According to the 2016 U.S. Census Bureau, the quaint city of Fillmore, CA, has around only 15,610 residents. It is an unassuming town that has a sweet charm to it, though one wouldn’t necessarily think there is a can’t-miss destination therein — rife with trains, entertainment, and delicious food — to be explored.
Located on 351 Santa Clara St., the 1992-established Fillmore and Western Railway Company, and its series of operating vintage locomotives, have been the site of over 400 film and TV shoots, including “Seabiscuit,” “Race to Witch Mountain,” “CSI,” and much more. As surprising as that is, at least for those who don’t know that the company is “Home of the Movie Trains,” what is even more fascinating is that civilians have been enjoying these moving trains, as they journey from Fillmore to Santa Paula or Piru and back, in up-close-and-personal fashion.
P. Maxwell Productions, an established troupe of theatrically trained and improvisational players, has provided much of the entertainment for Fillmore and Western Railway since 1995, particularly with enthralling murder-mystery dinner shows. At the helm is Paula Maxwell, and her husband Ken Duncan, both of whom perform year-round in a variety of themed spectacles highlighting classic Hollywood, the Wild West, Valentine’s Day, Christmas, and, of course, Halloween.
On October 7th, the troupe performed their annual “Halloween Night of Nights,” a three-and-a-half-hour extravaganza that whetted the imagination, while a delectable three-course dinner satiated the passengers’ appetites. As is custom for murder-mystery excursions, the victuals are comprised of bread & butter, a vegetable-medley garden salad, a choice of Prime Rib Au Jus, Chicken Cordon Bleu or Blackened Pork Chop (with baked potato/rice, veggies), and a satisfying dessert to finish.
The meals are not only scrumptious, but the wait staff deserves ample recognition for getting them to where they need to go by carefully shuffling through the narrow aisles, where they adroitly pass in front of and behind the performers, in order to promptly attend to the guests.
Of course, the actors also make the best of their given space, as they nimbly amble to and fro, stopping to interact with patrons in character, and give simultaneous performances for two or more train cars at a time. It is a delicate act to balance, and not only do they succeed, they flourish in the intimate environment, so much so that it seems perfectly natural.
“Halloween Night of Nights” features eight talented performers, who effortlessly bring an uproariously haunting narrative to life. The premise focuses on government-funded experimental research, and a mysterious injectable serum that has unintended consequences – favorable and adverse. This all transpires during an on-board “gala,” led by Transylvanian-born Professor Dumscheitz (pronounced with an exceedingly strong emphasis on the “sch”), where the passengers are “shareholders.” Invariably, Dumscheitz is flanked by his various lab assistants, and the intimidating Major Von Rack, who represents the government’s stake in the sensitive research. Soon, just as the train engine starts firing, the proceedings soon unfurl with suspenseful and, of course, hysterical intentions.
Neal Abramson, who portrays the frizzy-haired Dumscheitz, is a veteran of the troupe, and as committed as can be to his role, not to mention adaptable to almost any circumstance thrown at him by either a fellow castmate or guest. His intonation and diction make it easy for him to be heard throughout the train, where, as Dumscheitz, he never “shtutters” by virtue of accessing an exorbitant amount of phlegm to excessively underscore select syllables in his speech. Suffice it to say, Abramson’s character choices are hilarious, and provide for many memorable moments.
Dolores Dyer, who plays Von Rack, does so with an imposing mien, never once faltering at the hands of her peers, who might be inclined to say something that would cause less-than-talented performers to break character. As per the demands of her role, Dyer also infuses her characterizations with playful touches, such as haughtily demanding that visitors comport themselves in her presence, and not take photos of her.
In addition, Duncan does a terrific job of inhabiting the role of Frankendude. As an individual in his mid-60s, who is in far superior physical shape compared to those a third of his age, Duncan is an improvisational wizard who glows and gleams with infectious positivity. Whether he’s enjoying a witty repartee with anyone within reach, or sauntering about with tremendous charisma, Duncan has an unmistakable passion for entertaining others that comes through with vivid authenticity. It is also one that he developed a little later in his life, at 40, when he tagged along with his daughter to take an improv class, effectively changing his life forever.
Rick Sharp, moreover, is highly remarkable as a performer who incorporates accurate mannerisms to make his audience readily believe that he is the meek and miserable lab assistant, Gori Gustefson, who has been tragically shunned and abused by contemporary society. Yet, to his credit, Sharp imbues Gustefson with an ineffable magnetism that shines through when he mellifluously sings along with the passengers.
Lisa Wardell’s Nurse Heavenly Divine is also fascinating to observe and interact with, thanks in large part to Wardell’s ability to take a laconic character, and make her genuinely innocent and likable – especially in the midst of incalculably bloody events. Similar to Wardell, Chris Hill, Kaelyn Nicole, and Nancy Nester — a former “MasterChef” contestant who bakes life-changing cupcakes — have an affability to them that not only complements their respective personae, but allow for fulfilling engagement with the guests, who are made to feel like family.
Surely, Fillmore & Railway Company and P. Maxwell Productions are both very worthwhile entities in their own right, though as professional partners, they’re an exemplary match made in heaven. They’ve offered visitors a historic feel for not only the “Home of the Movie Trains,” but have enabled them to vicariously enjoy a veritable set or stage by seating them smack-dab in the middle of unforgettable, live-action entertainment. For just a slice of time, we become participants aboard a train that dependably chugs along with our vibrant imaginations, as we find ourselves amid thrillingly adventurous surroundings.
Additional murder-mystery events at Fillmore and Western Railway, courtesy of P. Maxwell Productions, include the “Viva Lost Vegas” luncheon (featuring an orange-blossom chicken entrée) on November 18th; the “Bugle Boy Murders (of Company C)” on December 2nd; and “The Holiday” on December 9th. The latter two will be dinners.
Upcoming Halloween-themed events at Fillmore and Western Railway will include a “Haunted Hayride” (family dinner train) on October 21st; the activities-galore “Pumpkinliner” train on remaining Saturday/Sunday mornings in the month of October; and the “Zombie Hunter” train, which involves felling the “undead” with paintball guns, on weekend evenings in October.
For further information about P. Maxwell Productions, and how to book special events, please visit the company’s Facebook page at facebook.com/pmaxwellproductions or call (805) 717-1037