When Ken Buehler became executive director of what today is known as the North Shore Scenic Railroad, he was looking for ideas. A murder-mystery train ride came to mind, if only he could find someone to put one on.
Luckily, Kevin O'Brien called.
"You have a train. I do murder-mystery events," Buehler recalls O'Brien saying.
And that, as they say, was the beginning of a beautiful 14-year relationship.
"It's one of our signature events," Buehler said of the "Murder Mystery Express" that will roll nightly Monday through Friday with 6:30 dinner in the Lake of the Isles dining car bound for a 2.5-hour journey of intrigue.
The two have become great friends over the years.
O'Brien says he has an ulterior motive aside from generating business for his company that does events around the Midwest.
"I've grown to love Duluth," he said. After all, Upstage Productions is based in St. Louis, which in August becomes a soupy mess of too-hot weather. O'Brien appreciates the ideal conditions in Duluth this time of year.
This year's show is titled "Sherlock Holmes and the Temple of Doom" and features the usual mashup of detectives among the characters on the train - Holmes, Columbo, the Scooby-Doo gang, Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys among others. O'Brien sets the stage, playing characters and recruiting some of the diners to play parts.
O'Brien describes the scene as characters on a "wild and dangerous treasure hunt. But so is the amazing archeologist Louisiana Jones. The only thing that can keep one of them from winning is murder."
He plays several characters, and he has an assistant keep the drama and comedy going as he makes quick changes.
"He is hilarious," Buehler said of O'Brien's ability to set the tone during dinner and keep things rolling along. "I've never seen someone work a room like he does. I laugh so hard, I hurt."
Dale Ahlquist of the Twin Cities area has been on the train twice in past years.
"It's a combination of great atmosphere, good food and drink, and outrageously funny theater with audience participation," he said.
"He's very clever. The audience just loves it. The train goes slow but the show goes fast," Ahlquist said.
"It's interactive fun," O'Brien said. His trips to Duluth are particularly "atmospheric" because of the train and Duluth as a backdrop. "We have a lot of fun here."
"Since the audience is having a lot of fun and since some of them play bit parts in the play, becoming suspects in the mystery, we never know what they're going to say," he said. "Every night is unpredictable and a new experience for us. We give them lines to read when their turn comes, but they quite often make up their own lines and surprise us by going off script. We just have to roll with that and make it part of the fun."
Dinner takes place on the Lake of the Isles dining car, which dates back to the 1950s and is the only functional car of its kind left from the Great Northern Railway's Empire Builder line.
"Learning how to perform while the train is in motion, moving about without falling onto a table or into someone's lap also requires some skill," O'Brien said. "'Sea legs' is what we call it - and it takes newer actors a few performances to get them."
The murder-mystery train has been popular from the start in 2002, O'Brien said. Call it the "Day Out With Thomas" - which took place a week ago - for adults.
Dinner is catered by the Radisson and includes five courses and a glass of wine, which is probably of a better vintage than the wine bottle presented to the person who solves the murder case after dinner.
"It's a cheap bottle of wine," Buehler said, because the real prize is being witness to the antics.
"I've been to many of these (murder-mystery) events, and they all pale in comparison to Kevin's," he said.
Buehler plays a small part in the production each year.
"I never get tired of being in them," he said.
If you go
The North Shore Scenic Railroad's murder-mystery train takes off at 6:30 for five nights all next week, Monday through Friday from the Depot.
Tickets are $79 for a five-course dinner and the Upstage Productions staging of "Sherlock Holmes and the Temple of Doom." A handful of guests will be invited to play parts in the murder-mystery. They will receive a script to read.
Tickets can be purchased online at northshorescenicrailroad.org.
Winning them over
Kevin O'Brien, who runs Upstage Productions, recalled one of the memorable Duluth events:
"We had the entire train car filled with senior citizens on a bus tour from Wisconsin. They had no idea they were coming to see a murder mystery. It was, quite literally, a 'mystery tour.'
"They showed up hungry for dinner and very crabby. We had our work cut out for us, as they had been on the bus for hours and the last thing they wanted to do was ride a train and watch us perform Act One before their dinner was served.
"By the end of the evening, they gave us a standing ovation. Somehow they all let their hair down and ended up having a great time. Ken Buehler said to me, 'You work a room better than anyone else in show business' - even, apparently, when the room is moving and filled with a reluctant audience. I've treasured that as a great compliment, and I've remembered that as one of our best shows ever."