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  • William Gillette Festival

    November 6 & 7, 1998

    This is a story about a Sherlock Holmes/William Gillette Festival in the great little town of Tryon, North Carolina. The good folks in charge created some really nice souvenirs of the occasion. You might want to check them out.

    Most readers will be aware that William Gillette was the first actor to portray Sherlock Holmes on the American stage. Where did Mr. Gillette live? In Connecticut, you might say. Well, yes, and that's where Gillette Castle still is. However, his first love as a "place to call home" was in the marvelous little town of Tryon, NC. The house he built and lived in is still there and is still being occupied. In commemoration of Mr. Gillette's residence there, the town of Tryon, lead by Jerry Soderquist, decided to inaugurate a festival to honor both Sherlock Holmes and the man who impersonated him on the American stage, William Gillette. The first Sherlock Holmes/William Gillette Festival was held in November of 1997. During 1998, while the second annual Sherlock Holmes/William Gillette Festival was still on the drawing board, Jerry Soderquist contacted us to see if the idea of coming down to Tryon to display our Sherlockian wares during the 1998 Festival might appeal to us. It did. We went and had a ball. Dozens of townsfolk were dressed up in Victorian garb in order to add an air of authenticity to the Festival's formal events. Tryon is some 30 to 45 minutes south of Asheville North Carolina and just a stone's throw from the South Carolina state line. It is nestled comfortably between the Smokies and the Blue Ridge Mountains in an area which the residents (we hesitate to say "natives," because we met no one who hadn't come from somewhere else!) claim is never too hot nor too cold. This just might be true, for in the winter of early '99 when most of the eastern half of the country was blanketed with snow or encrusted in ice, our friends in Tryon told us that they had no more than a dusting of snow! In any event one drives south from Asheville on I-29 then takes a turn west on 178.

    One of the first things one encounters upon entering "Center City" of Tryon is a giant version of a child's rocking horse. The horse's name is "Morris," so he is lovingly referred to as "Morris the horse" (or should that be "Morris the Horris?") Here we see that the Tryon Festival folk had Morris bedecked with a very formal Victorian top hat and pipe for the occasion. As a matter of fact, Morris is a central landmark in Tryon. When asking the local folk for directions, the answer generally comes back prefaced with, "Well, you go to the horse then turn . . . etc."

    Just up the hill from Morris another landmark catches the eye. That is the old Tryon Depot - once the local railway station, but now the Polk County Historical Association's Museum. Trains still run through Tryon, but they now bear little resemblance to the one that William Gillette stepped off in 1890 when he fell in love with the little town. He was so impressed with the town that he bought property there and began to build his house in the following year. The railway-depot-turned-museum now houses many historical artifacts of local interest. To those of us with a Sherlockian frame of mind, the most interesting exhibit will likely be the Calabash pipe (you know that it was Gillette who popularized that curved pipe as a Sherlockian accouterment - Holmes never actually smoked a curved pipe) and the Persian slipper - props which Mr. Gillette actually used on the stage. Just up the hill from the Museum (" . . . turn right at the horse, first left, next right . . .") we found our place of lodging, a lovely B&B called the Melrose Inn, which is a large and very comfortable B&B recently opened by Debbie Gerhardt and Dan Rogers, our hostess and host for the weekend. We are told that the Inn is now being actively managed by Debby and Dan's friends, Marilyn and Vince Guarino.

