Longtime Barrington retiree starts escape room business to serve town's youths
Barrington resident Van J. Paulus retired more than 35 years ago from his first career in outdoor advertising, but the 86-year-old is plenty busy these days in his new venture as an entertainment entrepreneur.
Paulus had a vision to remake part of a dingy former automobile dealership on Northwest Highway in his hometown into an upscale escape room venue he's calling Xscape In Time. Now open, the center features six high-tech escape rooms that Paulus estimates cost $250,000 apiece to construct.
"I know there is a wall for me, but I am going to keep going as long as I can," Paulus said.
Escape rooms have been popping up in the suburbs since 2014 -- some in office parks, strip malls and vacant downtown storefronts -- and attract a variety of clients, including families and corporations seeking team-building activities for employees.
Games typically last an hour and involve players being locked in a room, then using clues and teamwork to solve puzzles and riddles necessary to escape.
Paulus said the venue fills a need in and around Barrington.
"People were saying Barrington needed something for people to be entertained, that there was nothing here," he said.
Paulus has a youthful staff who lead the games and handle other tasks.
They not only enjoy working for the accomplished businessman they know simply as Van, but they also appreciate his creating a place they and their teenage peers can enjoy in Barrington.
"Like Van said, there is nothing around here to do," said Xscape In Time gamemaster Evan Ritchie, 18, a Barrington High School student.
"And that's very accurate. If you ever wanted to hang out somewhere, you go to a different town. So, it's really nice to have something around here that's good to do with friends and have a good time that's not super far away."
Xscape In Time has joined Dawson Builders in the former Champion Dodge Chrysler Jeep dealership that closed in October 2008 and sat vacant for about nine years. The venue's industrial chic interior is home to escape rooms called Cell Block 4, Dragon's Spire, Tomb of the Pharaoh, Cure of Captain Scurby, Undead Alley and Public Wizard School, along with a party room.
Gamemaster Chris Bittle, 17, also a Barrington High student, said Xscape In Time has rooms that are more interactive than others he's visited.
"I'm proud to say I get to play in them all day," Bittle said.
Paulus retired from his first career after selling Paulus Outdoor Displays' Los Angeles branch to Gannett Co. in 1977, followed by 3M Co.'s purchase of the company's Chicago-area billboards in 1982.
He went back to work as a real estate developer through the 1980s, leading projects that included the Fenview Estates subdivision near Kelsey Road in Tower Lakes.
Now, Paulus leads an escape room business, where instead of dealing with corporate types, he works alongside young employees whose perspectives he enjoys.
"I never stop learning," Paulus said.