Esther's Follies Meets Scooby-Doo in The Haunting of the Tavern
In the Follies' new murder mystery comedy, chasing Emily the ghost leads to some real high jinkies!
Is that the Mystery Machine parked in front of the Tavern?
Could the flower-powery van favored by a certain trouble-prone Great Dane and gang have found its way to the heart of Texas?
C'mon, it was inevitable that those teen sleuths would wind up in Austin eventually. After unmasking crotchety old greedheads pretending to be ghosts or ghouls or eerie what-have-yous for a half-century now – yes, Mystery Inc. made its Saturday morning debut in Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! exactly 50 years ago last month – those "meddling kids" must be running low on towns with paranormal puzzles to solve. And as is clear from Austin's numerous ghost tours and the spook-seeking podcast The Night Owl, the capital city isn't lacking for spaces that are haunted.
One of the most storied is the Tavern, the Alpine-style building that's been standing at 12th & Lamar since 1916. Strange occurrences there are commonplace: footsteps when no one's there; TVs turning on by themselves; objects that go missing, then are found on another floor; hair pulled by an unseen hand; mysterious shadows caught on video; even spectral appearances. The ghostly goings-on are generally ascribed to Emily, a 12-year-old girl said to have been murdered on the site in Prohibition days, when the building housed a grocery downstairs and a speakeasy-slash-brothel up top. Some say Emily was the daughter of a prostitute, killed by one of her mom's johns in a rage; others say she was older and the prostitute herself. Whichever the case, there's plenty there for ghost hunters to investigate.
So are the folks on the hunt in this Austin landmark the same ones who've been chasing phantoms since Nixon was in office? They sure look like them. The fellow sporting the green V-neck T and chin fur, who could that be but Norville "Shaggy" Rogers? And that long-sleeved orange turtleneck, red miniskirt, and circular specs are signature Velma Dinkley. And Scooby looks right, too, but, um, he's closer in size to Scrappy-Doo, and his fur is more like felt.
These aren't the true Mystery Inc.-sters, but, in the time-honored tradition of the gang's adventures, impostors. But they're only out to fool us because that's their business. They're members of Esther's Follies, moonlighting as Daphne, Fred, Velma, Shaggy, and Scoob for a new comedy show that plays on the Tavern's legendary history of things going bump in the night. It's called The Haunting of the Tavern, and it's a murder mystery comedy at which the audience gets to vote for whodunit while enjoying a three-course dinner in the process.
Why Esther's at the Tavern? Because it belongs to Follies founders Michael Shelton and Shannon Sedwick, who acquired the bar in 2018 – make that re-acquired, as the pair had run the Tavern for a couple of years some four decades back. It's just one of several local spots they've operated over the years: Liberty Lunch, Buffalo Grille, Ritz Theatre, Patsy's Cowgirl Cafe, and the latest addition, Star Seeds Cafe. The two are drawn to spaces with a whiff of Austin history about them, places that hold special meaning for people in the city, that they can give another life to. Back in 1979, Shelton put considerable effort into restoring the architectural flourishes that Hugo Kuehne had lifted from German beer halls for the building, such as the eaves with trimmings by master woodcarver Peter Mansbendel.
With the Tavern back in their hands, Sedwick and Shelton are again sprucing up the space and also looking for ways to diversify the Tavern's draw beyond sports on big-screen TVs. Earlier this year, they instituted Magical Mondays, a monthly series of magic shows with Nick Lewin, and Wicked Wednesdays, which combines screening a scary movie with a horror film trivia contest. (Emily is said to serve as co-host.) In looking for a way to liven up the weeknight between, Sedwick recalled a dinner theatre show they'd cooked up for Patsy's back in 2007: Bubba and Babe's Backwoods Texas Wedding, a Lone Star spin on the immersive theatre hit Tony n' Tina's Wedding. It proved too ambitious to last long, but there was some there there. What would be similarly appealing but smaller in scale? Then, Sedwick hit on another Eighties/Nineties stage sensation: Shear Madness, a comic murder mystery where the audience votes for the killer. "We'd been wanting to do something with the ghost, because everyone's intrigued by Emily," she says, "so a murder mystery just sounded like fun."
With a concept in mind, Sedwick turned to Shaun Branigan, a 20-year veteran of the Follies, for some story pitches. The one with the most appeal – and no doubt the best opportunities for laughs – had Scooby and the gang showing up at the Tavern to investigate the ghost of Emily, then being caught up in a murder. Branigan had gotten hooked on the cartoon early on, "before they introduced Scrappy, back when Daphne was still helpless and it was really sexist," he says. "This was right in my wheelhouse."
Integral to the show's plot is Dame Karla Hempstead, a grand Austinite who, says Branigan, "had a deep fascination with both the supernatural and pontoon boat safety." She insists that the reading of her will be held in her favorite spooky spot, the Tavern. The audience is cast as Dame Karla's family and friends, occasionally getting grilled by cast members as their characters search for clues. As the story plays out, Branigan drops surprises about Scooby and company that Hanna-Barbera never let you know, revelations that'll have you yelling, "Zoinks!" (Note to H-B Legal Department: It's just a parody. Please don't sue.)
Branigan doesn't put his script on the level of an Agatha Christie novel – or even a Scooby-Doo cartoon: "Mystery-wise, it's no great shakes, but as a comedy, it's pretty funny," adding, "The Scooby stuff writes itself." Making sure every Scooby gag lands is a roster of Follies regulars past and present – Emily Cawood, Patrick King, Sedwick as Dame Karla (naturally), Adam Rodriguez as puppet Scoob (who gets to say way more than "Ruh-roh"), and Branigan as Shaggy – with improv master Shannon McCormick as a ringer. Branigan hadn't wanted to be in the show, thinking that writing it and building the Scooby puppet gave him plenty to do. But, he says, "I'm tall and skinny and goony with a giant Adam's apple. I was built to play Shaggy, so I may as well."
With all that and chef Johnny Romo's menu offering his own take on Scooby snacks, The Haunting of the Tavern sounds like Scoobalicious fun.
But what will Emily herself think? She is reported to be quite the prankster, so she ought to approve. During the show, don't be surprised if you hear some laughter from a corner where there's no one to be seen.
The Haunting of the Tavern will be performed 7pm Tuesdays, Oct. 29, Nov. 12, and Dec. 3 & 17, at the Tavern, 922 W. 12th. For more info, visit www.tavernaustin.com/haunting-of-the-tavern.