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Bissell Dinner Theater Solves ‘Murders’ Over Dinner

  • Cheng Hong
  • Zhang Songlin

The Bissell Mansion Restaurant and Dinner Theater in the Midwestern city of St. Louis, Missouri promises visitors the chance to "get away with murder" with friends and family while enjoying dinner. Elaine Lu narrates.

"Now ladies and gentlemen, my name is Elliot Mess," says the actor to the dinner guests. “ Well, my mother is a mess, my father is a mess, and I am proud to say I am a mess. Hey, you look like a mess too."

Elliot Mess' real name is Mike Missouri Smith. He is an actor and writer at the Bissell Mansion Restaurant and Dinner Theater. “I have been performing for 35 years, written 16 plays that were performed here,” he says.

The dinner theater is located in the historic Bissell mansion, the oldest home in St. Louis. The Bissells were a well-known family of military leaders, including the famous American Revolutionary War General Daniel Bissell.

Built in the 1820s, the mansion sits on a vast stretch of land over 600 hectares in size. Almost two centuries later, it was given new life when it became home to St. Louis' original interactive dinner theater in the ‘70s.

Barbara Schepker is the manager of the dinner theater. She says, "We were the first restaurant dinner theater in the whole United States. It was our idea, our whole concept, now there are murder mystery dinner theaters all over the country."

The dinner theater boasts its own cast of dedicated actors. Missouri Smith is one of them.

The show tonight is about a long ago murder in St. Louis.

"In the 1920s, it was illegal to drink,” begins Smith. “So in the city of St. Louis, there were a lot of bootleggers, different bootlegger gangs. We created a fictitious gang of female bootleggers called ‘dapper flappers.’ When our show starts, the leader of the gang, Norma Lee Vicious, has been brutally murdered down here in the wine cellar."

In the show, Smith is the funny FBI agent Elliot Mess and Florence Achenbach plays his partner Miss Betty Bustem. Suspects come from the audience. Everyone will help the actors solve the crime.

Scripts in hand, the customers at the dinner tables are excited about their moment to shine over food and wine. The four-course dinner is served between acts of the play

Achenbach enjoys being an actor. "The best part about it is that I get to be somebody else for a few hours. Forget about my nine to five [job], when I am an editor. This way I can be somebody.”

Upstairs and downstairs, the restaurant can entertain more than 100 people, while two casts of actors are performing at the same time. Among them is Morgan Hatch, who returned to his hometown from Hollywood to enjoy the dinner theater acting experience.

"When you walk in the room, your mind just explodes, because you (have) so many things going on. You are trying to remember your lines. You are trying to remember where you should walk. You are trying to listen to anything clever coming from the audience, and sift out the bad stuff. And hang onto the good stuff. You are going to answer to them, and ad lib, so your mind just explodes,” he says.

Every diner receives a part in the play when they arrive. It does not matter if they have a line to read from the script or not, it is the spirit of participation, the laughter, and the unique dining experience that draw people to the dinner theater.

Birthday parties, bridal showers, or whatever the occasion, the theater managers say it would be a crime to miss out on this much fun.

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