El Cajon Elks stage paranormal murder mystery theater to benefit local charities


The medium was a rarity. At the end of the night, though, she was dead, ruthlessly murdered. But the play was well done.

The medium was a rarity. At the end of the night, though, she was dead, ruthlessly murdered. But the play was well done.

Madame Zelda, as chairperson of the Bogeyman Outreach Organization (BOO), had contacted the much-sought ghost reputed to be haunting the Mouldering Pines Inn. Zelda revealed the strange events surrounding Olivia’s death 100 years ago to the day, leaving her trapped in the netherworld between this and the afterlife, and Olivia further imparted to Zelda dark secrets that others gathered at the inn would kill to keep hidden.

The black roses on the dinner tables should have been a dead giveaway.

That was the gist of the plotline for this year’s annual murder mystery staged by the El Cajon Elks Lodge #1812. The paranormal-themed dinner theater show, entitled “Polter Heist,” was presented in evening performances on Friday, April 8, and Saturday, April 9. The play was a fundraising endeavor of the Elks Greeters, with proceeds slated to benefit local charities.

Patty Hamilton, Past Exalted Ruler of the El Cajon Elks Lodge, enacted the role of the victim and lead character, Madame Zelda Von Spookem. The Lodge’s ballroom stood in for the Mouldering Pines Inn, and the audience was “cast” as members of BOO attending a convention called to seek out and possibly liberate the hostelry’s ghost. The inn’s owners, Phyllis Lodge (played by Carleen Erwin) and Jim Lodge (Don Erwin) had hatched the story of a haunting to attract guests to stay at their failing business. Unbeknownst to the pair, their inn was really harboring the ghost of Jim’s great-aunt Olivia, who had perished on her wedding day a century before, under suspicious circumstances linked to the theft of golden Egyptian artifacts from the Museum of Ancient Things.

The seven-person ensemble of characters in the play also included Janet From Another Planet (Yolanda Sandoval), a supposedly crazy disc jockey who played background music for the show, and three others who were not the people they claimed to be: Dana Scullery (Pat Jankowski) and Fox Smolder (Ron DeNilla) passing themselves as members of BOO’s Washington, D.C., chapter, and purported paranormal expert Professor Lionel Spector (Scott Blaisdell). Late in the play’s second act, Scullery and Smolder were unmasked as FBI agents, and Spector’s true identity was established as Spencer Reese, international cat burglar, whom the agents were “keeping an eye on.”

After successful séance sessions, Zelda blurted out shocking revelations from Olivia’s ghost. Olivia had stashed a map to the buried treasure of Egyptian artifacts somewhere on the premises before she died. Phyllis Lodge had apparently poisoned her former husband with a special chicken dinner. Jim Lodge was a pyromaniac who had set fires in the inn — after burning down the couple’s former house in the Hamptons, from which conflagration Phyllis barely escaped alive. 

Realizing the danger she was in from all quarters, Madame Zelda raced off stage, supposedly to pack and leave. But after a scream from behind the curtains, Zelda emerged, with a dagger thrust completely through her skull. She collapsed at the front of the stage before uttering her murderer’s name. 

Whodunit? The El Cajon Elks have a unique way of “solving” these murder mysteries — by having each actor write down his or her character’s motive. The director then picks one of these slips of paper at random, and voila, the murderer is known. At Friday night’s show, the vile killer was Phyllis Lodge (Carleen Erwin), and her motive was to prevent the inn’s ghost Olivia from being freed, so that the haunting could be used to popularize the inn and turn it into a “money-making gold mine.”

Don Sauter, the currently serving El Cajon Elks Lodge Exalted Ruler, was director of the play. He and producer Helen Masso turned out a delightfully entertaining spoof of complicated supernatural crime shows. And Tony Zambelli and his catering crew delivered a delicious Italian-style dinner meal of chicken, pasta and green beans for the theater diners. Tickets were $15 each.

Bruce Campbell, this year’s chairperson of the Elks Lodge Greeters, explained that the evening was about more than amusement and fellowship. His volunteer-organization-within-the-organization has 26 Greeters, who take turns at the Lodge doors. “The Greeters work hard, but it’s great to meet people at the door, give a smile, a handshake and welcome to the Lodge,” Campbell said. “For visitors, we tell them we’d love to have them come back.”

“We have a great group this year,” Campbell continued. At mid-year, the Greeters will choose by vote which local charity or charities will receive the money raised at events such as the murder mystery dinner theater. Recipient organization for Greeters’ support last year was Crisis House in El Cajon, which provides transitional housing and other related assistance to alleviate homelessness in East County.

The El Cajon Elks Lodge #1812 can be visited to meet the Greeters at 1400 E. Washington Avenue. The group’s motto is “Elks Care, Elks Share.” More information on this East County fraternal organization, established in 1950 as a “Benevolent and Protective Order” for fellowship and charitable volunteering, can be found by calling (619) 444-1812 or by reviewing the group’s website at http://elcajonelks.net.


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