Thursday, July 22, 2010

Baby Steps: St. Louis

It's been two months since Georg's triple bypass and our first attempt at a little getaway.  I don't think either of us realized how much we needed to get away from the "sick room" atmosphere of our home and into a whole other world.  We decided to try a long weekend in St. Louis, a short one hour flight from home.  The occasion was "Damn Yankees",  starring Eric Kunze,  at the Muny, the nation's largest outdoor theater.

Right off the bat, we were blessed with a flawless flight, landing, car rental and easy drive to our hotel, the Chase Park Plaza.  First we stopped at Straub's, a great little gourmet grocery store right next door to the Chase, for staples.  Then, Georg waited in the car while I went inside the hotel to register.  I wasn't in the lobby three minutes, when who should appear before me but Eric himself!  We were both amazed to run into each other and enjoyed a chat while I waited my turn in line.  As he went on his way, Eric said, "Hope you get a nice room" with a smile.  I jokingly said to the hotel clerk, "my friend Eric Kunze said you should give me a nice room."  She laughed and said she'd see what she could do. 

Back at the car, we unloaded our luggage and took the elevator to the 8th floor.  To my amazement, our room was what I estimated to be an 800 square foot suite!  We had a dining room area, living room area, writing desk,  bedroom and bathroom and two flat screen TV's.  I immediately started to formulate an idea.  I had made arrangements for a fan club dinner for Saturday night in the Wine Room at the Chase.  But our suite was so big we could have the party there, and that is exactly what ended up happening. 

We spent the rest of the afternoon resting.  I was planning to go to the Muny each evening, while Georg was only planning to go one night.  The only downside to the trip was the intense heat and humidity, not unusual for St. Louis this time of year.  Last year we were lucky and it was unseasonably cool.  Georg would go with me on a cooler evening.  We did venture out for dinner at Brasserie, a french bistro in the Central West End near the hotel.  Beth and her mother Robert were meeting us there, as was Sherry.  Beth has been in the Muny orchestra for many years and has played most of the shows Eric has been in there.  Sherry has been a fan of Eric's for more than 10 years and has seen every performance of his in that time.

Despite the heat, once the show started my mind was completely on what was happening on the stage.  I had seen the 1958 film with Gwen Verdon, Ray Walston and Tab Hunter, and didn't like it at all.  I was hoping the stage production would be better and to my joy, it was!  It was fun to see Eric in a lighthearted romp and a relief not to see him beaten, chained or hung from a cross.  In addition to his knack for comedy, he exhibited excellent dance moves (they used the original Bob Fosse choreography) and was able to sing some beautiful moving ballads, showcasing his rich voice.  At the stage door afterward we talked with Eric a bit and went back to the Chase for a glass of wine at the pool, where we cooincidentally just happed to be sitting next to Angie (Lola), Lewis (Applegate) and Leslie (Gloria), Eric's co-stars in the show.  At another table were some of the ensemble as well.

The next morning Georg and I decided to explore a little of the famed Missouri wine region.  St. Genevieve had been recommended to me and after a bit of online research I found a winery where we could also have a nice al fresco lunch.  We got off to a rocky start because upon getting to our rental car in the parking garage the battery was dead.  Apparently I had left the lights on the night before.  I'd gotten out of the habit of thinking about that, since my car at home turns the lights on and off automatically!  A call to the rental car agency proved unhelpful.  They could send someone out for $40.  My own auto insurance would likely result in a long wait.  Georg suggested we ask the hotel, and, sure enough a valet had jumper cables and had us on the road in fifteen minutes. 

A pleasant drive through the cornfields and green valleys of the rolling Missouri countryside ensued.  An hour and a half later we found ourself at Chaumette Winery, near St. Genevieve.  A long driveway along the vineyards led to a hill with a small charming chapel and the restaurant housed in the winery.  I could see how this could be a perfect place for a wedding.  Inside, the tasting bar had a huge wall mural depicting the history of the Chaumette name.  We were seated outside on the veranda overlooking the vineyards and farmhouse.  The menu looked promising.  The meat and vegetables were locally raised.  My eyes fell on eggplant fries, sprinkled with parmesan and served with a sour cream, horseradish and lemon zest dipping sauce and my diet went out the window.   I am dreaming about them as I write this.  Our entrees consisted of locally raised beef brisket sandwich with cheddar cheese (for me), croque monsieur and fries (for Georg). We each tried different red wines to go with our lunch.  He preferred the very dry 2007 Norton reserve, which literally puckered my lips, while I opted for the semi-dry 2009 Chambourcin.  Alas, we were too full to sample the mouth watering desserts. 

