`Mayhem' reigns on inn's murder-mystery night

Neighbors

November 09, 2007|By Janene Holzberg

For everyone who has never won a round of the classic whodunnit board game Clue, here is an opportunity for redemption. Only this time, would-be homicide detectives can walk through a well-appointed 18th-century mansion and uncover clues with a dining partner or two on their way to tracking down a cold-blooded murderer.

The latest installment of Murder and Mayhem at the Manor, which will take place Thursday at Elkridge Furnace Inn, comes courtesy of Sarah Cassel, 25, a native of Howard County and an actor.

"Sarah is really very talented and very versatile," said Dan Wecker, owner and executive chef. "With her theater background, it was only natural for her to take over the reins of our murder-mystery nights."

The original mystery was written in 1992 by Wecker's brother and then-partner, Steve, "who has a campy sense of humor, much like the style of the scripts for the Batman TV series" with Adam West, said Dan Wecker. The brothers, both mid-1970s graduates of Oakland Mills High School, conceived the idea when they were working together as caterers.

The Elkridge Furnace Inn is in a 1774 structure off U.S. 1 in Elkridge that was saved by the Weckers from the wrecking ball when the state was building Interstate 195 in 1985. Six homes were demolished along Furnace Avenue, but the abandoned property where the inn is located escaped demolition. In exchange for private restoration of the historic buildings and grounds, the state gave Dan Wecker a 55-year lease.

"When we came to check the property out, our church had been using it as a haunted house for a couple of years because nothing needed to be done to decorate it," said Wecker with a hearty laugh. "There were broken windows and a family of possums living under the front porch. Inside, linen wallpaper hung in strips from the ceiling and crown molding sagged from the walls. This place was, at one time, a luxuriously decorated home and tavern."

After four years of restoration and a stint as the 1991 Decorator Showhouse for Historic Ellicott City Inc., Elkridge Furnace Inn opened with a limited schedule in February 1994 in the midst of a snowstorm. Soon, the Weckers began booking the mystery nights as private parties as a way to increase their fledgling restaurant's patronage.

The brothers decided to go their separate ways two years later, and the mystery nights fell by the wayside for nine years. Then in 2005, after Dan Wecker purchased his brother's script, the inn began holding murder-mystery nights again. Steve Wecker is now co-owner of Iron Bridge Wine Co. in Columbia with another brother, Rob.

Recalled Cassel: "When I started working here as an assistant off-premise catering manager, I began emceeing the murder-mystery nights and found I could do it and do it well."

As popular as it was, the plot of the original mystery was wearing thin for Cassel, who had tired of repeating it after a year or so. So she tweaked it a little to relieve her boredom and to attract repeat customers, who were clamoring for more. After another year of working with the revised edition, she got approval to write her own.

So in bits and pieces last year whenever business was slow, Cassel would dash upstairs to the office or the library and work on the newest mystery, made up of 19 clues that are uncovered by solving riddles. For instance, players might start with "Mother Goose's mouse ran up this" which would lead them to a grandfather's clock. Once there, players find a clue about the identity of the killer.

Cassel's version involves a female victim named Evelyn Chauncey, in lieu of original corpse Jack Hammer. Her initial challenge was to come up with 32 interesting names and then to build a collection of identities for the characters, devise intricate connections between them and develop reasons why each character might have wanted to see Evelyn dead on the night of her engagement party.

With a bachelor's degree in theater and acting from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, Cassel said that writing the mystery was an extension of work she had done in college.

"I once wrote a play as part of my [UMBC] class' work with an elementary school in Baltimore, but it was way too complicated for them," she said. "So I retooled it, and the kids presented it on our last day at the school. I really enjoyed that experience."

The scavenger hunt for clues is preceded by a buffet dinner and then followed by an array of miniature desserts and coffee. Letters are sent to all people making reservations, informing them what characters they will portray and suggesting that they dress in costume for their part, which is optional.

"It's fun to offer these special nights again," said Wecker, who varies the menu each month. "They bring in people who may be intimidated by French food and may not have come to our restaurant otherwise."

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