Monday, September 28, 2020

FRIENDS: The Experience Opens This Week in Chicago

Last year marked the 25th anniversary of the debut of what would become an iconic comedy series about six friends living in New York. Each week we'd get to know them a little better - Joey, the flirty soap opera actor; Chandler, the high-strung, sarcastic jokester with an unfulfilling desk job; Monica, the responsible, competitive and ultra neat chef; Rachel, Monica's best friend and roommate - a spoiled, but sweet rich girl who has no experience in adulting; Ross, Monica's big brother, the lovable and brainy, but boring paleontologist; and Phoebe, the eccentric masseuse/songstress who performs such compelling tunes as "Smelly Cat" in a coffee shop.

There were so many laughs, adventures, twists and turns that the NBC sitcom took over the ten seasons on air and you can step back into that era during this pop-up exhibit opening October 1 and running through January 3 at The Shops at North Bridge, 540 N. Michigan. Entry begins on the lower level at the FRIENDS The Experience Store, where you can snag fun stuff like pins, t-shirts and Funko Pop! figures. COVID-19 precautions are in place that include having all merchandise behind glass so it is only handled by staff. The gift shop is open to the public without an admission needed, so even if you can't make it to the see the exhibit, you can stop by for some FRIENDS merchandise souvenirs.

Also on the first floor is an amazing recreation of Central Perk constructed entirely of plastic play blocks. You can even sit on the sofa for photos. Up on the second floor you begin in your first of 12 rooms where you can again, have a seat on an orange sofa in front of the fountain in a mock-up set of the show's opener. Throughout the exhibit is a steady stream of interactive fun that includes the purple door, the hallway, interiors of Joey and Chandler's apartment and Rachel and Monica's. You can view original costumes, scripts and get a chronological look at Rachel's do's. There are spaces dedicated to each of the characters and a recreation of a spot that is central to most of the episodes, Central Perk. Also, be sure to binge and brush up your FRIENDS knowledge so you can crush the touches trivia game with a screen that you control with foot pedals.

Friends The Experience has already made its way to New York and Boston and Chitown is its third stop. Created by Superfly X, Warner Bros. Consumer Products and Warner Bros. Television Group, "The One in Chicago" will be open daily with online ticketing available for timed entry for $35 per guest. Private access reservations can also be made for groups of 6 or 10 for an additional charge. Health and safety precautions include social distancing and limited capacity, temperature checks, UV sterilization, hand sanitizing stations and ongoing cleaning of high-touch surfaces. Masks are required for entry.

For ticket information, hours and more, visit

Friday, September 18, 2020

 A Cherished Trip Anchored on Genealogy (Part 2)

I left off in my last blog entry after visiting Dayton, Ohio to meet a second cousin on a trip planned by my 89-year-old Aunt Marilyn. The trip would include four states and meeting five relatives I had never met before.

After leaving Ohio, we set out for Ashville, Kentucky where we’d meet a distant cousin for dinner. Karen’s father and my grandfather were cousins, I learned, and then Karen and Aunt Marilyn pulled out old photos and talked about relatives I’d never heard of. She was delightful and sweet and I was so glad to meet her. 

The next day was wide open as Marilyn liked to always spend two nights in one place so there was a full day in between places and a hotel room waiting for an afternoon rest. The area seemed to be heavy in the coal industry with not a lot in the way of tourism, but we headed to the nearby Ashland/Boyd County Convention & Visitors Bureau to see what we could do that day. We learned that Billy Ray Cyrus was from that town and filmed his “Achy Break Heart” video at the nearby Paramount Arts Center. 

A mural in downtown Nashville, Kentucky.

We gathered brochures on the area and one was a self-guided tour of Ashland with a very detailed map to help get you from one stop to another. Marilyn suggested we do the tour. Much of it could be seen from the car and it wouldn’t require a lot of walking, but would help us learn some of the local history. It turned out to be one of my favorite parts of the trip. If traveling with my family, my kids never would have had the patience to complete the route, which included roughly two-dozen stops. So, off we went. I was behind the wheel. Marilyn was the co-pilot. At each stop she read aloud the paragraphs from the brochure with background on each location. Several spots were historic mansions, some were businesses, one was a park with Indian mounds. It was a lovely way to spend a couple of hours and so nice to take it all in without feeling rushed.

We viewed a number of mansions on our self-guided tour of downtown Ashville, Kentucky

We learned that Billy Ray Cyrus was from Ashville and filmed his Achy Breaky Heart video at the downtown Paramount Theatre.