We adjourned to the beautiful oak bar for our wine tasting.  Our host was amusing and accomodating, explaining each wine to us.  On his advice we chose a bottle of the 2009 Estate Chardonel to give to Eric after the show that evening.  We were on our way back to the hotel, but decided to stop at a second winery for point of comparison, Crown Valley Winery.  There was quite a difference between the two.  Where Chaumette was small, personal, friendly and family run, this one seemed cold and industrial by comparison.  The gleaming stainless steel tanks occupied the majority of the space and the wine was being served by a young girl who hardly engaged her guests.  I was extremely thirsty and would have liked some cold water between sips of wine, but I had to purchase bottled water from the vending machine.  I was sorry we had taken the time to stop and we didn't purchase anything there. 

This was going to be the coolest day/night of the weekend and Georg decided he would attend the show that night.  We were met at the theater by Sherry and two other fans who had flown in from Minnesota to see Eric, Donna and Terri.  All of us met again at the stage door for our meet and greet with Eric.  He was surprised and happy with our choice of wine for him. 

The day of the fanclub dinner had arrived and I spent the morning buying drinks and snacks and preparing the room for our guests at 5:00.  I had all kinds of "Damn Yankees" souvenirs and favors arranged in a little shrine on the drink buffet.  There was a poster of the original Broadway show that Eric starred in with Jerry Lewis, with all the cast's signatures, an original Playbill from that show in 1993.  I had made up baseball cards with Eric's photo and "stats" on the back.  I had gotten a "Damn Yankees"cap, a New York Yankees t-shirt with "Joe Hardy"and "33" on the back and a baseball which all the gals kissed with red lipstick and signed.  (Georg declined - haha).  Everyone had chipped in on the gifts.  Before I knew it, the first guests started to arrive and, before I even thought to look for him, Eric appeared in the room.   I was so grateful we had this private space where everyone could mingle in a quiet setting.  Everyone had a chance to have their own little time with him and we were all relaxed and happy.  Of course, he loved his gifts and "shrine".  After he left to go to his room to get ready we realized none of us had thought to order food from room service and we didn't care.  The munchies became our dinner.   We carpooled to the theater and continued the party until afterward when we made our goodbyes at the stage door.  Jeannine had flown in from New Jersey and was leaving the next morning, as were Donna and Terri.  Leslie was local and so were Sherry and Beth.  So many of us have formed fast friendships, cemented by our common interest in Eric.

Sunday was a day for sleeping in.  Our only ambition was to go out for a nice dinner.  My exhaustive research had led me to a place called Terrene, on Sarah Street.  What attracted me was the fresh, organic foods presented on the menu.  It was a bit off the beaten track, in a semi-industrial, somewhat deserted neighborhood.  We were the first diners and were seated in an empty restaurant.  That gave me plenty of time to examine the space, which I fell in love with instantly.  It was not extravagently decorated, but it was very tastefully minimalistic, which is right up my alley.  A long, narrow mural dominated one wall against which were tables for two.  On the other side were tall windows which allowed the natural light to come in.  Sadly, the view was of an empty warehouse, but the elegant window treatments made you forget that.  Every detail was interesting to me, from the hanging lights to the salt/pepper grinder on the table.  In fact I wanted to purchase one of those pepper grinders and they promised to send me one when they got in their shipment.  It was too hot to sit outside that day, but they have a delightful outdoor eating area which actually seats more people than inside.  We started with the flash fried calamari, followed by lamb pot roast with yukon gold mashed potatoes and chanterelle mushrooms, and split a local fruit cobbler with vanilla beach ice cream.  Once again, I was extremely pleased with our choice of restaurant.

I had one more night to attend the theater.  This would be my fourth time seeing "Damn Yankees" and I could have sat through many more performances.   All summer long, one show is being rehearsed during the day, while another is shown at night.   Sunday rehearsals are held from midnight until 4am with the cast not experiencing their first dress rehearsal with the entire set in place until the day of the first show.  It's a shame these shows only run for a week at a time.  My opinion is that it was a production worthy of being seen on Broadway.  The cast and entire ensemble were incredibly talented.   Often, because it is a St. Louis institution,  the Muny fills the stage with extraneous teens and kids because it's an opportunity and experience for them, not to mention it fills some of the 11,000 seats with friends and family.  But there was very little that was extraneous in this show.  It was tight and professional.   There was a celebratory atmosphere at the stage door as the cast exited and accepted their applause and congratulations.  We sadly made our goodbyes with Eric.  He was wearing the Yankees t-shirt I had given him.  Back at home now, I can only dream about next time, whenever that will be.  I couldn't be happier about how everything went and grateful that this first baby step (actually a giant leap) for Georg was successful.