An immersive theater experience transports the audience back to the Prohibition era, interpreting a murder mystery from a new angle each week
On 14 March 1935 in the Bronx, New York, a man named Frank Spano was shot to death in front of his 12-year-old son Dominick. John Guerrieri, the man who held the gun, was their neighbor and father to Dominick's friend—and would later get off scot-free with no jail time. Nearly eight decades later, Spano's granddaughter and artist Cynthia Von Buhler, has tried to solve the many questions behind his death—a mystery that was never resolved by the police or even her family. Her personal interpretation, based on research of public documents and interviews with family members, manifested in a dollhouse. She then brought this to life in "Speakeasy Dollhouse: The Bloody Beginning," an immersive theatrical show that relives the night of the murder, featuring all the required elements of adultery, jealousy, the mob, a bookshelf that swings open, a woman in labor and more.
The night begins on an unassuming sidewalk in New York's Lower East Side. By whispering a password to two policemen, we were granted access to an underground tunnel leading to the speakeasy and given slips of paper with our role to play for the night. These roles (as well as the suggestion to dress up in the latest '20s fashion) are completely voluntary—the show can go on without you—but the more you invest into the night, the more you reap from the experience. "Ignore the advice your parents gave you as children: Be nosy and talk to strangers," and don't sit down in one place for too long or you'll miss the most important scenes, which take place outside of the main bar area—even in the alleyway.
Upon entering the speakeasy, the setting alone is enough to convince you that you're in the 1930s, the end of the Prohibition era when drinking alcoholic beverages in bars was still an illegal activity. The band, Grandpa Musselman and His Syncopators, plays Depression-era swing tunes as bartenders serve drinks in teacups and mugs. People clad in vintage garments sip on them on plush, red velvet furniture, playing cards in one corner as others try to deduce who might be an actor and who is an audience member. Sometimes, their tennis shoes give them away—but there were some enthusiastic people participating in every scene who had us scratching our heads even after show. Burlesque dancers also entertain the crowd in between drink refills.
Upon further inspection, we discover that there's more to the space (which functions as a regular lounge bar during the week called The Back Room) that meets the eye. Von Buhler has carefully arranged props such as skulls, a vintage record player, religious paraphernalia and more. One of the restrooms has been transformed into a coroner's office, complete with dead body and medical specimens. Furthermore, a bookshelf swings open to reveal a hidden room, where a bed is set up, with rosary candles adding to the mood.
"My grandfather was murdered by this barber, John Guerrieri, over a children's fight—but there's possibly more to it than the children's fight, which you saw tonight," Von Buhler tells CH. "But I believe that [mobster] Dutch Schultz had something to do with it because he had a speakeasy in the Bronx, right down the street from my grandfather's. Dutch Schultz didn't want anybody else bootlegging. My grandfather, he would do whatever he wanted to do, he wasn't afraid of Dutch Schultz."
"What I found out from the court records, where it said, 'Case Dismissed,' said 'Hulon Capshaw.' Then I looked up Capshaw and discovered that this man was working for Dutch Schultz. He got disbarred from practicing law only a couple months after my grandfather died. Jimmy Hines was running Tamany Hall and he was also part of that whole thing. So I made this connection to something much larger than this fight between two kids." (Dutch Schultz has a pretty impressive Wikipedia page, which we recommend checking out to understand just how nefarious he was.)
Unraveling the mysterious details of this true story, one thread—in the form of autopsy reports and police records—at a time, Von Buhler brings these historic characters to life and relives the night of her grandfather's murder every Saturday through this living, breathing dollhouse. "I write and illustrate children's books and I make dollhouses for them," says Von Buhler. "I was doing a graphic novel with Amanda Palmer and Neil Gaiman—she wrote one [called "Evelyn Evelyn"] and I illustrated it—so I thought a story about my grandfather would make a great graphic novel because it's this weird story I wanted to investigate." With help from Kickstarter, Von Buhler's life story is told through dolls, following her moves around the country and how she came to tap the secrets surrounding her grandfather's murder. Her attention to detail in creating these miniature sets—down to the real human hair and blood splatters—is captivating and others agree; all copies have sold out, but a PDF version is available for free download online.
Von Buhler cites Punchdrunk's successful choose-your-own-adventure production "Sleep No More" as one of her direct influences and wanted to tell her family's story in a similarly immersive environment. The biggest difference, of course, is that the actors do have a voice in "Speakeasy Dollhouse," and the atmosphere is much more relaxed and open to audience interaction.