When we left Ashland, we headed for Frenchburg, Kentucky. This was a part of the trip I was really looking forward to. We would meet Grant, whose grandmother was a cousin of my grandfather. Grant was also close to my age with kids close in age to mine, whereas the other cousins I was meeting were a bit older. Instead of staying at a hotel, we’d be staying at his home and meeting his wife and one of his two sons. 

Grant’s father, who had passed away a couple months earlier, had lived on the Oldfield Family Farm. The farm dates back to around 1830  - where my great, great, great grandfather and his siblings farmed. It was amazing to learn that it is still in the family. This is what Marilyn most wanted me to see - the farm where my grandfather (her father) was born and raised and lived before coming to Illinois and settling in central Illinois in the mid 1910s in Charleston where farming conditions would be better.

After leaving Ashville, we headed to Frenchburg to meet a cousin named Grant for lunch at a Cracker Barrell. He knew I was a food blogger and was so hospitable, making sure I got to try some good food during out stay at his home. He introduced me to Ale-8 soda at lunch that day.

We first met up with Grant for lunch at a Cracker Barrell just off the expressway and then followed him back to his place. He knew I was a food blogger and thought long and hard about where to go for dinner that evening. We ended up quite off the beaten path and drove into the Red River Gorge to eat at the Red River Rockhouse, an eclectic cafe that focuses on using ingredients from local farmers and artisans. The drive there was beautiful and the grass-fed beef burger I had was delicious. That was also the day I was introduced to Ale-8-One soda, one of Grant’s favorite beverages. It’s a regional favorite and kind of ginger-ale/lemon-lime hybrid that is tasty and refreshing. We also drove through a cool one-lane natural tunnel to get to the restaurant and also took a little side trip to a scenic area nearby, Broke Leg Falls.

The natural tunnel we traveled through on our way to dinner in the Red River Gorge.

Fog rises as we drive through the Red River Gorge at dusk.

The thing Aunt Marilyn most wanted me to see on our trip was a farm in the community of Maytown, Kentucky where her father was born and raised.

The next day Grant took us on a tour of three cemeteries. In each, I recognized some names from conversation and others I had never heard before, but I was fascinated by scanning gravesites and seeing clusters of headstones with graves of several family members situated together. When we travel, I do find it very interesting to visit cemeteries. I marvel at how short lives were when you go back a couple centuries and I feel a sense of gratitude and grief at viewing stones of veterans or those who never returned home when called to serve.

In a small family cemetery that sat up on a hill on the Oldfield Farm were headstones marking the graves of relatives going back five generations.

Grant also took us to visit a scenic area called Broke Leg Falls in Eastern Kentucky.

Aunt Marilyn and I at Broke Leg Falls where trees were toppled in a tornado that had ripped through the area.

Monday, September 14, 2020

A Cherished Trip Anchored on Genealogy (Part 1)

I wrote a travel column recently that mentioned my Aunt Marilyn and a trip we took together in September 2018. When I posted it on my Facebook page, someone commented that they couldn't wait to read more about Aunt Marilyn and our travels. 

I remembered that I had written a series of columns last year about the trip that for some reason never ran - probably because they were so long. Anyway, I figured they should be shared somewhere, so here's part 1 of our trip together with more to follow.


A Cherished Trip Anchored on Genealogy (Part 1)

Around this time last year I got a letter from my dear aunt, Marilyn Sanchez, who lives near the Twin Cities in Minnesota. She doesn’t do email. She doesn’t even own a computer. And well, it just seems hard to time it right for phone calls, so we correspond the old-fashioned way - with notecards and stationery and stamps from the U.S. Postal Service.

Aunt Marilyn is 88 - she’ll be turning 89 this spring. In her letter, she asked if I might be interested in taking a trip with her to meet some relatives I have never met before - cousins and second and third cousins. She wanted me to see the small town in Eastern Kentucky where my her father was born. I loved the idea. 

When I was growing up, our family wasn’t one that took vacations in station wagons across the country. The trips we took were pretty limited - we’d make a 3-hour trip to central Illinois for a family reunion. Or from the Chicago suburbs to Northwest Indiana to a bed and breakfast my mom loved. Or to a lakeside rental cabin on Cedar Lake. Besides those brief trips close to home, I didn’t leave the state until the summer I was 12-going-on-13. My older sister’s wedding was in July of 1985 and my Aunt Marilyn and Uncle John attended the wedding and suggested taking me and my twin sisters back with them on a trip. That would be our first taste of travel - and I credit them with passing on the travel bug that led me in that wanderlust direction and resulted in me becoming a travel writer.

