Area town’s history inspires playwright

Playwright Mark Ogle spent weekends at Neosho Falls during his childhood. He uses those memories as inspiration for mystery dinner theater plays for fundraising events in Oklahoma.

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March 3, 2023 - 3:02 PM

The 1907 Belvidere Mansion in Claremore, Okla., is the site of mystery dinner theater performances written by an Erie native who spent much of his childhood in Neosho Falls. Photo by WIkimedia.com
Mark OgleCourtesy photo

CLAREMORE, Okla. — At the Belvidere Mansion in Claremore, Okla., “Neosho Falls” has become synonymous with mystery and entertainment. 

That’s because playwright Mark Ogle finds his inspiration from a childhood spent playing at his grandparents’ farm in Neosho Falls. He’s written several plays set in the tiny Kansas town, to use as part of a mystery dinner theater fundraiser to support the mansion. 

The latest is “The Guatney Sisters of Neosho Falls,” which will be performed March 24 and 25 at the Belvidere. 

“It’s become sort of ingrained in Claremore,” Ogle said. “Everyone knows about the Guatneys and Neosho Falls.”

THE PLAY tells the story of sisters Pearl and Opal Guatney in the 1950s. Pearl is raising her grandchildren, and the sisters take in boarders (mostly traveling salesmen) to make ends meet. The plot of the murder mystery surrounds two men who need a room. 

The story is a work of fiction, but Ogle still gets asked if it’s true. The names and location are real. Those who are familiar with Neosho Falls will find many other familiar references.

“The biggest challenge for the cast is pronouncing Piqua,” Ogle said. “I try to put in as much real history as possible.”

As part of the dinner theater event, guests will attend a dinner on the main floor of the Belvidere. Then, they’ll go to the second floor to learn about the mansion’s history and the spirits rumored to haunt the place to this day. The Belvidere, a restored 1907 Victorian-era mansion on the National Registry of Historic Places, has a reputation as one of the most haunted places in Oklahoma.

Finally, it’s up the third-floor ballroom for the show. Ogle likes to imagine the ballroom once hosted traveling actors who put on similar plays. 

Ogle’s plays are interactive. At some point, the action stops and the audience is asked to write down “whodunit” and why. Winning answers are put into a drawing for a chance to win the Super Sleuth Award — which they will be asked to don immediately — featuring a Sherlock Holmes hat, pipe, magnifying glass and handcuffs. 

Then, they read the wrong answers.

“The ones that don’t get it right are very entertaining. The running joke is we have them stand up and read their answers so the actors know to avoid them, because we don’t know what play they were watching,” Ogle said.

OGLE grew up in Erie but has numerous relatives in the Neosho Falls area, Le Roy and Iola. 

During his childhood, he spent nearly every weekend at his Grandma Pearl’s house in Neosho Falls. He and his cousins would roam through the town and play in the Neosho River nearby. They’d watch cars cross a rickety wooden bridge and take bets if it might collapse. 

That was decades ago. Neosho Falls was a small town then; it’s even smaller now.

Ogle graduated high school in Erie, then from Neosho County Community College and Pittsburg State University. He worked for 13 years as the head of marketing for hospitals, writing strategic business plans, advertisements and the like but never a script for a play.

He’s participated in theater since high school, though.

In 1998, Ogle served on an advisory committee for a vocational technical center. They brainstormed fundraisers to college scholarships, and Ogle suggested a mystery dinner theater.

“That’s a good idea,” the director told him and put Ogle in charge.

Ogle couldn’t find a script that would work for a large audience, so the director told him to write one. 

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