Maxine Holmgren still remembers the time, nearly six years ago, when she first became interested in mystery parties.
An accomplished mystery writer, actor and playwright, Holmgren had heard about the "murder mystery" kits sold by various companies. These games include a variety of booklets, props and other items designed to create an evening of fun as party guests, dressed in costume, play various roles and try to guess which one committed the crime.
"I thought what fun that would be," recalled Holmgren, a Sun City resident. "I bought the kit and we threw a party. But there were so many rules to follow."
Holmgren recalls something else about that night.
"The men got so confused," she said with a chuckle. "They really had no idea what they were supposed to do."
This made Holmgren realize two things. First, the game needed to be simplified. Second, it might be more fun if the game was designed primarily for women.
Thus, Maxine's Mystery Tea Parties was born.
Using a simplified format and her own writing and marketing skills, Holmgren has built a successful business that attracts customers worldwide. On her business website, Holmgren offers for sale 16 different party themes, each including a booklet with simple plot description, plus costume and meal suggestions.
The idea is to gather a few friends for a tea party to play out the roles described in the booklet, both between and during courses of a specially prepared meal. Holmgren's business caters to women who enjoy keeping alive the tradition of tea parties, although people of both sexes and all ages may play.
"Women love getting dressed up for the parties," said Holmgren, who runs the business out of her home with the help of her husband, Mike. "They wear vintage costumes and they really get into it.
"There really is such a small niche market for this. Most of my customers are middle-aged to older women who have the desire for something like this. Unfortunately, not many women have tea parties anymore."
The numbers might suggest otherwise. Mike Holmgren estimates that his wife has sold close to 4,000 copies of the various themed games in the last six years. Customers order off the website in places as far away as Germany, Japan and Belize.
Each of the 16 stories was personally written by Maxine and each game is contained solely within the booklet, which includes a script, party invitations, name tags, place cards, and suggestions for costumes and meals. Customers may download the game off the website for printing at home or they may order a hard copy, which is printed, collated and mailed by the Holmgrens.
"I'm really proud of Maxine," Mike Holmgren said. "From A to Z, this lady is the entire business. It has really grown. I try to help out, but I'm really just my wife's flunkie."
After acquiring a copyright for her game concept and writing several scripts, Maxine began printing and assembling the booklets on an ironing board in her bedroom. Eventually, as demand for the games increased, the Holmgrens had an office built in the back of their house to accommodate the work load.
There, Maxine duplicates and prepares for mailing copies of booklets with such intriguing titles as "The Bodacious Babes of Buzzard Bend," "Sherla Combs and the Case of the Great Jewel Robberies" and "The Decadent Housewives of Hysteria Lane."
Holmgren attracts a lot of her business through Tea Time Magazine and other publications that cater to women interested in hosting and attending tea parties. In her home, she displays dozens of intricate teapots and tea cups.
Although the game is designed for small groups, it can be played on a much larger scale. Maxine said a recent large-group game at Webb Hall, the Sun City town hall, raised more than $1,000 for the homeowners association Ways and Means Committee.
"Most younger women seem too busy for this," said Holmgren. "It's hard for them to find the time. But I have gotten some requests from young moms for a theme to use in a child's birthday party.
"This keeps me busy every day, answering emails and sending out booklets. It's a great activity for a girls' night out and I love it."