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Lovers of lights will take a shine to Wheeling

Sunday, December 16, 2001

By Christine Kuehn Kelly

WHEELING, W.Va. - The usher escorted us up the aisle to the well-lit stage and seated us on a park bench. I was trying to convince myself we wouldn't be the brunt of Don Rickles-type jokes or -- worse yet -- be asked to sing a favorite song.

Behind us, the Friendly City Band provided back-up fiddle and chorus. Then singer Howdy Grant came to the microphone, his cowboy boots rapping smartly on the stage. He looked toward the balcony and raised his arm, making a slow arc: "A bolt of fear shot through him as he looked up in the sky, For he saw the riders comin' hard and he heard their mournful cry: Yippee-yi-yay, yippee-yi-yo, Ghost riders in the sky."

I felt a shiver down my spine. Then I remembered where we were -- Wheeling, W.Va., slightly more than a hour from Pittsburgh. And now more than ever, it's a place that can fill your need for cheering up.

This small and friendly city is home to Victorian museums decorated for the holidays, top-level country-western entertainment and the nation's largest display of holiday lighting.


If you go...


In several recent visits, I've soaked up the friendliness of the Wheeling people. They have a pleasant solidity that seems to match the city's past accomplishments.

Once a substantial center of glass, steel, mining and transportation industries, Wheeling was home to some of the wealthiest companies and families in America. When the industries declined, so did the city, losing almost half of its population and most downtown businesses.

But now Wheeling is fighting back with renovated Victorian buildings, a downtown Ohio riverside park, museums, artisan shops and unique entertainment -- geared to attract visitors for a day or weekend.

Along with the Festival of Lights in the nearby park, the town itself is lighted for the holidays, from the 1849 suspension bridge over the Ohio River, to local businesses and museums. With fewer visitors this year, it's a good time to acquaint yourself -- or re-acquaint -- yourself with Wheeling.

Jamming in Wheeling

It was an average Friday night at the Victoria Vaudeville Theater, a renovated grande dame of a theater in downtown Wheeling. There we found one of America's few remaining weekly variety shows -- an Americana combination of country and '40s/'50s sound. That afternoon we had paid $20 for two tickets and been taken into the theater to choose our seats for the evening's performance. When we came back that night we spent a buck more for popcorn and soda that we brought back to our seats, movie-theater style.

Like much of Wheeling and industrial America, the Victoria Theater has had its ups and downs -- and is working hard to come back. Built in 1904, the theater was a showplace for years until vaudeville died. Later it became a movie theater, and was eventually turned over to a church group who did renovation until its current owner took over.

Now the elaborated carved columns and woodwork are painted and gilded to the max, and the stage is used for weekly Friday night entertainment.

The program includes a mix of '40s and '50s country, rock 'n' roll and gospel music. And that's only in the first half. After intermission, Elvis shows up in his best Vegas suit to croon his way through the repertoire. One of the better Elvis impersonators, in looks and voice, local singer Earl Brown soon has the tour group ladies sitting at his feet, accepting scarves and posing for photos.

Several blocks over on Main Street is the even more elaborate Capitol Music Hall. Home to Jamboree USA, this Saturday night live country program is predated only by the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville. Jamboree has been broadcast live since 1933 on WWVA, and seeing the announcer step to the mike to do a commercial is like slipping back into the early days of radio.

A great house band called the 11/70 Band (for the radio station's bandwidth) backs up the announcer -- and the headliner to come. The casual crowd here is all ages and all levels of noise and food consumption. This is not the kind of place where noisy candy wrappers or a coughing fit would earn you a humiliating stare from a soloist or conductor.

After about an hour, this night's main performer came bounding on stage and hunkered down to serious fiddling. Years had turned Charlie Daniels' hair a bushy gray under his cowboy hat, but his belt buckle was just as shiny, and his playing was undiminished. He pulled in two local fiddlers for several songs, and then ended with his signature tune, "The Devil Went Down to Georgia." Typical of the starry line-up are the performers scheduled in the next few months: Debbie Reynolds, Lee Greenwood, Ronnie McDowell, Crystal Gayle, Charley Pride, Loretta Lynn and the Oak Ridge Boys.

Light displays

Remember when you used to go for family drives to check out the holiday displays? Let yourself be entertained once more by this simple pleasure.

Every November and December, the brightest show in town is the country's largest holiday light show. You may have taken the kids here before, but every year there are new additions -- this year Charles Schulz characters. And now it's up to 1 million lights, arranged in hundreds of animated displays.

