Murder in the mountains

Dinner theater company celebrates 30 years in Gold Hill

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Cast of a Til Death Do Us Party murder mystery dinner theater at Gold Hill.
Courtesy of Til Death Do Us Party

My first thought was the slender, jet-black critter with the white-tipped tail prancing through Gold Hill — the historic mining town 11 miles northwest of Boulder — had to be a runaway puppy. On closer inspection, however, I discovered it was actually a fox, a rare color variant of the red fox, I later learned. In medieval times, superstitious villagers believed the sight of a black fox to be a bad omen. And maybe they were on to something, as an hour after crossing paths with the animal, I’d be standing over a dead body.

While foul play was indeed involved, it wasn’t anything I needed to report to police. Fortunately, it was all part of Murder 1876: Dead in the Water, an interactive dinner theater by Til Death Do Us Party productions.

For the past 30 years, spouses Maggie Simms and David Brigham have orchestrated more than 1,000 mock homicides at the Bluebird Lodge, next-door to the critically-acclaimed Gold Hill Inn, both owned by the Finn family since 1962. You couldn’t pick a better spot for a murder (staged or otherwise) than this remote, picturesque and slightly rough-around-the-edges village nestled at 8,300 feet.

Established in its current site in 1872 (after a devastating fire in the original 1859 location), Gold Hill faced the typical boom and bust cycle common to nearly all Rocky Mountain mining towns, in its heyday growing as big as 1,500 and today stabilizing at under 300 residents.

In 1920, Chicago-based women’s advocate Jean Wirt Sherwood bought the town’s only hotel, a three-story log building built in 1872 called The Wentworth. Renaming it Bluebird Lodge, it soon became the new, roomier digs for Boulder’s Bluebird Cottage, a vacation destination for single women. These days, the nine-room lodge can be rented out for family gatherings or events, but on the night I visited, it was the scene of a crime.

Nearly 30 guests — a dozen or so dressed in Victorian garb, complete with frilly blouses and suit vests, bonnets and top hats — mingled in the old-fashioned parlor, seated on antique furniture or standing on the oriental rug, sipping glasses of Champagne and nibbling from platters of hors d’oeuvres as the buzz of anticipation grew palpable.

Attendees included a family of four with a teenage girl, a group of a dozen chatty middle-aged women, and several couples, their ages ranging from about 30 to 70. Most were locals, though one couple hailed from Brooklyn, New York, while a 30-something woman in an old-West boustier — who claimed to see 60 plays a year — had traveled all the way from northern California. I got into a conversation with a young man training at a local police academy who feigned amusement when I lamely asked if he was there to research crime.

Before long, a middle-aged woman in a black gown and veil strode into the room and a hush fell over the crowd. Bespectacled and empearled, she announced herself as Cornelia Baker-Nelson-Holloway or “Nellie” (played by Carol Lopez), proprietress of the Lodge. Punctuating her statements by tapping the floor with a cane, she revealed how she was mourning the untimely death of her third husband, working in a mention of her “long stiff staff” (the first of frequent sexual innuendos sprinkled throughout the night). She informed us she was awaiting three former members of a defunct Shakespearean acting troupe holding its reunion a decade after a tragic accident at sea killed off most of its players.

Nellie then split us up into five teams and, moments later, the characters sauntered into the room one by one to introduce themselves. We met ex-troupe member, indecorous blowhard, and candidate for Lieutenant Governor of the soon-to-be State of Colorado, Manchester Eaton Warwick (Michael Vasicek); the comical drunkard maid Rosie Monroe (Maggie Simms); J.W.  Cabine (Sean Guderian), a card dealer at the local saloon whose degenerative disease forced him to walk with a cane; the prim and regal Margaret Katherine Blakemore (Julie Excell), former female lead for the troupe; the distinguished and charming Colonel Harlan Samuel Anders (David Brigham), war hero and saloon owner; and the troupe’s once-ingenue Ophelia Payne (Jessica Troppmann), now fallen from grace and performing in a traveling circus.

Seated in two separate dining rooms, we munched salads as the players schmoozed about, sharing their often unflattering thoughts about the town (“It’s in the middle of nowhere.”) and the other characters (“She’s a two-bit whore!”). Guests played along, asking blunt questions to pry into their pasts, most of which were answered candidly, a few slyly avoided.

Soon, Nellie stormed into the dining room to announce there had been a murder. Each group was led back into the parlor to view the grisly scene, gather clues, and then return to the table to compare notes.

Dinner was served — stuffed bell pepper, wild rice and sweet potatoes for me, beef or chicken with vegetables for the others — while the actors circulated some more. Chatter mounted to a fever pitch as guests grilled performers with an intensity unbefitting polite dinner conversation. Luckily, at Til Death Do Us Party events, such behavior is not only condoned, but encouraged.

I won’t give anything else away, but I can promise the storyline is packed with enough twists and turns, red herrings and hidden clues to satisfy — and confound — even a horror fiction writer such as myself. Though our team was confident we had unraveled the mystery, it turned out we only got things half right, and, alas, the winning prize went to another team.

If you’ve never been exposed to dinner theater, it’s nothing like sitting passively in an audience peeping voyeuristically at the actors on stage. To the contrary, the fourth wall comes crashing down and the more engaged you are with players and teammates, the more satisfying the experience — and the more likely you are to catch the killer.

After the nearly three-hour affair had ended, several guests gathered at the Inn to talk with one another and the performers, all of whom had shed their costumes and personas. Perhaps the best testament to their acting skills was how jarring it was to meet the ordinary people behind their larger-than-life characters.

Conversing with Maggie and David — who met doing classical theater and married 28 years ago — I learned that each of the 26 different plays they’ve written (with help from co-writer Julie Excell) take place during a specific year and include authentic period dress. David’s love of the past is the driving force behind the many tie-ins to Colorado, U.S. and world history, while Maggie handles the costuming.

Sometimes they even manage to work in a bit of modern-day satire. For instance, one of their plays is loosely based on a historic event in 1905 when Colorado had three governors in a day. In Maggie and David’s version, the winning candidate was an uncouth loudmouth with an Eastern European wife who defeated a strident and no-nonsense woman who simply couldn’t understand why people didn’t like her.

Before I headed down the mountain, I made sure to accost the soon-to-be-police officer one last time, asking if he had learned anything he could incorporate into his future career. “Not at all,” he told me through a polite smile.

Even if Til Death Do Us Party can’t teach you how to crack a real-life case, it may help you solve a far more common mystery: how to entertain yourself for an evening without Netflix.

Murder 1876: Dead in the Water runs again on Sept. 14, 21, 22 and October 12, 20, 26, but — sorry to be the bearer of bad news — the shows are already sold out, though there is a waiting list. Maggie, David and crew start things up again in the spring (check goldhillinn.com for dates), but if you can’t wait until then, Til Death do Us Party arranges private murders for groups or businesses, as well as birthdays and Christmas by calling 303-473-0811.