About Town Tours got its name when Della Freedman planned to tote strangers around Mecklenburg County for a living. She jettisoned the idea after a year, when she saw it was more profitable to tote corpses.
We speak metaphorically, because she and a small stable of actors celebrate their 10th anniversary this spring as the area’s lone, full-time purveyors of dinner and a murder mystery.
From colleges to corporations to country clubs, they combine sirloin, slayings and sleuthing. They serve up everything from clues to booze within two hours and with long-practiced aplomb.
Their next public event, a benefit for Make-A-Wish, comes May 19 at Maggiano’s in SouthPark mall. If it resembles “The Case Called ‘Death Ahoy,’ ” last month’s event at Dilworth Neighborhood Grille, it will combine copious amounts of food with a whirlwind tour through criminality.
As guests settle in with drinks of choice, Freedman assumes the role of Miss Tery (accent on the second syllable) and hands out printed sheets containing clues – some of them red herrings – and a background report.
Participants interrogate suspects as if speed dating, firing questions as each potentially guilty party drops by their tables for four or five minutes. Miss Tery provides an update with more clues, and the suspects line up to field queries together.
Tables have about five minutes more to come up with a solution, which they propose to the mistress of ceremonies. Being right brings you a prize a little more valuable than the plastic handcuffs and toy guns left by your napkins. (Venues set prices; shows usually cost $30 to $85.)
Following an odd path
Freedman, who has lived in Charlotte for 40 years, has always worked in entertainment of some kind: first in theater (she still sometimes directs), and for the last 23 years at WFAE-FM, doing weather, public service announcements and a Sunday night shift on air.
She scarcely imagined she would profit by murder as she majored in theater at Queens College in New York and studied with William Hickey at HB Studios. (You know him as the senile don in “Prizzi’s Honor” or mad scientist in “Nightmare Before Christmas.”)
“Hickey told me, ‘Some day you’ll be a teacher,” Freedman says. “I’m not sure this is what he meant, but I’ve become my own student. I taught myself everything about running a business: marketing, sales, management, bookkeeping, customer relations, doing a website. I’m my only permanent employee, though I have a regular group of (paid) actors I can trust.”
The actors have extraordinary freedom: They decide whether to make characters sweet, sassy or sleazy, and they don’t rehearse together. They run choices past Freedman, learn their lines and come in cold.
Lee Riley, a stand-up comedian, has done this for nine years. “Della places us as a director where she thinks we’ll work, and I’ve never known her to be wrong,” she says. “I’ve done parts all the way from a Tennessee country woman to an Italian opera singer.
“We design characters and costumes, and most of us know how to play off each other. There are times when I will (reimagine) a character, but you don’t want to reinvent the wheel. If I get a good response, I leave well enough alone.”
The pleasures of crime
Hugh Loomis, another veteran, notes that he has to think on his feet but be careful not to improvise material that doesn’t suit the plot.
“You’re given a bio you have to know backwards and forwards, a back story of three or four pages and a few paragraphs of testimony,” he says. “I try to do characters a little differently every time. I like to go a little overboard, to make a big impression quickly.
“It’s no fun to stand at a table and ask ‘Do you have any questions?’ and meet blank stares. The people who grill you are the best. We do these for corporate team-building events, and they really get into them.”
Freedman buys complete, pre-written packages. They should be funny, free of profanity and undue sex, and the clues must point correctly to the killer if the guest “detectives” ask the right questions. The venues pay the company a set fee and supply food and drink.
“For a small company, we’ve gotten a lot of repeat business,” she says. “We’ve performed in Savannah, in Wilmington, on a yacht on Lake Norman. I thought the bad economy might hurt us, but we’ve done two to four shows a month steadily during the downtown. People who see us ask us back.”