Davenport’s Renwick Mansion Makes History As A Spot For Comedy To ‘Clue’ And More
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After Covid claimed 96 Central High School’s planned spring 2020 musical, “Anything Goes,” drama director Thea IntVeld took that “anything goes” attitude when planning for the fall semester.
For the murder mystery “Clue,” she not only thought outside of the box. IntVeld thought outside the school, and their gorgeous Performing Arts Center, which opened in 2017. She looked at a 5-minute drive east, to the historic Renwick Mansion, 901 Tremont Ave.
“It would be easy to work around Covid, and I was still thinking of doing it on stage, but I didn’t want to spend a bunch of money building a set,” the director said recently. “It dawned on me we have that big mansion, the Renwick, and I thought wouldn’t it be cool to do it there?”
The owners Dane and Sarah Moulton, who have two teens who attend Central, agreed to let the school use it for free and film there for a planned Dec. 12 livestreamed production.
“That took my costs down immensely. It’s better because it’s going to be more like a film instead of a play, but the downside is, I can’t keep them six feet apart in that mansion,” IntVeld said.
Most scenes, the entire group is together at the same time, she said. They have been wearing double masks, but when they film the show, they’ll wear clear ones.
After virtual rehearsals and a couple days outside at the Central parking lot, Nov. 11 was the first time they rehearsed at the Renwick, which they did again the next night, Nov. 12, in costume. They have virtual rehearsals on Google Meet. Because of Covid, every cast member has an understudy, who has to learn all the lines and blocking.
“We don’t want anybody to get sick and then have to shut down the show,” IntVeld said. “We already had that. One of my main characters
has been in quarantine for two weeks and her understudy has been running her part. Even I have an assistant director, Jo Vasquez. She is equal to me; she’ll run rehearsals as much as I do. So if I were to get sick, she takes over and vice versa, so there’s nobody if they get sick, we can’t do the show.”
The students involved in “Clue” are thrilled with the extended field trip, to work remotely but still in person.
“It’s definitely really special with corona and everything,” said Sara Holtam, a senior and crew manager. “A lot of things are shut down; it’s definitely bringing a new element and everything. It’s not just filming on a stage.”
“It definitely adds an authenticity to have it there,” said senior Giovanni Macias, who’s tech crew manager and part of the filming. A spring-break internship he did with Fresh Films his sophomore year will help in this production, where he leaned about filming and video equipment.
“I already heard good things when I was calling shots — I was using terms the videographer didn’t learn until he was in college,” Macias said of working at Renwick. He’s also been part of the Creative Arts Academy since 8th grade.
Emilia Gonzales, a senior, plays Mrs. Peacock and adores being at the 1877 mansion, which is a popular venue for weddings, receptions, comedy shows and concerts.
“I am such a lover of old buildings, that type of architecture,” she said. “It’s really amazing to be there. My parents had their renewal vows there. I’m scheduled to have my graduation party there.”
“We were planning on having a big set,” Gonzales said of “Clue” at Central. “It’s weird going from having a huge set, not to have any set at all.
It’s interesting, fun to see how we’re using the space and figuring everything out.
“It’s unusual to have an understudy for every part,” which is new, she added. “At any moment anyone could be gone. This is definitely the most freshmen we’ve had in the show at the same time.”
“I’ve done so many shows in the past; it’s like nothing I’ve done before, doing it at the mansion,” Gonzales said. She’s the one who tested positive for Covid over two weeks ago, after her dad tested positive.
“It was a crazy two weeks, but it didn’t really affect my health in any way,” she said. “I had mostly cold symptoms; they just went away. I was pretty lucky. I currently can’t smell or taste anything, so that’s frustrating…Just to be absolutely sure, I keep far away from everybody, wear a mask at all times. We’ve been mostly virtual, to keep everybody safe.”
Freshman Morgan Ford is Emilia’s understudy, so got to rehearse when she was quarantining.