The best acting, we discovered, doesn't occur during the scripted scenes—but during personal one-on-one moments with audience members, if you gather enough courage to ask them questions (which is part of the roles that Von Buhler has distributed at the beginning), or if you're lucky to overhear the conversation of others. We saw the murderer lurking to the side of the bar and asked him why he really pulled the trigger and if he was drunk—only to have him turn the tables on us, pointing to the Old Fashioned in our hands. The actors have done a stellar job of interacting with the audience and responding to unexpected questions and scrutiny, without ever stepping out of character.
Furthermore, the production slightly differs week-to-week. "We always have different themes for the show, to investigate," says Von Buhler. "Tonight's theme was Ellis Island, or immigration. Halloween, we have vampires and zombies; maybe they died because my grandpa was a vampire. We do change it up for all the different shows." Tonight's show was peppered with references to Spano being an immigrant from Bario, Italy and focused on his background. Past shows have revolved around different explanations for Spano's murder such as jealousy, a lack of respect—or even pure bad luck. This is another example of how the actors work on an additional level of improvisation, adding spontaneity and freshness to the show, even in its second year running.
Our final advice to future audience members: Keep an eye on Von Buhler, who has been present at every single show—minus two—since the production launched in 2011. She's the siren in the red dress who starts moving to the next room when the scenes are about to change—and has just as much fun as those who are watching for the first time. And hold on to that slip of paper with your intended role: If you're particularly lucky, like we were, you just might get to shoot someone.
While other NYC speakeasy-type bars might have you waiting in line outside for up to an hour, you're guaranteed entry to Speakeasy Dollhouse with a single password. Tickets are only available for purchase in advance for $55 online; to go further into the story, read the character bios at the official Speakeasy Dollhouse website. For those who have already witnessed the murder of Frank Spano, keep an eye out for the spin-off featuring the Booth Brothers to come out next March in 2014. Von Buhler's research taps into the possible theory that President Abraham Lincoln's assassination may have been the result of a sibling rivalry, instead of a political maneuver.
Images courtesy of Christopher Anderson (c) 2013
An irreverent spin through our holiday bestowments
by CH Editors in Design on 09 December 2013
Add a little humor to the holiday season by presenting friends and loved ones with a reason to laugh in the form of a useful object. From Perks and Mini's Carefree Willy keychain to Muffin Top muffin cups, or the gift everyone can get involved in—Cards Against Humanity—here are 10 items culled from the regularly updated Cool Hunting Gift Guide that will bring about the joy and prompt loads of laughing out loud. Keep track of your favorites by signing in and clicking the heart icon, which you can share as a wishlist or ogle when you need an afternoon pick-me-up.
Pig Cooking Lid
You've already got the pot and the belly—now all you need is the pig. MoMA's handy Pig Cooking Lid can be placed on any pot and helps food cook easily as hot water vapor releases through its silicone snout—while looking adorable in the process. This useful item was originally featured in MoMA's Destination: Japan, an exclusive curated collection featuring cutting-edge Japanese products. The perfect gift for home cooks, pig-lovers or design enthusiasts, this most hotheaded of swine is ready to blow off some steam.
Buddha Butter Dish
Few things have brought so much joy to this world as Buddha and butter have. Now, the two great forces combine in this mind-blowing Buddha butter dish, created with a mission to provide self-accepting inner-peace as you grow a Buddha belly of your own. Buddha says, "Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment." So spread that butter on without fear, enjoy the present and embrace the impermanence of that belly.
Muffin Top Muffin Cups
We couldn't think of a more fitting time than the holidays to pay homage to the glorious muffin top. A cushioning part of our anatomy, often scorned, these supple bits of softness form a necessary layer during the colder months, and serve as a well-earned record of many overindulgent yet delicious holiday feasts. Muffin Top Muffin Cups will offer an ironic pause as you enjoy your home baked muffin. New Year's resolutions don't kick until January, so 'til then, embrace those sexy curves and eat up.
Dinosaur iPhone Stand
Add a prehistoric touch to modern technology with a dinosaur smartphone dock. The re-conceived toy figures use the Jurassic reptile’s hefty tail for stability, which is attached to a suction cup that temporarily adheres to your device. The hand-painted docks come in a variety of bright colors and you can also request your favorite hue.
Carefree Willy Keychain
From cult fave Down Under designers Perks And Mini's "Sometimes I Wander" collection, this statement-making Aussie woodsman seems to be enjoying the breeze. Willy takes a titillating trek in the nude without a worry in the world—no fear of being ticketed for public nudity when you are deep in the Australian bush. This amusing character is sure to elicit a chuckle every time you reach for the keys.