The state-of-the-art light show is spread over the 300 acres of Oglebay, a 1,650-acre public resort owned by Wheeling -- the only self-supporting municipal park in operation. A typical year attracts a million visitors, many in tour buses. So far this year the traffic is lighter, so this may be your best chance to avoid long lines. The display is lit from about 5:30 until 11 p.m. (midnight on weekends).

To get there, follow the signs along Route 88 to the lighted "God Bless America" display. Turn into the park past the Victorian angels. Then enter the Fantasy of Lights tunnel, where lights pulsate around you.

As you tour the six-mile-long show, you'll see that individual displays demonstrate the activities available -- flickering butterflies in the Good Zoo section, figure skaters and swans on Schenk Lake, horses clearing gates near the riding stables, plus a tennis match and duffers trying to hit a golf ball.

Favorites of kids are usually the tumbling teddy bears, the Cinderella and Aladdin stories and the animal train. There also are a menorah and scroll, a snowflake tunnel, 60-foot-tall candles and wreath, and a polyhedron star that shines from Oglebay's highest rise.

The light show is unique, as is Oglebay itself. When retired Cleveland shipping magnate Earl Oglebay bought the property in 1900, it was a 25-acre farm. Oglebay enlarged the property and the mansion and used his considerable energies to create a model farm with the latest thinking in crop rotation, soil culture research and scientific animal husbandry. When he died, he left the property to the people of Wheeling, as long as they "operate it for public recreation."

Now you can find Robert Trent Jones and Arnold Palmer golf courses, a riding stable, a 16-acre garden, a 212-room lodge, restaurants, glass and plant shops, a glass museum, a zoo (with a model train display and a charming train ride past buffalo), and a swimming pool triple the size of ordinary Olympic pools.

Wilson Lodge has the feel of a rustic 1950s resort, although the mattresses are much more comfortable. There's a great view of the rolling hillside from many rooms, and you can order a massage. An indoor pool has a cafe poolside and lots of room to romp with the kids, plus there's a game room (remember Ms. Pacman?).

The fireplace burns real wood in the main lodge room, snapping and crackling to the sound of the pool balls thumping nearby. The restaurants are buffet-style "more-than-you-should-eat."

Ihlenfeld Dining Room has tiered sections so everyone has a view. The food is like what grandma used to make if she had studied at Cordon Bleu. Chefs customize evening entrees like pasta, and they flip breakfast omelets with the speed of light. You'll wait somewhat impatiently for your name to be called for the packed breakfast buffet, but at night you can hang out in the Glassworks Grill until dinner. (It has casual dining, too.)

Oglebay's Museums are run by the Oglebay Institute, also a legacy of the Oglebay family. The glass museum focuses on the more than 100 glass factories that operated in the Ohio Valley, making the area premier in American glass-making.

The Sweeney punchbowl is the largest piece of cut lead crystal ever made. It was removed to safety in the museum after it had graced the tomb of its manufacturer for many years. But be careful when you browse through the glass shop on the first floor -- you may end up buying pieces for everyone you know who needs more colored glass in their lives.

Also at Oglebay is the Mansion, built in 1846 and enhanced by the wealth that came from iron ore mining and shipping. Decorated for the holidays, the Mansion showcases the lives of a progressive gentleman farmer and his family in the early 1900s, plus Wheeling's early history.

Not as majestic, but as conscious of their station in life, ornate Victorian homes in the National Historic District can be toured on weekends at 1 p.m. Tours leave and end at the Eckhart House, an eclectic 1891-92 Queen Anne Victorian with a well-stocked gift shop.

Our tour guide, Diane Darnley, was dressed in appropriate garb -- that of a parlormaid. And she was as au courant with the details of the four houses and their families as if she were gossiping in front of the kitchen fireplace. Be sure to ask her about the ghost that she encountered in the John List house.

A renovated building at 1400 Main St. holds a brew pub called the River City Ale Works, and the Wheeling Artisan Center, an attractive collection of local foods, pottery, glass and fabrics. It also is home to one of several museums in Wheeling that showcase lovingly saved items from the past. Wymer's General Store Museum is a colorful compilation of thousands of Wheeling artifacts collected by a single woman, Betty Wymer.

The museum is open daily to her charmingly narrated tour, which ends with a demonstration of her favorite windup toy -- a motorcycle cop who falls over and rights himself like a time loop. The museum will move to the Oglebay Mansion in January, where an "animatron" Betty will fill in.

What could be more fun than setting up your trains and running them for visitors? The Kruger Street Toy and Train Museum is located in a restored Victorian schoolhouse with pressed steel (not tin) ceilings and a school bell that visitors can ring. It took two years to do things like remove the 30 coats of paint on the stairs. Also of interest is the linden tree in front -- the largest of its kind in West Virginia.

Christine Kuehn Kelly is a travel writer based in Havertown, Pa.

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