Murder mystery dinner draws community support

by: Pam Clifton

It was a complicated case of whodunit. Elderly patriarch Malachai Stout was found dead in his bedroom. The nearby wall safe was ajar and all the family jewels were missing. So, who killed Malachai? Who stole the jewels? Was it his stately yet stern wife, Winifred? His snobbish daughter, Penelope? Perhaps it was his stuffy, conservative oldest son, Mortimer. Or was it Monica, Mortimer’s sweet-as-sugar, bubbly trophy wife? Maybe it was Malachai’s spoiled-rotten college-age granddaughter who preferred spending time with her friends over family. Malachai’s brother Edwin – the black sheep of the family – was always reclusive and kept to himself, so it could have been him.

Student actors and two hosts – dressed in their Sunday best – interacted as the very dysfunctional Stout family. They gathered in the cozy sitting room for a family reunion when they discovered Malachai was dead.

Viewers were immediately immersed in our first-ever murder mystery dinner theater event. This much anticipated and well-attended event encompassed students and parents, staff and the community.

West County R-4 Middle School teacher Sandra Coffman and I had envisioned creating such an event with our after-school Creative Arts Club members for several years. In August, we decided to take on the challenge with our students in grades six through eight with the help of West County High School teacher Tina Richards.

We made a list of what needed to be done: hold auditions, make a list of behind-the-scenes roles including stage crew and technology, create a menu for the dinner, decide on a budget and ticket cost... and much more. Initially, we attempted to write the script ourselves but soon realized purchasing a 45-minute one online was more ideal while we figured out the various logistical aspects of the event.

After auditions were completed and a cast list was posted, we practiced with students once a week. Memorizing lines was not as important as it was for the actors to perfect their mannerisms and interactions with each other and the audience.

Students designed tickets and made a spreadsheet to keep track of ticket orders. We decided to make the murder mystery dinner theater a free event for our students, families and the community. Fifty attendees were initially expected, but that number soon exceeded the original estimate. Honestly, we were shocked when the reserved ticket ordering deadline arrived with 200 registered guests!

Suddenly, the idea of a simple murder mystery dinner theater had grown into a full-scale event. The larger head count meant that different areas of the production needed to be adapted. The event could no longer be held in our cafeteria and instead shifted to the gymnasium, which required tables and chairs for the new space. The obvious complication was preparing dinner for 200 people.

Fortunately, our staff works well as a team. West County’s Speech-Language Pathologist, Angela Stone; Elementary Librarian, Lisa Puller; Special Services teacher, Samantha Boen; WCMS Principal, Lindsay Jackson and other staff stepped up to assist with various aspects of the production. Superintendent Dr. Kevin Coffman took on the task of technology, fitted each performer with a wireless microphone and then managed the sound during the event.

Sandi and I divided tasks into “front of house” and “back of house” roles. TOP (Teen Outreach Program) club members volunteered as servers with high school student Alivia LaMarr, a server at the local country club. I made a kitchen to-do list and ensured all food was prepped for the night of performance. Many staff members stepped in to help, including several school cooks.

Before we knew it, the day of the event had arrived, and the gymnasium was packed. Food preparation began hours earlier so servers could quickly start dinner service with refreshments and the first course of the meal. Because the gymnasium is on the lowest level of the building, food and drinks were cleverly transported on carts via the elevator.

Guests were welcomed by the aroma of a delicious spaghetti dinner, which included green beans, salad, rolls and dessert. After a brief introduction, the play began and student actors entertained the guests. All tables had been covered with white paper for attendees to jot down their theories about who had committed the murder. Servers quietly attended to their guests, cleared plates and served the final two courses. During the performance, which was divided into three acts, not a single guest left their seat – they were so engaged in the performance!

When the event concluded after about an hour, fans complimented both the actors and servers. One server even received a $20 tip for his excellent service! Overall, our first district-wide murder mystery dinner theater was both exhausting and exhilarating. For future events – yes, we are planning to make this an annual event – we have created a great foundation to build upcoming performances.

The best outcome was evident in how well the students and staff worked together to develop a positive school culture. We welcomed students of all abilities and made connections with each other behind-the-scenes of our everyday school environment. This monumental task was celebrated at the end of the performance with cake.

After cleanup, all the students were happy to have been part of such a rewarding event. We reflected on how a small idea had transformed from what first seemed like a daunting task into a remarkably successful project where students and staff worked, learned and grew together. As the proverb goes, “It takes a village …” This school event left a lasting legacy because so many people worked together to achieve a common goal.

Pam Clifton teaches sixth-grade English Language Arts and reading at West County Middle School in West St. Francois Co. R-4. She can be contacted by email at