Mystery Weekend: Longest running event in U.S. takes one year to organize

As has happened for three decades, hundreds of amateur sleuths will flood Langley’s streets and shops, searching for clues to solve a fictitious murder this weekend.

Fred O’Neal laughs with fellow 49ers

As has happened for three decades, hundreds of amateur sleuths will flood Langley’s streets and shops, searching for clues to solve a fictitious murder this weekend.

Around a couple of joined tables at Useless Bay Coffee Co., four regular Langley Mystery Weekend performers in their costumes met with the story’s creator, Loretta Martin, to go over some final details of their roles and back stories.

Donning attire that would befit an Old West saloon more than a Puget Sound coffee house, complete with playing cards, overalls and frontier-type hats, one performer, a retired tech professional and former South Whidbey school board member, notes that they don’t stand out too much.

“It’s hard to be too weird for Langley,” Fred O’Neal said.

The get-together is far more about minutiae than it is the skeleton of each character. Having played the same Mystery Weekend role for years, each person — not one of whom are professional or even amateur thespians — knows exactly what they’ll do Saturday, Feb. 21, and Sunday, Feb. 22.

That’s because Martin, the architect of the weekend and main writer/director/organizer for 16 years, has been working on this one weekend since last year’s event wrapped up. Between sips of a soy latte, she’s already coming up with some ideas about next year’s mystery.

As the author of Mystery Weekend, which organizers claim is the longest-running one in the country, Martin is part-Agatha Christie, part-Silicon Valley entrepreneur — worried about the user’s experience, part-Lorne Michaels of “Saturday Night Live.” She has to come up with a murder and all of the characters and their stories, consider how the experience will play out for visitors (whom she calls sleuths), and rely on the performers to know the story well enough to improvise information when clever visitors ask tough questions.

“She’s really great,” said Marc Esterly, executive director for the Langley Chamber of Commerce, which runs the event.

She started brainstorming in earnest in September 2014, “got serious” and put pen to paper (actually, fingertips to keyboard) in December, and is putting the finishing touches on it the week before the event.

All 23 of the performers are volunteers, and any one of them could be Phyllis Thriller’s faux murderer. Most of what they do is take some base information from Martin then expand, twist, embellish, and flat-out lie to cast doubt on another character for the sleuths to suspect of the homicide. A lot of their interactions are improvisational, said performers Chris Williams, Steve Sloan, Mac Shearer and O’Neal.

“The trick is to make it interesting for people,” said Williams, whose soft, English accent could easily dissuade someone questioning her about the faux killing. “You’re lying all the time.”

Through essentially a full-time work shift (10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday), the performers stay in character as people search for them and for clues in at least 30 stores throughout town. Even when they grab a bite to eat, they’re subject to questioning.

“When you’re at lunch, you’re still on because people will find you,” O’Neal said.

“It’s not the hours,” he added, referring to the day’s difficulties. “It’s that it’s February.”

One of the characters won’t face any of those challenges and does not have a single line of dialogue – the Dog House Tavern. Martin used Langley’s historic and closed old tavern on First Street as the site of the fake murder, pulling from the headlines a la “Law & Order” about the city’s previous struggle with the building’s owners over building on property actually owned by the city. It won’t be open, but caution tape will mark the scene of the crime on the exterior.

Over the course of two days, Langley will be flush with visitors trying to solve a case of whodunit. Esterly said he looked at records from 1999 on and saw it has steadily drawn about 1,000 visitors.

Two of the city’s prominent inns reported they were fully or nearly fully-booked for Feb. 21-22. Alice Jovich said the Inn at Langley only had two rooms available that weekend, though most weekends throughout the winter are busy for the First Street lodge.

At the Saratoga Inn, owner-manager Jim Pensiero said its 37-person capacity is regularly booked for Mystery Weekend. Through many of the winter weekends, rooms are available for rent — but not the third weekend of February.

“It fills up every year,” said Pensiero, who has owned it for 20 years and managed it for the past eight years. “Most of the time, or 90 percent of the time, it’s the same people year over year. They book the same room. If somebody else gets in before them, they get angry about them.”

When people arrive at the chamber office, someone tallies the number of people participating by asking how many are in the group.

In 2014, 840 people bought tickets, which guaranteed them at least one chance to win a handful of prizes. Esterly and the chamber estimated 1,100 people tried to crack the case.

“It was surprising that the number of attendees was right around a thousand,” he said.


“It’s No Laughing Murder”

Solve the case of Phyllis Thriller’s murder in Langley’s 31st annual Mystery Weekend.

The event runs from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 21, and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 22, across 30-plus stores in Langley.

Clue maps cost $10 for adults 16-64, $8 for seniors, military and youths.

To help identify the culprit, read The Langley Gazette for details about the crime and other goings-on in the alternate mystery reality. Search for suspects throughout town to question them, but not everything they say is true.

Submit solutions to the Langley Visitor Information Center, 208 Anthes Ave. Correct submissions are entered into a grand prize drawing, and all other ballots are eligible for other prizes.

The correct answer will be posted online by 5 p.m. Monday, Feb. 23.


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