“I just had lot of fun being with the rest of the cast,” Morgan said. “It’s really cool being at the mansion. It’s really big; honestly, it’s super cool. I just love theater, I’ve always wanted to be in theater.”
“This is super different for Central or any school for that matter,” said senior Madeline Sottos, student director for “Clue.” “It’s a new learning experience for everybody. From the director perspective, how we incorporate weird little quirks of the mansion into the show.
“It’s exciting to think of us doing it more like a movie,” she said. “That pressure is taken off. The cast doesn’t have to be in character the entire time – they only have to be in character when they’re on screen.”
“It’s cool, really fun,” said senior Asher Myer, who plays Mr. Green. “I feel like a real professional. Ms. IntVeld, it was really smart of her to do it this way. It’s been really fun to go around the mansion, feel like you’re in a mystery.”
He’s been to a couple weddings at Renwick, and since there’s not much furniture in the first-floor rooms, the students are more relaxed, he said. “The owners have been great, let us do whatever.”
IntVeld’s senior son, Hayden, is president of Central’s drama club and plays Wadsworth the butler.
“It’s a pretty unique one this year,” he said of “Clue,” noting he’s been in shows all four years, including last year’s “25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” as Leaf Coneybear.
“If I had been in another high school that decided to give up and cancel, I’d be really bummed as a senior, but I’m so proud of my mom and my department for stepping it up,” Hayden said. “Trying to work with Covid, keeping everybody as safe as possible, while doing a real-life production. I’m very excited about the opportunity to do our show.”
“It is so incredible – that mansion is so beautiful,” he said of the Renwick. “To be able to do show, where you’re dining in an actual vintage, amazing dining room is so special. To go
throughout the mansion, and run up and down the stairs, go through all the rooms, the giant chandeliers – it’s really incredible. It’s not like any of these high schools would be able to do otherwise.
“It’s something I think is really different, because all these high school level actors get to have a real film experience and a film crew,” Hayden said. “It’s definitely amazing to be able to do at the Renwick.”
“The Renwick Mansion owners are so nice to let us do it for free, and they’ve been so nice and welcoming,” he said.
It was challenging to first rehearse in masks, but Hayden said everyone has gotten used to them. “This is gonna be our lifestyle and have to move forward as a country,” he said. “It’s been weird to start, but we’re getting used to using our outside voices inside.”
Central classes have been meeting a hybrid of virtual and in-person, but were all online starting Nov. 16. In school, all students wear masks and keep socially distant.
Owners love old buildings
The Renwick was ready for its closeup long before “Clue” came calling. Dane and Sarah Moulton – whose kids are 17, 14, and 10 – are passionate about historic properties, and live in an 1890 house near the Bix Beiderbecke family home on Grand Avenue in 96.
“We gutted the whole thing, rearranged where the kitchen and bathrooms were downstairs,” Dane said of their home, which they bought 12
years ago. He’s a teacher (6th grade science and math) at Madison Elementary.
The couple bought the Renwick in 2017, from the estate of former Iowa State Sen. Joe Seng, a veterinarian who had previously owned the old Villa de Chantal in 91 (which was mostly destroyed in a 2005 fire).
The 96 mansion was built in 1877 by William Renwick, who took over a lumber/sawmill business founded by his father, James, an immigrant from England. The mansion is 96’s finest example of Italian Revival Villa architecture, according to renwickmansion.net.
The home features a large fourth-story tower that overlooks 96 and the Mississippi River, wooden trim and 12-14 foot doors, eight bedrooms available for rent, eight fireplaces, a three-story staircase, a limestone exterior and it sits on four acres.
In 1907, the mansion became part of St. Katharine’s School, and in 1973 was sold and became part of a nursing home complex. Although it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1983, the home fell into disrepair. The ailing complex was purchased by a historic
property developer in 1997, who renovated the St. Katherine’s location and the Renwick House.