LA-based Cast of Vices designs around society's inevitable demise and the "cigarette butts, pills, bottle caps and coke bags" that will be left behind, addressing both our addictions and tendencies toward self-medication. They've include the pesky fly in their collection to signify the nagging and noxious nature of our bad habits. Melancholic metaphors aside, this most irritating of insects takes on a new beauty when transformed into these semi-precious cufflinks, sure to generate some buzz at any formal gathering.
Cards Against Humanity
The game that started with a Kickstarter campaign and often ends with awkward conversations about tentacle porn is the ultimate good-time gift. Referred to as a party game for horrible people, Cards Against Humanity causes endless uncomfortable moments, huge amounts of rolling on the floor laughter, and unforgettable images and scenarios which will be forever etched into your brain, such as a micropig wearing a tiny raincoat and booties, a sad fat dragon with no friends and many more.
For an excellent gag gift, look no further than Solid ID's Naughty Gnome. A curmudgeonly character with a clear message, this little lad looks as if he has been doused in paint and is less than happy about it. Make it a brilliant—if not slightly awkward—conversation starter in the garden, the office, the living room or any other environment where one is not afraid to offend.
Kastor Pencil Sharpener
Anyone who has ever seen a beaver dam knows that those rodents have a pretty powerful set of choppers. Put your own little herbivore to work with this humorous sharpener designed by Rodrigo Torres for Alessi, known for their quirky objects which go far beyond function. Molded from chrome-plated zamak, your resourceful desk assistant is biologically evolved for the task of whittling your graphite, and eager to chomp.
Oh, how the mighty have fallen. In the glorious 1980s, Y-Front Mouse soared to superstardom with his catchy jingles, TV and radio shows. Three decades later, fame has done him in. The beloved rodent is reduced to a sad alcoholic living alone in a pub and still wearing his trademark Y-front pants—AKA tighty whiteys. But he's poised for a comeback, which you can follow in this heartwarming, illustrated success story. With his buddy Bad Tooth, Y-Front embarks on a fantastic journey to once again, achieve greatness.
A design inspiration for the watch, these Roman ruins are now a theater
by David Graver in Culture on 09 December 2013
Continuing our ongoing series with Bulgari, in celebration of the designs that inspired their Octo watch line, we've delved into the past, present and future of Rome's Terme di Caracalla. This great structure, built around 212 AD, was reborn as a theater among ruins in 1937 and is the site of theatrical innovation to this day. As Bulgari found a way to reenvision the classic beauty of the octagon, so has Opera Roma with Terme di Caracalla.
Ornate details graced the interior of this vast complex, which frequently incorporated octagonal shapes into its design. The geometry of perfection, as Bulgari refers to it, gracefully manifested in the structure, as well as the strive for design reflecting eternity. Terme di Caracalla would inspire London's St. George Hall, the original NYC Pennsylvania Station and, ultimately, Bulgari's Octo. Over centuries, Terme di Caracalla morphed, and its usage with it, while forever being one of the most frequented set of Basque ruins in Rome.
Today, you'll find 22 well-preserved columns among broken walls and archways and also: Opera. In the face of change across centuries, its essence remains as timeless and relevant as the octagon itself. The Octo, different from the crowd of watches today, but with grand architectural influence, shares these extensive values.
In 1937, the governor of Rome, Piero Colonna, presented the unconventional idea of an open air theater within the Baths of Caracalla. Commencing in August of that year, and nicknamed "teatro del popolo" (meaning "theater of the people"), it became an expression of rediscovery—both of the archeological site and also of popular taste in opera. On its opening night, it was the biggest stage in the world. Although the first season was brief; eight days with five performances total (three of Lucia di Lammermoor and two of Tosca), it really was just the beginning. Of equal importance, it was a refreshing modernized use of art within a design representing eternal values. This, too, stands as a fundamental reference point within the Octo's development and identity.
Terme di Caracalla functioned as an important cultural hub, drawing global visitors to expansive under-the-air performances. Although it shuttered in 1993, the venue opened once more in 2001 and remains open today. Logistically, the operas are no longer performed amidst the ruins, but they now create an extraordinary frame for the Summer Teatro dell'Opera di Roma Opera and the Ballet Season. Much in the same way, the Octo's shapely case encircles the magic of the movement within. Terme di Caracalla brought inspiration to throngs of people, across various iterations of usage. In doing so, it also inspired the beautiful designs of Bulgari's Octo, as its octagonal construct expresses the evolutionary quest of a refined, classic composition.
The Bulgari Octo Collection, in stainless steel or pink gold, is available at Bulgari stores nationwide and at Bulgari. Prices range from $8,600 to $60,000.
Terme di Caracalla images courtesy of Opera Roma, Octo image courtesy of Bulgari