thing of beauty.
In spite of a few flaws which I believe could be easily overcome with a longer run, Cotton Patch Gospel was an inspiring, moving, and entertaining night of theatre and I want to thank the cast and crew of this show for making my epic journey to see it a worthwhile one.
Cotton Patch Gospel has one final performance on Saturday, August 8 at 7:30pm. Tickets range from $16 to $20 and can be obtained in person at the Box Office or by calling them at 231-894-2540 one hour before showtime. They can also be obtained at their website, www.howmetplayhouse.org. The Howmet Playhouse is located at 304 S Mears Ave in Whitehall, MI.