In 2007, the Renwick was updated by Joe Seng with geothermal and opened to the public as a wedding reception venue and bed-and-breakfast. After closing in 2016, the Renwick House was opened once again in 2017 as a premier location for weddings, receptions, reunions, parties and meetings.
“We had to rebrand, reimagine and start over,” Dane Moulton said recently. His brother got married at the Renwick, as did Sarah’s mom. “It’s a great place; it’s beautiful, we love old houses,” Dane said. “We’re in old home number three we’ve worked on.”
“It seemed like a good, challenging business opportunity,” he said. At the Renwick, they have mainly fixed rotting wood on the exterior, and lots of new paint and maintenance work, Sarah said.
Their main business is weddings and other special events, and they love to have comedy and concerts. In 2021, about every weekend is booked with weddings, since many this year had to be postponed, Sarah said.
The “Tomfoolery on Tremont” comedy series started in fall 2018, organized by Q-C comedian Chris Schlichting. “He’s awesome; he catches bigger names as they’re passing through,” Sarah said. “Usually they’re on Sundays.”
“People consider us a comedy club, it’s funny,” she said. “It’s tough for comedy right now, because nobody else is really doing it.”
Dane said at least 60 private events in 2020 were canceled or postponed since the first Covid shutdown in March, while some outdoor weddings and shows have been held since summer. “Even though it’s not shut down, effectively a lot of our stuff is, because we don’t have room to social distance with the number of people that people would like to have in there,” he said.
“So it’s just not possible to do a lot of things, so we’re moving events back or canceling, or doing that all over.”
Most of the Renwick receptions have been outdoors and scaled back, Dane said. “Even when we did the events, it hurts business for sure.”
The comedy events returned in June with their show number 50, which sold out.
Most weddings and receptions are done together at Renwick, “We’ve had them in every corner of the house just about,” Dane said. “We’ve had ceremonies on the top of the hill, which is a neat view there. It overlooks downtown. People just use the space however they feel necessary, depending on the number of guests.”
“They have the bedrooms too, so they can stay from Friday to Sunday,” Sarah said. “It’s really like a one-stop shop – they move in for the weekend.”
Couples often stay the weekend, or through Monday, Dane said.
A “fairy tale wedding”
Abbey Pocklington and her husband Jack got married at the Renwick Mansion on Sept. 19, 2020, three months after she and her family had a “staycation” there.
“The story of choosing the Renwick Mansion as our venue goes back quite a few years,” said Abbey, a St. Ambrose alum. In 2016, during college, she and Jack drove to the mansion and “fell in love with its unique charm,” Abbey said in a recent e-mail. “We pulled over to admire
the mansion for a minute and Jack turned and looked at me and said, ‘I’m going to marry you there someday!’”
“Sarah and Dane made our whole wedding experience absolutely incredible; it truly was a fairy tale from the very beginning,” she said. “They are both so welcoming. They let us tour the mansion several times before the wedding and never minded my many emails, texts, or phone calls with questions.”
For their rehearsal dinner there, they had a murder mystery theme, which the Moultons have offered for many guests, where they are assigned a character and get lists of clues to discuss.
“All the guests raved about their bartending skills and simply how genuine they are as people to converse with,” Abbey said of the couple. On the sunny wedding day, they took extra precautions because of Covid.
“Sarah and Dane were amazing to work with in this aspect. They made all sorts of suggestions as to have a healthy, safe, and fun wedding,” she said, noting most out-of-town guests they invited chose not to come, leaving them with about 115 outdoors, which Abbey said was perfect.
“With the extra seats at the ceremony, people were able to space out or choose to stand. We also had colored wrist bands for each guest to wear with what they were comfortable with,” she said. They had hand sanitizer on every table and inside, a food, dessert, and bar area.
“People were dismissed in small groups to go in and get food,” Abbey said. “We had masked servers, serving the food so that only one person was touching the serving utensils. The plates, silverware, and cups were all disposable so they could just be thrown away (limiting how many
people touched them). We left it up to the individual’s discretion as to whether or not they chose to wear masks.
