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The Interview: Christina Basham

Mixologist / Entrepreneur Even at a young age, Christina Basham carried with her the ingredients for success in the service industry—a gregarious nature, formidable attention to detail, an amiable personality, and the mouth of a goddamn sailor. Basham gives me the grand tour of the winding Middle West Spirits distillery, detailing the various applications of [...]
Danny Hamen

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Mixologist / Entrepreneur

Even at a young age, Christina Basham carried with her the ingredients for success in the service industry—a gregarious nature, formidable attention to detail, an amiable personality, and the mouth of a goddamn sailor.

Basham gives me the grand tour of the winding Middle West Spirits distillery, detailing the various applications of the towering bronze stills that inhabit the prodigious space. Her golden locks flow feverishly down her ‘90s-style, cocktail-peppered shirt as she explains the real difference between regular gin and dry gin while pouring me a 100-proof taster straight from the elephantine still. As the Sales Manager, former Brand Ambassador, and master Mixologist (and I don’t use that term lightly) at Middle West, it’s Basham’s job to know her shit.

Basham has racked up over 15 years of experience in the service industry, from shaking drinks at local dives, managing the beloved but departed Wall Street Bar and Buckeye Bourbon House, and hosting her uniquely inspired craft cocktail pop-ups, to judging prestigious cocktail competitions. A Goliath of her trade who has put in her time and moved up the ranks, Basham’s eyes are now fixed on the position of president of the Columbus chapter of the United States Bartenders Guild.

The relationship between the ingredients in your glass and the person shaking them isn’t always important, but it’s almost always interesting. The folks who expertly distill, produce, blend, pour, and/or create your delicious intoxication juice are more than just faces behind a bar—they are influential figures representing the best our city has to offer.

“I felt like, to the world, I never made a lot of sense. This is a place where I can live in all of my weird, and I was supported. People are into it.”

What experiences helped sharpen your teeth in the industry?

Christina Basham: The answer is twofold—I was 21 when I started working at Applebee’s. I wanted to go back to school, so I started serving, eventually moving behind the bar. I still remember that they made us wear these horrible pink and purple t-shirts that said “Half-and-Half Happy Hour” where half of the letters were garnishes. I just remember thinking, “What did I do…. This is not who I am.” I was a young, queer-identified woman working alongside a lot of people who were, well… not that. And it was very challenging.

What really cut my teeth in the industry was years of working corporate turn and burn and managing a nightclub [Wall Street] that served as the last stop on the train for many people—the people you see at their absolute darkest moments, their most booze-induced moments.
Then I moved to Denver in 2011 for a relationship that didn’t work out. I interviewed for a job for the Edible Beats group. I didn’t have the chops just then. It took four to five months, but I got there. The leveled of curated hospitality in that space and attention to detail was something I had never seen before and I was in love. This is what I was waiting for.

But when I moved back home, I didn’t have the network. Sure, I had the gay kids, the turn-and-burn kids, and the club kids, but I didn’t have the fine dining and craft cocktail kids. I needed to create a secondary network that let me be that part of who I really was.

How did that relationship building begin?

CB: I was working at Barrel 44. At that time, we were voted best cocktail list, and I was so curious because at that time they were still putting club soda in their Old Fashioneds. I remember them looking at me like I’m a crazy person for shaming them because I had come from Wall Street nightclub where I only poured three styles of flavored vodka into a glass.

The turning point was working at the Kitchen at German Village. Anne [Boninsegna] and Jen [Lindsey] very quickly became family to me, two older sisters I never knew I needed. I had access to all of these ingredients I’d never had before, and they just let me do what I wanted.

Over the course of two years, I split my time between selling and organizing events, organizing the bar, and bartending two or three events a week. That’s when I decided to join the US Bartenders Guild.

You decided to throw in the bar towel and start in sales for Middle West Spirits. How do you think they stand out from other distilleries?

CB: We are the first post-prohibition distillery in Ohio. It’s even cooler when you consider prohibition started in Westerville. I think we are honest about what we do. Every drop we make is made here. We source our wheat from Ohio, the same place that Ritz, Pillsbury, and Donatos get their wheat from. It’s funny, nobody who originally invested in the company is from here; they just fell in love with the state and decided to move. There is something great about drinking local— putting money back into the city and the local economy. I don’t think any brand loves the agriculture in this state as much as Middle West.

Columbus has seen a renaissance recently in the way of spirits and cocktails. Why do you think cocktails are an important part of Columbus culture?

CB: Cocktails allows creatives to live in a space where they can really shine. You’re giving them a stage to be expressive. That is what is so amazing about food and beverage and hospitality is that people can be who they really are. I love feeling a part of the underdogs, that secret society. Even though there is a bit of a chip on your shoulder, there is something sexy about that, ya know? I felt like, to the world, I never made a lot of sense. This is a place where I can live in all of my weird, and I was supported. People are into it.
Craft cocktails have made us relevant on a national level. People like Annie Williams Pierce and Alex Chin, these people who have competed and done really well. When you compete, you are just a name and a city. It’s not just you.

