GOODFIELD — On the night three and a half years ago when Mother Nature dealt the old barn a fatal blow, the cast of Barn II dinner theater was rehearsing “Death by Golf.” They will finally get to perform it during the inaugural show in the brand new barn on Feb. 7.
The opening show at Barn III dinner theater and event center is already sold out, but there are plenty of seats available for other performances. “Death by Golf” runs through March 17 with evening performances on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, and a matinee on Sundays.
It is the first of seven shows in the Barn III’s 2019 season at the new $1.5 million structure. The building replaced the antique round-top Barn where Mary Simon performed and produced shows for nearly 40 years. The design of the new facility is true to the old barn, with materials from the old barn incorporated wherever possible.
“It’s the old barn but it’s 400 times better,” said Simon during a phone interview Wednesday morning. “In the lobby there is lots of wood from the old barn. We recently had a private event for our donors who came out and burned their names into the old barn beams. Wedding couples will also get to burn their names into the beams. And my favorite thing, the mantel over the fireplace is made from the beams that cracked in the storm.”
After much debate between the lawyers, the insurance company, and the experts they hired, it was finally determined that the antique round-top barn was destroyed by a fatal combination of weather events.
“The barn was hit with a wet microburst and a mesocyclone on the southeast corner at the exact same time, which just twisted the barn until it popped,” said Simon.
The new Barn is now up to code with sprinklers, an elevator, and a state of the art sound system, but it still felt like home when Simon and company held their first rehearsal in there Dec. 26.
“It looks like the old barn, and being on the stage feels the same,” said Simon. “The tables are arranged in the same manner, and you can see the mezzanine just like in the old barn. It’s amazing.”
It’s been a long road from disaster to recovery for the Barn. When the insurance company denied Simon’s claim and refused to repair the old structure, she fought back with a lawsuit.
The financial burden was overwhelming, but even more difficult for Simon was the loss of her family, the troupe of performers who had worked with her for many years. Simon was able to reunite the group for shows at Five Points Washington, but the money was not enough to continue long-term, and performances stopped at the end of 2015. Then, just as Simon was about to give up for good, Abby Reel stepped in. A lifelong Congerville resident whose parents were good friends with Simon and her late business partner, Chaunce Conklin, Reel, 37, had been going to performances at the Barn as long as she could remember. She couldn’t bear to see it shut down.
“It’s such an honor to be a part of this project,” said Reel, who was rushing around the theater and training a new box office employee Wednesday morning. “The support from the community has been tremendous. There is so much gratitude that we are keeping the Barn going, and I’m so grateful that I get to be a part of this.”
The former associate director of career development at Illinois Wesleyan University, Reel also had a side-job — a wedding business she started with the 375 chair covers her mother made for her wedding more than 10 years ago. The business grew to include flowers and her husband got ordained to perform wedding ceremonies. Reel’s experience in the wedding industry helped her see the Barn, along with the nearby 1857 brick farmhouse, as the perfect location for destination weddings. She purchased the house and Barn, along with the adjoining outbuildings.
The brick house will serve as an Airbnb as soon as remodeling is complete, and several projects are already running in the outbuilding, newly named the “Studio at the Shed.” Dance, gymnastics, and fitness classes have been held there since January 2017, and long-time Barn company member and choreographer Tamra Challacombe runs the Velocity Dance Center out of the Studio. Numerous weddings have already been booked in the barn, along with three proms, four high school reunions, and several luncheon meetings in 2019. The facility is currently taking bookings for 2020. Visit www.thebarniii.com for more information.
Simon is thrilled that Reel has taken over the reins and is keeping the theater alive. Both women see a rising interest in dinner theater in the younger generation.
“I think the millenials and Generation Z are experience-based and are looking for unique experiences,” said Reel. “We offer a great experience for date night, for people who want to put down their phones and interact.”
At a time when most people her age are settling into retirement, Simon is fired up for a new endeavor.
“I’ve just signed on for another five years,” Simon said. “I see my participation right now as a transition. Abby is the new blood. She and April Bieschke and Tamra Challacombe are the ones running things. If I can get them up to speed on the theater and mentor them, we will rebuild the audience and then I can turn it over to them. Then I will be able to step out and feel like I have done my job.”
Leslie Renken can be reached at 686-3250 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter.com/LeslieRenken, and subscribe to her on Facebook.com/leslie.renken.