“We did have several people who chose to wear their mask the whole time and some who didn’t. It was extremely important to us that everyone felt safe,” she said. “And for those that did come, we made it as safe as we possibly could. And for two weeks after the wedding, there was a part of me that worried if someone would get sick, but nobody did.”
“One of the many reasons we chose the Renwick was because we could all stay together under one roof. We absolutely loved the idea of having a big slumber party with our closest friends and family.”
“We brought all sorts of lawn games, and even had a fire on Saturday night,” Abbey said. “It was so convenient to have everyone there all weekend. We had a kitchen that we were able to utilize and plenty of bedrooms. It was very spacious. Every single person that I spoke to raved about the place and could not believe we found such a perfect gem.”
“We had a giant slumber party at the Mansion from Friday until Sunday,” she added. “We had both sets of our parents and the entire wedding party stay. There were 16 of us total and we never felt cramped. The parents stayed on the top floor and all of us kiddos stayed on the second floor.”
During Covid, Abbey’s father’s side of the family was supposed to be on a trip to Disney World in June. They had to cancel that, and saw on Facebook that the Renwick was advertising “staycations” and so she booked 19 of her family members there.
“We had an absolute blast. It was a wonderful location for my large family of 19 to be able to get together and hang out without feeling crowded,” Abbey said. “The Renwick Mansion is an absolutely incredible place and it holds such a special place in our hearts, as do Sarah and Dane for everything they have done for us!”
Having the first and last laugh
Chris Schlichting started the comedy series at Renwick in November 2018, which also has been drastically scaled back this year.
“There was nothing really consistent,” he said recently of prior stand-up comedy in the Q-C, noting he’s been doing it 15 years. “There wasn’t much locally after Penguins shut down. I would hit up the Speakeasy; I’d ask ComedySportz if I could do time before they did ComedySportz stuff. Boozies was kind of cool; they did an open-mic upstairs on Thursdays.”
Schlichting also booked comedy at the former Raccoon Motel in downtown 96 (now Devon’s Complaint Dept.). He knew Dane and Sarah from coming to Raccoon, and they were open to anything at Renwick, so he suggested comedy.
“I headlined the first one, it was good. You can’t jam that many people in there, so we got about 70 people,” Schlichting said. “It went really well – so well in fact that in my 15-year career, there are a bunch of comics I know that would love to do this. So we just started reaching out to ‘em.”
He had to work around the Renwick schedule, and Schlichting contacted comics throughout Iowa. “The great thing from a comic aspect, you get a place to stay,” he said of the mansion. “That’s huge for travel. Two, you made the entire door. If you charged $5 a ticket, you got all that money.”
“I get to do comedy, and it’s my reputation on the show. I’m so confident in it,” Schlichting said. “Dane and Sarah were happy, ‘cause they were profiting off liquor sales. All around, it was a good situation.”
Usually the Renwick shows have been on Sundays, since touring comedians are busy on Friday and Saturday, he said.
“We would get publicity out of it. Dane and Sarah would get future parties booked from it,” Schlichting said. “People would be coming to the shows. The comedians love it, because they get a place to stay. As we progressed, we got better comics. They weren’t making as much as they would for their regular shows.
“One, we don’t have the capacity to hold as much people,” he said. “Most of the comics I booked were comics I liked as a comedian, but not necessarily mainstream acts. And whatever comic I get, even if you don’t know who they are, you’re gonna be happy.”
Often, comics Schlichting contacted out of the blue would be familiar with the Renwick’s reputation.
“I cannot explain this – it’s been my experience, that comedians love two things besides comedy: professional wrestling and ghosts,” he said. “So most of these comics love the idea of performing at a unique venue and getting to stay the night at a haunted location. We’d ghost hunt.”
