By Francine Silverman
Between songs like "I Feel Pretty," soprano Irene Griffin (a.k.a Irene Stephens) is regaling her rapt audience of senior citizens from Connecticut in the lounge of the Fallsview Hotel in New York's Catskills Mountains. She's telling the story of how she, an English lass from Oswaldtwistle in Lancashire, was discovered by famed bandleader Fred Waring and how she met "me husband," his lead trumpet player from Manhasset, Long Island. Looking elegant in her glittering gown, she draws laughter when she says, "This morning I was a chef, then a waitress and laundry maid. Look at me now. I'm a star on the stage."
She's not kidding. At Griffin House in Jeffersonville, Irene does most of the housework and all of the cooking, while husband, Paul, pursues his volunteer activities or plays with his computer. Seemingly as much in love as when they met 28 years ago, neither one seems to mind this arrangement, although Irene hopes to have more help soon. Before they bought the 7,000 square foot Catskill mansion in 1990, Paul had an accident on stage that rendered him unable to continue playing the trumpet. Fortunately, he also composes music and has a flair for science (his inventions were prescient but never patented, including his solar oven and delayed action motor for windshield wipers). He designed the B&B's webpage, and, according to his wife, it has generated "80 percent of the calls." Active in the community, Paul started the local Chamber of Commerce, a coalition of the western communities along the Delaware River, and is president of the Bed & Breakfast Association of Sullivan County, which currently has 20 members.
Jeffersonville is a self-contained community of Victorian homes with no empty stores. According to Irene, it managed to weather the downturn plaguing much of the Catskills. She likes to say she can buy anything in town except underwear.
Griffin House is a romantic inn, abounding in flowers, dolls, holiday decorations, frilly fabrics and musical history. The mansion boasts magnificent American chestnut walls (the wood is no longer available), intricately carved archways and an ornate rosewood upright grand piano. Three of the four upstairs guest rooms are dedicated to musicians who touched the lives of the owners: The Griffin Room is named for Paul's father, Gordon "Chris" Griffin ("Steel Lips"), who played high trumpet for Jackie Gleason on the Honeymooner's theme, and was in Benny Goodman's band for years. There's a plaque commemorating Gordon Griffin's entry into the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences Hall of Fame in 1950. (He and his wife live nearby). The Waring Room is named for Waring and his Pennsylvanians, and for his foresight in matching the trumpeter with the songstress he'd discovered on British TV. The Lancastrian Room is devoted to the British heritage of Irene who began singing while working as a warper in the cotton mills at age 15, and the fourth room honors the Scheidell family, which built and lived in the house for three generations (90 years until 1990).
Before buying the house, the Griffins traveled down south, sampling some of the small country inns. Though they'd passed the Jeffersonville mansion many times, it was always at night. When finally seen in daylight, Irene's reaction was: "We didn't think there were houses like that in South Carolina, much less Jeffersonville. We always said the house found us." Strangely, there's a "Me Church" across the street that was there before they arrived!
When the Griffins worked for Fred Waring, they traveled the world and stayed in the best hotels. "Fred was a multi-millionaire, and the people with him lived that way," Paul recalls. The downside was that after a while they lost track of where they were because all the hotels were similar. Today they pay $75 a year to be members of IBEX (International Bed & Breakfast Exchange) and in three years have stayed in six other B&Bs. What did they find out? "I learned I was doing a good job," says Irene.
The couple's recipe for a successful B&B is liking people. Irene says her first question to potential innkeepers is: "Do you enjoy people?" "No, I'll take that back. `Do you love people?' You're bringing them into your home." Her husband adds that some guests have become lasting and wonderful friends. "Now that they're regular customers," says Irene, "you don't like charging them. They take us out for dinner."
Paul still suffers headaches from the accident, but it could have been much worse. He was performing at an I Love New York campaign party for Gov. Mario Cuomo, and the curtain, instead of falling mid stage was at the back edge. Paul unknowingly sat down in a chair and flipped backwards, injuring his cervix. He saw 13 specialists and "the things they were telling me I thought I was dead," he says. The accident had reversed the direction of his neck and he feels "lucky to be walking around." A high note player, he accepted the warning that playing the trumpet would be physically damaging. Explaining that a brass instrument is a combination of physicality and musicality, he says, "A trumpet is very intimate. You give the note the breath of life."
Irene serves a full breakfast and opens the house to outsiders for dinner (six courses with wine for $45). Seating capacity is 35. She often performs for the diners and brings in guest performers. One guest who performed turned out to be a flautist who trained under James Galway. "We hope that every weekend different artists will do their own show," Irene says.
What the couple really wants is to buy a bigger house for this purpose,
as well as for financial reasons. "To balance the books you need 14 rooms,"
says Irene. A small house is "all right for some people but when it's your
livelihood you need more than four rooms." The Griffins are also
planning to start a chain of B&Bs, called Griff-inns, that would have
to meet their high standards. "This is what we wanted to do all our lives,"
says Paul - "bring in quality entertainment."
(914) 482-3371, fax: (914) 482-3371
|Noted for architectural excellence, this exquisite home exemplifies local craftsmanship at its finest. The Griffin House Bed & Breakfast also accepts reservations for dinner, thereby providing even greater opportunity to experience this exquisite, historical residence. (Weddings, Rehearsal Dinners, Showers, Engagement Parties, Delaware River, golf, tennis, horseback riding, and fine dining)|
Francine Silverman is a New York City-based freelance writer, specializing in profiles and travel. Email: FSilver767@aol.com
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