Aunt Marilyn is my dad’s older sister. He’s the youngest of four. His oldest sister, Ramona, also offered to bring us to their Missouri farm for part of the trip. So, we spent two weeks with my Aunt Ramona and Uncle Roland on their farm not far from St. Louis. From there, Uncle John picked us up, drove us through Iowa and back to his home in Minneapolis where we spent a week. 

We had a blast. We spent time in their community, went to the ValleyFair amusement park (where we thought Aunt Marilyn was the coolest aunt ever for riding roller coasters with us) and then they took us up to Canada. It was back in the days when you didn’t need a passport to cross the border and they took us into Thunder Bay where we saw Lake Superior and spent the night. Both Marilyn and John were educators and they knew the value of travel and exposing children to new surroundings and I’m so thankful for them and that trip through three new states and a new country.

That was the last time I had traveled with Aunt Marilyn. She and Uncle John have traveled all over the world and my other sisters have taken trips with her — including one through Europe. I was very excited to be planning this trip and to travel with her and to be introduced to family members. I’ve always been interested in family history and she knows that. I wrote her back and told her I’d love to do a trip with her.

Later I got a reply from her with a little more info on where we were going and who I’d be meeting. The trip would take us through four states and I’d be meeting five cousins I had never heard of. It was scheduled for early September. I was a little nervous about it. It would be the start of the school year and cross country season I wasn’t sure what I’d be missing with the kids. It would mean hubby would have to pick up the slack ofeeding everyone and chauffeuring everyone around. 

Other than a handful of overnighters, I’d never really traveled without the kids. Our trip would end up being 10 days. It was the longest I’d ever been away from my husband and kids. And really there have only been two trips I’ve ever taken that have been that have been more than a week - one across the state of Tennessee from Memphis to the Smoky Mountains in 1997 and one in 2006 to South Carolina and Tennessee. This would definitely be new, but I was really excited about this adventure.

We set off on Labor Day weekend. Our destination was Dayton, Ohio where we’d join a Labor Day barbecue with Marilyn’s cousin, Carol, and her family. Marilyn arrived at my house the day before our departure for Ohio and showed us old family photos and refreshed my memory on the relatives I had met and heard about who was pictured. I learned that Marilyn’s father and Carol’s mother were siblings.

My Aunt Marilyn (right) and her cousin, Carol, (left). She was the first cousin we visited for a Labor Day cook-out with her family at her home in Dayton, Ohio.

We arrived right on time to Carol’s for a 2 p.m. barbecue. There we met her daughter and two sons and a niece and nephew. After a little visiting and some dinner, we set off for our hotel with plans to meet for dinner the next day. 

Since our day was open until the evening, Marilyn suggested we find some local sites to check out. We first went to the Wright-Dunbar Interpretive Center. I really didn’t know anything about Dayton before our visit and was surprised at the amount of aviation history and attractions that exist there. We visited the Wright Cycle Company which was run by brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright in this original building that is a designated National Historic Landmark. We then toured the Wright-Dunbar Interpretive Center, which is part of the National Parks Service. We watched an interesting movie about the brothers and walked through the exhibits.

I enjoyed visiting the National Museum of the USAF.

I had the chance to board some presidential planes during our stop at the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, Ohio.

When I noticed that the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force was there, I asked Marilyn if we could stop there as well. I had no idea how massive the museum would be. It is the world’s largest and oldest military aviation museum and Ohio’s most visited free attraction. We only had a short window to visit, so we picked out a couple things we wanted to see and tried to move through quickly, but you could easily spend a full afternoon there. My favorite part was the exhibit of presidential planes. I even walked through JFK’s presidential plane and there were others that could also be boarded. It was very impressive and a spot I’d definitely recommend if you are visiting southeast Ohio.

That evening we had dinner with Carol and her kids to celebrate her 84th birthday. We drove a bit to Centerville to a restaurant called Sweeney’s. She requested seafood and according to her son’s, Sweeney’s was the place to go. We enjoyed a good meal and then returned to our hotel for a night of rest before an early morning departure for Kentucky.

Prairie Guest House, Fishers Indiana

On a recent media trip in Indianapolis, I spent a little time in Hamilton County, staying at the Prairie Guest House Bed & Breakfast in ...