Maybe you last heard it from your high school history teacher, but history really can be fun! Contrary to popular belief (in certain quarters), an interest in the past doesn’t have to be boring. 

Here in Oak Park, historic preservationists have been trying to make housing history fun for decades. Whether it’s a sneak peek at a neighborhood home on a housewalk or a night of cocktails and entertainment at a national landmark, raising money for historic preservation takes many forms. 

For its winter fundraiser, the Pleasant Home Foundation is turning history on its head, creating a murder mystery that proves exploring the past, and supporting preservation, can make for an enjoyable evening.

Designed by architect George W. Maher and completed in 1897, Pleasant Home has seen a lot of mysteries in its past, but this year’s mystery is completely fictional. “Victim in Vaudeville,” is the brain child of Sarah Najera, Pleasant Home Foundation program director, who planned the two evenings of murder mystery fun by writing an original play meant for audience participation. Najera thought a murder mystery party would be a great fit for the Prairie-style mansion, so she set about creating a fictional mystery, set in historic Oak Park.

“I like to host events that are appropriate to the early time period of the home. The location of the Marion Street Cheese Market building was once the Warrington Opera House, which hosted vaudeville shows. I was inspired by this bit of Oak Park history since my own grandfather was in vaudeville. “Victim in Vaudeville” takes place in 1907 and is based on a travelling vaudeville troupe which is playing at the Warrington Opera House and staying at the Pleasant Home.”

Sleuthing

Najera won’t give away important plot lines, but she does reveal the basic outline. “One of the members of the troupe has killed the manager,” she explains. “The audience knows this fact when they walk in the door. All of the troupe members have motives and back stories, but it will be up to audience members to go through the clues, ask the right questions, and try to discover who the murderer is.”

Troupe members include a composer/piano player, a dancer, a magician and a father-and-daughter comical singing duo. A sixth actor plays the detective. As guests arrive, they will be treated to snippets of acts by each of the performers. Then they can take part in a question-and-answer session with the detective before visiting with the suspects in various rooms of Pleasant Home.

Najera notes that guests will be given a set of clues at the outset. If they want more clues, they will need to interact with other guests. 

“In order to help the process of mingling,” she said, “we’ll have wine, beer and passed hors d’oeuvres. At the end of the evening, each guest will get to vote for the suspect they believe is the murderer, and we’ll come into the great hall for the big reveal.”

The performers are artists from the community. “Thomas Holmes is our piano player, Lisa Green is a dancer with Momenta in Oak Park, Kevin Bry is an actor and writer as well as an attorney in Oak Park, and Jeanette Andrews is a turn-of-the-century magician who has performed at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Actor and screenwriter Michael Bassett, and my daughter Amalia Najera, who sings and dances, will play the father-daughter duo. The detective character will have a set script, but everyone else will have to do some improv. They are armed with all the knowledge and back stories that I have provided them, but there’s a ton of preparation. They have to be ready to answer whatever questions the audience comes up with.”

Najera hopes the two evenings, each capped at about 50 participants, will be a hit. 

“If nothing else,” she said, “we have amazing, steam-punk inspired costumes, a fun performance and great food in a wonderful atmosphere.”

Pleasant Home mysteries

Heidi Ruehle-May, executive director, said she is often asked about ghosts at the Pleasant Home. 

“Everyone always asks us if we have a ghost, and to the best of my knowledge, I always say no.”

The only mysterious death she is aware of occurred during the tenure of the Mills family, the second owners of the home. A 1913 Oak Leaves story details the death of one of Mrs. Mills’ servants. Nellie Surgrue was reported to have been cleaning her dress with gasoline in the home’s garage when the dress caught fire. A passerby saw her run from the structure and extinguished the flames on her dress, but six physicians were unable to save her life. The fire destroyed the stables and garage of the home, then valued at $40,000.

While an actual murder may not have occurred in the house, Ruehle-May said the home has seen its share of mystery and intrigue. 

“We have scrapbooks full or news articles relating to the original families, the Farsons and the Mills. During Prohibition, alcohol was stashed here, and like any old house, there’s always information that we are still uncovering.”

Ruehle-May added that such events are a part of the historic home’s lore, which can be discovered with a visit. The fundraising events are part of a deliberate push to relate the home’s past to the present. 

“Every project for the last few years,” she said, “has been planned to intentionally be of the era of the home’s early owners or tied into the home in some way.”

Pleasant Home mysteries

Heidi Ruehle-May, executive director, said she is often asked about ghosts at the Pleasant Home. 

“Everyone always asks us if we have a ghost, and to the best of my knowledge, I always say no.”

The only mysterious death she is aware of occurred during the tenure of the Mills family, the second owners of the home. A 1913 Oak Leaves story details the death of one of Mrs. Mills’ servants. Nellie Surgrue was reported to have been cleaning her dress with gasoline in the home’s garage when the dress caught fire. A passerby saw her run from the structure and extinguished the flames on her dress, but six physicians were unable to save her life. The fire destroyed the stables and garage of the home, then valued at $40,000.

While an actual murder may not have occurred in the house, Ruehle-May said the home has seen its share of mystery and intrigue. 

“We have scrapbooks full or news articles relating to the original families, the Farsons and the Mills. During Prohibition, alcohol was stashed here, and like any old house, there’s always information that we are still uncovering.”

Ruehle-May added that such events are a part of the historic home’s lore, which can be discovered with a visit. The fundraising events are part of a deliberate push to relate the home’s past to the present. 

“Every project for the last few years,” she said, “has been planned to intentionally be of the era of the home’s early owners or tied into the home in some way.”

Details

At press time, the Friday, Feb. 26 Pleasant Home murder mystery was sold out, but tickets remained for the show on Thursday, Feb. 25. Tickets cost $45 for non-members and $40 for Pleasant Home Foundation members and can be purchased at www.pleasanthome.org. Doors open at 7 p.m. and the event begins at 7:30.

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