What is the difference between a good drink and a great drink?

CB: I think the service is the catalyst for the drink. That and intentionality. You can serve a highball cocktail, but if it’s served with intentionality, it’s just different. You can feel it and sense it. There’s just a level of exceptional…. Something that makes it different. Of course when it comes to cocktails, fresh juice over frozen, quality ingredients—you can’t take a great recipe and put a shitty vodka in it, it’s just not going to be the same. People are simplifying nowadays. You don’t get a high five for adding 17 styles of bitters in a cocktail. Nobody cares. It’s booze, it’s not rocket science.

Tell me about Bubbles and Agave.

CB: I’d always hoped for more time to do private cocktail events and at-home cocktail classes. I really love all of that stuff, and I’ve been doing it as a side hustle for years. Once I was able to balance my work life and home life with my job at Middle West, in October I got a surge of energy and said, “I’m gonna do this.” So I filed my LLC and I’m working on getting the website up. Basically I come and do craft cocktail classes—I bring the tools, everything you need. I love empowering people to make the most of their home bar. Going out and dining is amazing, but it’s not the most friendly to your budget. If you can figure out how to make a simple syrup at your house and get really creative, or if you can feel comfortable mixing drinks, it’s an amazing feeling—like knowing that you have secrets in your pocket. If I can send people home with that feeling, well, that is what really really excites me.

Look for Basham’s website, bubblesandagave.com, coming soon!

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Scream Team: Behind-the-scenes look at local haunting industry

Mike Thomas

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Like many a fiend of silver screen fame, the origins of Kelly Collins’ career in terror involve some teens, a campground, and a fateful ride into the deep, dark woods.

Thirty-eight years ago, Collins was general manager at a campground. Every Saturday at noon, he’d hook up a wagon to a tractor and treat the young campers to a hayride through the woods. The route Collins followed circled around an old oak tree, before turning around and coming back to the start. One Saturday, some mischievous teens sprang out from behind the tree, giving quite a scare to the unsuspecting wagoneers. All of the children screamed in surprise—then they laughed.

Kelly Collins (Photo: Brian Kaiser)

This gave Collins an idea. To spice up his little hayride, he would arrange for the teens to act out the same routine the next Saturday— but this time, he’d up the ante by giving them rubber masks to wear. His plan was set in motion, and this time, the startled youngsters on the wagon cried all the way back to the campground.

“That was a bad idea, but it got me thinking...Why don’t we have a hayride at night and call it the ‘Spooky Hayride?’ ” Collins recalls. By fine-tuning the balance between fear and fun, Collins’ new enterprise was a success, and would set him on the path to a lifelong career in the haunted house business, or “haunting” as it’s known to its practitioners.

Early in his career, Collins became a key figure in the Central Ohio scream scene. After his haunted hayride, he spent a couple of seasons overseeing the Hallowscream event at the now- defunct Wyandot Lake. It was there that he was approached by Ken Schnacke, General Manager and President of the Columbus Clippers baseball team, who tapped Collins to create and lead the “Terror Park” event that was held at Cooper Stadium for a decade.

When the Clippers made the move to Huntington Park, the Terror Park event was shelved. Collins set out again on his own, founding the Scareatorium: a haunted house attraction occupying a 40,000-square-foot space in a northeast Columbus strip mall.

Over the next decade, the Scareatorium would serve as a hub for haunters, attracting and nurturing some of the city’s top talents in the field. From actors, makeup artists, set designers and people who just appreciate a good scare, the group that grew from Collins’ enterprise came together over buckets of blood and latex viscera, but now enjoy the valuable connection of a genuine community.

A longtime compatriot of Collins, Keith Newsome was one of the creative minds behind Terror Park and the Scareatorium. Though he specializes in visual effects design and fabrication, Newsome’s talents in haunting are wide-ranging. Since retiring from 13th Floor, Newsome has remained a vital member of the community, teaching classes on topics ranging from makeup application to mask making and performance.

Keith Newsome (Photo: Brian Kaiser)

This season, he’s lending his skills to an attraction in Lancaster, Ohio titled “A True American Haunt: Birth of a Nightmare.” The house is set up in the Miller Building, a “poor house” originally built in 1828, which event promoters suggest may in fact be haunted. According to Newsome, the building is classified as one of the top-10 haunted houses in the United States, and was recently filmed for an upcoming episode of The Travel Channel show Destination Fear.

“It’s actually a haunted place. I don’t believe in that crap...I do now,” says Newsome. “There’s something in that place. I don’t go on the third or fourth floor anymore.”

Keith Newsome (Photo: Brian Kaiser)

Whether patrons can expect to encounter bona fide spirits along with latex-clad actors in this haunt remains to be seen, but whatever the case, the event serves an important purpose. All proceeds from this haunt will benefit Habitat for Humanity’s plan to revitalize the historic Miller Building, and to help build housing for local veterans.

The charitable angle for this event comes as no surprise in an industry that at times seems like an extended family. People attracted to haunting come from every imaginable background, but are united by a common passion.

