RON GIBSON LISTENS TO his guests at The Victorian Villa Inn. Very carefully. When they talk about something they'd like to enjoy or experience, the Union City, Michigan, innkeeper tries to provide it. And the idea they were talking about in 1986 made sense to him. Ultimately, the result affected hundreds of people, made national ripples and produced at least a footnote in theatrical and literary history.
Gibson thought the resources were already at hand. A few years before, he had hired John Sherwood and Brooks Grantier of nearby Marshall to entertain his guests with a magic and music program at Christmas time. The two had launched an entertainment enterprise with their wives in the 1980s, and brought their humorous program to the Villa's parlour most weekends in November and December.
In a quest to keep the shows new and lively each year, Sherwood, a journalist and magician, penned skits for himself and Grantier, a church organist and choir director with a gift for stoic Britishism. Sherwood thought Grantier would make an admirable Dr. Watson for a Sherlock Holmes skit. So the two performed id a 20-minute sketch one Christmas, derived from the writings of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
The Villa's guests apparently enjoyed the skit and thought the team made a good Holmes and Watson. Why, they ought to do it more often -- perhaps in a longer mystery format.
Gibson was listening closely. Realizing that the 100th anniversary of the first Sherlock Holmes story was just a year away, he took the notion to Sherwood in late 1986. The innkeeper asked the writer/actor to concoct a format for a weekend-long visit by Holmes and Watson to the Villa, with the notion that Holmes and Watson were on holiday in the United States, and that the guests would help to solve a mystery using the Sherlockian techniques of observation and sound reasoning.
What's more, Gibson said, Sherwood and Grantier should continue to play the roles. That's what terrified Sherwood. In the face of such deathless performances as those by Basil Rathbone and Jeremy Brett, who was he to try to re-invent the role? What's more, who was he to try to write cases for the Master to help modern Baker Street Irregulars to solve?
But Sherwood was discounting himself a bit. A journalist, he'd long reported on police and crime news and had been involved in a number of investigations. While not a mystery "buff," he nonetheless had read Sherlock Holmes stories as a youth and had read many of the tales repeatedly.
What was needed now was a thorough re-reading of all of Conan Doyle's writings about his fictional detective, a thorough grounding in all of the non-Doylean writings and treatments about Holmes -- and a manner with which to present a dramatized case to an audience of hands-on participants. Also, a large number of the original Conan Doyle stories had been placed in a manor-house setting, where Holmes and Watson were visitors -- a fact which helped to lend authenticity and precedence to the project.
"So many modern writers of Sherlock Holmes pastiches have put the characters into situations where they seemed entirely out of place," Sherwood said. "The Basil Rathbone movies -- fun as they were -- often were situated on trains or in Washington, D.C., or somewhere outside of a Victorian-manor environment. Our situation was made to order."