“In terms of comedy, we ham it up,” Schlichting said of the mansion’s “haunted” side. “We had Ryan Singer from L.A., who has a podcast about paranormal stuff, and he jumped all over this. Most comics just think it’s interesting. It’s unique.”
Someone shot a music video there and used a giant Sasquatch costume, and instead of dumping it, Dane kept it, and it’s been used as a prop for events, Schlichting said. “It’s a little eye candy,” he said. “A couple times he’s been on stage with us. It’s kinda cool.”
“The Renwick doesn’t have a documented bad history – no deaths in the mansion,” Schlichting said. “It’s kind of a hard sell with ghosts. However, people have claimed a room or the basement is haunted. I’ve never seen anything that’s really convinced me of ghosts.”
He’s also gotten to perform gigs from comedians who’ve been at Renwick. They also open the door for local comics, to open for the headliner.
“We have comics who are not ready to headline, so they’ll do the show – like 5 minutes or 10 minutes,” Schlichting said. “That’s so crucial, especially for young comics just starting out. I love it, because we get returning audiences.”
They call the regulars “TOT-heads” (for Tomfoolery on Tremont). “They see different comics, and I usually emcee, so it usually requires me to come up with new material,” he said. “It makes me want to work harder to get new stuff. They’re such a fun, forgiving crowd. It’s a really cool thing.”
With Covid, they had to cancel some shows, like Eddie Pepitone, a staple of the Los Angeles comedy scene.
“We were very careful with that. When Covid hit, we did a couple outdoor shows, which was fine,” Schlichting said. “When the weather got colder, it became unrealistic. Then we did limited capacity shows. It’s a little bit tougher of a sell – you’re getting smaller audiences still. And also, the comic is doing two shows, so that’s twice the work.”
“We’re not alone in going through this – I know a lot of comedy clubs in Illinois that are canceling,” he said. “They might lose their business. With Dane and Sarah, they have weddings and stuff.”
With the socially distant, limited capacity sows (where comics wore masks), people wanted to come laugh, Schlichting said.
“We still had the support of the TOT-heads still coming out to shows,” he said. “I don’t know how much longer we can keep this up. I feel like Covid is engulfing us; Iowa is so bad. More and more people I know have got it.”
A hilltop haunted setting
Though Renwick doesn’t host a haunted house, it’s been a location for horror films and paranormal investigations.
Stephen Folker, a 96 wedding photographer who’s shot there, also makes indie horror movies, and about a year and a half ago, filmed some of his sci-fi “FUAB” at Renwick.
“We needed something that the character in the story was supposed to be a wealthy explorer, founder of a big university, so we needed a property that would reflect his character, being this rich guy,” he said recently. “It fit perfectly. You walk in there and it’s a throwback to
another era, where people used to live big.”
“You’ve got this unique mansion, perched on top of a hill overlooking everything,” Folker said. “It really is a walk back in time.”
Q-C actor Joshua Malone filmed a horror short there in late September and was recommended on the Facebook 107 Actors page after he asked for a “spooky mansion.”
“I needed someplace that felt iconic as it would be the main location for the climax of the short,” he said Friday. “The building needed to be a presence itself, and when I saw Renwick I fell in love with it right away. I reached out to Sarah and Dane, who own it and they were amazing. They gave us free run of the place basically on the stipulation that we had everything cleaned up by the next wedding.
“Renwick was everything I wanted and more for the project. You really sense its age and what it’s stood through,” Malone said. “It had that ‘life’ that I really wanted for my project. It’s beautiful and imposing all at the same time — almost like the 107’s own little Overlook Hotel.”
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Riverside Iowa Paranormal was just at Renwick last weekend for its first investigation there, until 3 a.m., attracting 10 guests who paid $65 each. Most of that goes back to the owners, plus all their paranormal investigations are done at no cost to the owners. The Renwick one ranks at the top of all the ones done by Bill Tandy, a lead investigator who operated the video and audio recorders.