“I’ve had people who are financial managers of huge companies, down to people who are almost homeless,” says Newsome. “The cool part about it is that we treat everybody equally. When you walk in, you’re automatically family.”

One member of Newsome’s haunt family is Bobbi Jo Gonzalez, an artist who has turned a passion for body art and makeup into a year-round career.

Bobbi Jo Gonzalez (Photo: Brian Kaiser)

Gonzalez’s first foray into the industry came while volunteering with her eldest daughters at a home haunt. Stepping up to fill the need for a makeup artist, Gonzalez gleaned what she could from YouTube videos. Her tool kit at that time consisted of, as she calls it, “that really crappy makeup you get at Kroger around Halloween.”

After encouragement from her peers at smaller attractions, Gonzalez eventually made her way to the Scareatorium, where she met Newsome. Newsome introduced her to higher-quality, water-based makeup, and she went on to mentor under the more experienced effects artist for two years.

Photo: Brian Kaiser

Today, Gonzalez is the owner of Aftershock Art, a thriving face painting and body art company that operates year-round. She’s also found a healthy sideline doing moulage—the art of creating realistic, simulated injuries on actors during training exercises for the military and first responders.

Like her mentor, Gonzalez sees the past support and encouragement from members of the haunt community as a foundation of the success she now enjoys.

“It’s something that we’re all passionate about, so once you find your niche in that community, it doesn’t matter what your background is, what your religion is, what your sexual orientation is—you have that weird background, and you have a family for life,” Gonzalez explains.

While basking in the warm embrace of your fellow ghoul is reason enough to keep some hooked on this line of work, there’s another essential element that unifies all haunters: the love of the scare.

“I fell in love. I didn’t know you could have so much fun scaring people,” says Ashley Shilling, another former employee of Collins from the Sacreatorium days who today serves as general manager of the 13th Floor Haunt.

Ashley Shilling (Photo: Brian Kaiser)

“Being an actor is a huge stress relief,” Shilling explains. “Getting to scare people kicks in your endorphins, especially if you can make a big man that looks very intimidating scream like a little girl—that’s a lot of fun. At the end of the night, you’re just relaxed.”

Whether drawn to a sense of community that can sometimes be hard to find in the world at large, or simply in it for the thrill of scaring people, the haunting industry has an undeniable pull for those that find their way into its spooky ranks. Even retired industry veteran Collins is unable to fully step away from the work, and is gearing up for his first season as manager of a Spirit Halloween supply store in Newark, Ohio.

“When you scare people, and they scream and run away from you, it’s a great way to let out pent-up frustration,” Collins says. “You could have the worst day in the world, and within a few minutes of working at the haunted house, you feel so much better. It’s a great tension reliever.”

In professional haunting, one person’s fear is another’s bliss.

For more information on the 13th Floor Haunt and other haunted houses happening in October, click here.

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Photo Gallery: HighBall Halloween

614now Staff

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HighBall Halloween is the nation’s most elaborate costume party. Staged in the Art & Soul of Columbus, the annual event bridges runway style with the culture of the Short North Arts District.

Much like in years past, the city turned out in full force and full costume to celebrate fashion, fall, and fun with host Nina West.

Here's a look at some of the best looks of HighBall 2019:

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I Love My Job: CBJ national anthem singer Leo Welsh

Regina Fox

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Every day, people all around Columbus drive/ride/walk to their jobs, eager to contribute their passion and talent to the city. This series aims to highlight those people and give them a platform to spread their love for their careers. Welcome to I Love My Job.

You may not know his face (depending on your seats), but you definitely know his name: LEO! Longtime Columbus Blue Jackets national anthem singer Leo Welsh has been stealing the hearts of hockey-goers at Nationwide Arena with his impressive pipes and passion for the game since 2003.

Here is why he loves his job so much:

614: What do you love most about your job? 

LW: The thing I love most about my position with the CBJ is being such a fan and being part of the game experience. It is a total thrill every single time. 

614: What parts of your job do you find most challenging?

LW: The most challenging part would have to be maintaining my health during the winter. Hard to sing well when you aren’t feeling your best. 

614: What is the most rewarding part of your job?

LW: The most rewarding aspect is when I am singing and I can see young people singing along to our National Anthem.

614: What’s the best story you have from your time with the Columbus Blue Jackets?

LW: So many great stories and interactions with fans and our military honorees. Most recently the playoffs from last year strand out. The CBJ had a World War II veteran on the ice with me every night. These men were all special and excited the crowd and made it very easy for me to be focused on honoring our country. Several were arm in arm with me and singing along to our National Anthem, very special moments. 

614: Who has been the most influential mentor in your career so far?

LW: I have had many great teachers and mentors. Maestro William Boggs stands out. He is one of the reasons I moved to Columbus following graduation from Ohio University. He offered me a job with Opera Columbus. He was critical when he needed to be, demanded preparation from his singers and was supportive by offering examples and best practices at all times. Truly a great mentor.

Leo will be leading players and fans in the national anthem this Friday as the Blue Jackets open their season against the Toronto Maple Leafs at Nationwide Arena. Puck drops at 7pm.

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