Streetside: Surviving the Mystery Train's murder-mystery dinner theater 

There was a time, and it was not that long ago, when the promise of a free meal was enough to persuade people to accompany me to just about any event, no matter how stupid. But lately, everybody seems to have a little more money and a lot less time. My offers are now regularly declined. Nobody wants to hang out with ol' Dave anymore? Fine. You can all burn in hell. I'll go it alone without you assholes.

That's been my attitude recently, anyway. But it's not always a sustainable position. Last Friday afternoon, I decided that this column would be about the Mystery Train, a local murder-mystery dinner-theater company. The group was staging its latest performance, Baldknobbers and Backstabbers, at the Golden Ox that evening. I had always kind of wanted to attend a mystery dinner, possibly because of a Saved by the Bell episode I once watched. I had two tickets. There was a steak dinner from the Golden Ox involved. How hard could it be to rustle up a date to this thing?

I blew it on my first attempt by texting the invitation. In doing so, I forfeited the element of surprise: A text affords sufficient time to engineer a believable excuse. Lesson learned. I phoned my next friend. I cast the lure of the free meal. He was intrigued but sensed that a catch was forthcoming.

"It's this thing at the Golden Ox, kind of a performance," I said.

"What do you mean, a performance?"

"It's this thing called the Mystery Train," I said. "It's like you watch an Agatha Christie–type of murder-mystery thing while you eat."

"You mean like a murder-mystery dinner?" he said. Then he laughed. I didn't care for the tone of his laugh. "You're trying to get me to go to a murder-mystery dinner?"

"Sort of," I said. I tried a different tack. "What are you gonna do, hang out in Westport like you have for the last 400 weekends of your life? You're not curious at all about what happens at a murder-mystery dinner?"

"Maybe a little, I guess," he said. "But there is no way in hell I'm going to a murder-mystery dinner with you."

"God damn you," I growled, and hung up.

I dialed up another friend, a fan of musical theater. "How'd you like to have a dinner ... to die for?" I said. He cut me off with an excuse about his wife getting back in town. They'd already made dinner plans. Then he suggested that I invite the friend I'd called before him.

Running out of time and aware that most everybody who works in print media these days could use a hot, free meal, I tried Ashford, a co-worker. He wrinkled his nose at the murder-mystery part, but I could sense that he was hungry, and I seized on this weakness. I downplayed the theater part, emphasized the steak (repeating words like "juicy" and "succulent") and bought him a beer at the Bulldog.

"Are we going to have to, like, be part of the performance?" he asked. "Will I have to do any public speaking?"

"No way," I said. "We just sit, eat and watch the show. I bet we get a big, buttery baked potato with it, too. Plus that big, free steak ..."

"All right, fine," he said, and off we went to the West Bottoms.

I was lying about the public-speaking part. I wasn't sure how interactive the dinner would be. I was hoping for a passive experience, kind of like seeing a movie at Alamo Drafthouse, except maybe the actors occasionally wade out into the crowd a little bit. I was disabused of that notion shortly after walking into the Golden Ox, an iconic restaurant that has lived through the boom and bust and now, arguably, the renaissance of the West Bottoms. We walked past a half-empty dining room of old couples and men in cowboy hats — old-school cattleman's steakhouse is the general vibe at the Ox; there's no other place remotely like it in Kansas City — and into a partitioned backroom, where the dinner was being held.

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