“I call it my goose bump factor,” he said Friday of their chilling, stormy experience the night of Nov. 14. “When we walked into Renwick, you go through the front door. The size of the doors get you; they’re over 12 feet tall. You walk in and it’s this ominous feeling. Something’s not right, you shouldn’t be here.”
“I know this is going to be a great investigation or a weird investigation,” Tandy said, noting he heard the word “murder” while he was there. “Renwick did that; it made your hair stand up on the back of your neck.”
Most places they investigate don’t have rooms for rent, so it was good Renwick had rooms for three guests and an investigator there from Kansas City. They definitely want to go back to the mansion next year, Tandy said.
Getting a “Clue”
For Sarah Moulton, getting “Clue” is a natural for Renwick.
“My kids go to Central; Dane and I went there. We love Central,” she said, noting she has a senior son and freshman daughter. “Of course, use this space whenever you guys can arrange for that.”
“I think it’s a perfect spot,” Sarah said of hosting “Clue.” “Since we’ve opened, we do murder mysteries, and I’ve always wanted to do a ‘Clue’
murder mystery there, specific to the mansion. And that requires me writing it, and I just don’t have time. I’ve wanted to since we opened the place.”
Earlier this month, there was an office party and family party, where every guest gets an assigned character. There’s three rounds and they have clues they talk about, and things they conceal, Sarah said. “They go around and talk to other characters and dig up information,” she said.
“I’ve enjoyed the connections we’ve made; it’s been awesome,” she said of the event business. “We get to have parties every weekend. You’re a part of like the best day of so many people’s lives, which is gratifying. Then, just the connections in the community – have the building open, offering it for comedy and concerts to the community. That’s what we’ve really loved and what we’ve been missing this year with Covid. We haven’t had a lot of that.”
The last concert before the shutdown was March 13th. They’ve had a couple of outdoor concerts since, very socially distanced, Sarah said.
They had a virtual wedding in the spring. She gave them the codes to the front door and let themselves in. They had just the officiant and their parents in person, and they livestreamed the ceremony for their guests, Sarah said.
Since Nov. 16, IntVeld has held virtual rehearsals, and they’re supposed to go back to school Dec. 2, but if they have to continue online, she may reschedule “Clue” in January.
The plan is for the premiere online, for students to livestream special segments, including breaks during the filmed show and featuring the understudies. There also will be up to 10 online showings of the video, IntVeld said.
“Clue” will be available for free to view. “People’s jobs are tight right now; nobody has money to hand out,” she said. “I’m afraid they won’t watch it if they have to pay for it.”
She’s been a theater director 16 years, including the last 11 at Central. She had planned to do the musical “Anastasia” in spring 2021 (with 50 kids), but they probably won’t if things aren’t back to normal. So IntVeld is planning to substitute a Rodgers & Hammerstein revue, which will have small scenes, a series of songs from many shows.
Instead of a program for “Clue,” IntVeld hopes to have parents buy a “shout out” for their student on social media, to promote the show.
Dane Moulton had been teaching in person through the fall, but made the shift all online this past week, due to the area spikes in Covid cases and Iowa restrictions.
“I think it will be a little easier, all in one place. It’s been really hard, this hybrid just takes a toll,” Dane said. “You have all your students in class, but you only have half your students at a time, and the other half are online, so you’ve got to get assignments to your kids, check them online. They’re emailing you, asking you questions. They’re at home with technical difficulties, but you’ve got a class in front of you all day long too. It’s been a lot, for sure.”
Losing events at Renwick this year has made life harder.
“I never knew how much anxiety can hurt physically until this year; it’s been a struggle,” Dane said. “We had to take out loans just to stay alive, to keep the business open. We didn’t qualify for PPP and we didn’t get money from Iowa economic development grants. So we were stuck taking out a loan to keep the doors open. It’s been stressful.”
To see a photo album of selected Renwick events, moments and people, click HERE.