The butler has never done it although there have been more than 60 plays composed by a couple of Wheeling men who have anchored a theatre company in the city of Wheeling for the past 20 years.
Butch Maxwell and Bert Furioli have written and acted in productions that have parodied Shakespeare’s plays, traditional cartoons, Hollywood movies, holiday scenarios, and social situations, and soon a presidential election cycle will be in the spotlight when the 21st season begins later this month.
But before that debut, Mystery Theatre Unlimited will celebrate the 20th anniversary by resurrecting the very first production offered, “Speakeasy, Die Hard,” that premiered at the former Riverside Restaurant in downtown Wheeling.
“I’ve never done anything for two decades other than be a father,” Maxwell said. “When we first started this, we really thought it would last maybe a few months. A year, if we were lucky, and that’s because we thought it could just be a bar trend for a bit like Karaoke or something similar to that.
“But this concept has outlasted all of that, and, as it turned out, it didn’t become one of those trends, and there are a lot of people who continue to come see every show we do,” he continued. “The former Riverside Restaurant was our original venue, but we’ve now done shows in a lot of different places around the Wheeling area.”
Maxwell had nothing to do with the former Riverside hosting the very first performance, and that is because it was Wheeling resident Gregg Boury who was contacted by a national company with a franchise located in Pittsburgh.
“Gregg, who is the son of the late George Boury, was the manager of the Riverside at the time, and he was contacted by someone in Connecticut that worked for a company that was doing these shows in a lot of different areas of the country,” Maxwell explained. “Mostly the company was going into spaghetti warehouses, but since there was no such thing in the Wheeling area, they reached out to Gregg.
“Gregg knew some people who were involved in the theatre in this area, and Vera Barton-Caro was one of them, and she and I had had done several plays for Towngate at that time,” he continued. “She asked me if I wanted to collaborate, and I was willing to give it a shot. So that’s when we gathered the actors, and the company gave us the scripts, and we took it from there. So, if not for Gregg Boury, this company wouldn’t have happened, but here we are now 20 years later.”
This evening at the Stifel Fine Arts Center on National Road near the Dimmeydale neighborhood, Mystery Theatre Unlimited will offer a one-time performance of that very first production, “Speakeasy, Die Hard,” a play set in the 1920s that features a Mafia Godfather, his girlfriend, and a few other characters that swirl around the activity and humor involved with organized crime.
The 7 p.m. performance will feature the original cast, including Maxwell, Barton, Caro, Dee Gregg, Frank Wilson, and Michael Moran, and not only will attendees experience the show and a dinner catered by Ye Olde Alpha, but a wine tasting of three different vines also will take place during the evening. Reservations can be acquired by calling 304-242-7700, and additional information can be acquired by visiting the company’s Facebook event page.
“The comedy in the shows is most important, but there is a mystery, and because it’s very interactive, the people who attend get to solve that mystery,” Maxwell said. “There are clues on the table, and at the beginning, the actors come out in-character, and they interact, and that’s the part of the show that is totally unscripted. The show is highly scripted, but not the very beginning, and that’s what really what separates us from similar murder mystery companies.
“But Bert and I have learned how to put a pace in place during our shows, and that’s why there’s a rhythm to the performances, and there’s also an interactivity during our shows, too,” he continued. “And some of those who attend can be selected, if they want to be, to play a part in the show. And then, in the end, the people in the crowd get to guess who committed the crime after questioning the survivors.”
Twenty years ago, however, the local folks had nothing to do with the content of the shows, and although it was exciting during the first few shows, the infatuation ended as Christmas 1996 approached.
“During that time when we were working for that company, they did some crazy things like fly some of us to the other cities to fill in for someone who couldn’t be there,” Maxwell recalled. “That couldn’t have been very cost effective for that company, but we were happy to go; I know that.
“But that affiliation with that company only lasted about a year because the first couple of shows that they sent us to were great, but then they sent us one to do during the Christmas season, and it was lame. It just wasn’t funny at all,” he continued. “That’s when I had the audacity to call the parent company to tell them that we didn’t like it and that we thought we could write a better show. So that’s what we did.”
Furioli wasn’t involved in the very beginning but after Maxwell’s phone call to Connecticut, Butch’s next call was to his buddy Bert.
“He and I had written some comedy shows before that,” he said. “That’s when Bert and I decided we could adapt a play that we had written for another performance into a Christmas show. So we had Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy all gathered at the North Pole, and that’s when a murder took place.
“The people with the company wanted to see what we had developed, and then that company actually bought it from us to distribute around the country,” he said. “They agreed ours was much better than what they sent us, and after our one-year obligation was up, we decided to dump the company and start doing it ourselves.”
Since then, Maxwell has set a state record and established a new era of the arts in the Mountain State.
“I don’t think Butch would ever tell you this, but it is a fact; Butch is the most produced playwright in the history of theatre in the state of West Virginia. That’s a pretty big deal,” said Barton-Caro. “It doesn’t seem like 20 years have gone by since we started this, so I think it’s amazing,” Barton-Caro said. “I really thought it would last only a couple of years, and I didn’t know what would happen with the company after I decided to leave.
“But since then Butch has really carried the torch to keep this company alive, and it is the only paid theatre gig in this region, and that’s sort of a big deal,” she continued. “But it’s not much, so this is really a labor of love, and a lot of fun.”
That’s why, Maxwell admitted, he’s continued, and even though there’s no profit, he surrenders his rare free time to the writing, acting, and producing an average of three new shows per year, and this guy is willing to portray both male and female roles if necessary. Remember Jane Hathaway on the “Beverly Hillbillies”?
“It’s just fun. It’s so much fun. It affords me the opportunity to be creative, to write something that’s actually going to be performed. That’s the bottom line,” Maxwell admitted. “And another part of it is because when we do these shows, I look around, and I am amazed by the talent that I am surrounded by. So many people have played such important roles that have allowed this to keep going, and I am so grateful to each and every one of them.”
Maxwell, of course, is not finished just yet, and “Dead of State” is set to debut Sept. 28 at River City Restaurant on the corner of 14th and Main streets in downtown Wheeling. It’s a musical, and there’s a murder, of course, and tickets are $20 per person.
“I get the chance to play the former First Lady, Hellary Quinton, and of course, she is running for president now against Donald Grump,” explained Barton-Caro. “And we promise that we will be making fun of both of them equally.
“After being there at the very beginning, I realize that working, having small kids, and also being a part of this company was just too much, so I stepped away for the, ‘Mommy years,’” she said. “I filled in every once in a while through the years, but now I am back and will be part of the company’s 21st season.”
“Star Bores – Episode VI ½ : The Farce Awakens” was one of Mystery Theatre’s productions, and so were, “Coleslaw & Order,” “Slay Ride: Fright Christmas,” and, “Survivor on Killigan’s Island.” There have been more than 60 shows, and Maxwell has each of the scripts archived.
So which one is his favorite?
“My favorite show is always the one I am working at the time. I’m asked that question, so right now my favorite show is, ‘Dead of State,’” Maxwell said. “And it’s equally mean to both sides, and I am very eager to get this one out.
“I mean, we couldn’t let this opportunity to pass us by, so that’s why we decided to pick this storyline at this time,” he said. “And it’s really, really funny because the people involved in real life lend themselves to it. I think most people would agree with me, too.”
(Photos provided by Mystery Theatre Unlimited)