    It was on the enclosed verandah of the Melrose Inn where Debbie and Dan provided space for us to set up our exhibit of Sherlockian goodies. The verandah is just a step or two from the Melrose Inn's really spacious and cleverly decorated (including a real carousel horse - perhaps one of Morris' colts) dining room. The charm of the whole area was enhanced by the playing of Victorian music through the Inn's excellent stereo system. We have to admit that Victorian music wasn't played constantly because Dan, much to Joel's delight, digressed to a bit of '60's "bop" now and then. By the way, Dan (seen here, with Debbie) is a person of multiple talents! In addition to being an innkeeper, he is a great chef! He asked us to have dinner at the Melrose at the end of our first full day in Tryon and, since we were the only dinner guests in the Inn on that evening, Dan just "whipped up" a delicious dinner of Rock Cornish Game Hen, wild rice, and other goodies (with an appropriately "cob webby" bottle). Dan told us that Vince is even a better chef than he is! Dan is also a remarkably talented sculptor and he has some examples of his work on display at the Melrose Inn. Before he became an innkeeper, Dan worked in the movie industry. He was a "gaffer." If you are like we are and tend to sit through all the credits at the end of a movie, you probably have noticed that someplace way down the list there will be the position of "gaffer" listed. Dan is the only real "gaffer" we have ever met. (What's a "gaffer?" Maybe you can ask Dan in person! Try 828-859-7014.)

    Here is a photo we took of one of the Melrose Inn's comfortable bedrooms. This isn't the room we occupied; ours wasn't nearly this tidy once we moved in, so we took the liberty of photographing one of the unoccupied rooms. Nice, isn't it?

    As you can see from the "Program," the inaugural event was Mrs. Hudson's Breakfast. We were told that this event really got out of hand! They expected to have a small breakfast which could be comfortably housed in the Congregational Church, but before reservations were closed, three sequential seatings had to be arranged to accommodate the almost 200 people who wished to dine with Mrs. Hudson.

    To give you some idea of the seriousness with which the overseers of The Festival involved themselves, take a look at Jerry Soderquist (right), the sparkplug of the Tryon festival, and Marty Ludas poised, in appropriate Victorian garb, at the door of the Tryon Congregational Church to greet hungry breakfasters. The Breakfast was very good and very nicely served by Tryonians all dressed to fill their parts. Mrs. Hudson (who, in real life, is Linda Campbell, a genuine caterer) not only worked in the kitchen herself, in addition to supervising all the food preparation, but she also found time to chat with her guests.

    Afternoon activities involved the conferring of various awards and prizes and a showing of Rathbone's Hound of the Baskervilles film at the Tryon Fine Arts Center. We missed all these events, save those that went on in the dining room of the Melrose Inn, because we were committed to attending the exhibit we had on display adjacent to the dining room. The place was packed with youngsters, who had entered the "Mystery Writers' Contest," and their devoted parents - many of whom were in Victorian costume. Everyone seemed pleased.

    In the evening everyone adjourned to the Tryon Fine Arts Center where we were entertained by a performance of an adaptation of "Silver Blaze" by The Blue Ridge Radio Players. In spite of the fact that The Blue Ridge Radio Players is an amateur group (semi-pro, at most), it contains a collection of very accomplished performers. We can make this judgment with some authority because we have had a great deal of experience with the production of "radio plays" both personally and in association with Old Time Radio Clubs (primarily, the annual Friends of Old Time Radio convention held in Newark, NJ). The "Blue Ridge" group is one of "audio theater's" more accomplished performing groups. We very much enjoyed the show.

    The Festival was very fortunate to have in attendance the world's foremost authority on William Gillette, viz., Henry Zecher. Subsequent to the "radio show," Mr. Zecher both informed and entertained the audience with his most excellent lecture (punctuated with dozens of rare and unusual slides) in which he recounted details of Mr. Gillette's life and career. Please visit a synopsis of Mr. Zecher's presentation in our "Feature Article" section of this web site. There will be a third annual Sherlock Holmes/William Gillette Festival in Tryon in '99. Please check our "News and Events" section for the details of the '99 Festival.

    Click here to take a look at the most attractive collectibles which the Second Annual Sherlock Holmes/William Gillette Festival in Tryon caused to be brought into existence.

    And,of course, we would be terribly remiss if we didn't call your attention to the fact that HRM Queen Victoria, herself, added her Royal blessing to the Tryon affair with her majestic presence.

    Copyright © 1996 by Classic Specialties
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