All Articles
All Articles

Speakeasy Dollhouse: The Bloody Beginning


Speakeasy Dollhouse: The Bloody Beginning

An immersive theater experience transports the audience back to the Prohibition era, interpreting a murder mystery from a new angle each week

by Nara Shin
on 09 December 2013

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, crime scene investigation style. 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.

speakeasy-dollhouse-9.jpg speakeasy-dollhouse-10.jpg

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.

On 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, Jason Webley 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 of her prologue novel 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 Bari, 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

The CH25 is a showcase of creators and innovators from a broad range of disciplines who are currently working to drive the world forward.

Sabine Seymour

A future where smart clothes are as ubiquitous as zippers

Read More
In the future you will not buy a piece of 'functional' clothing without SoftSpot

Marcus Weller

Using technology to turn motorcycle helmet design on its head

Read More
I was taken aback both by the number of people that doubted it, and by the equally large number of people that got behind it

Cynthia Breazeal

How an emotional, empathetic robot named Jibo stands to revolutionize communication

Read More
The thing that's so provocative about social robots is that it's fundamentally a community technology

Tal Danino

The bioengineer who’s programming DNA to fight cancer

Read More
[Manipulating genes] is very new, people are just learning how to program these organisms

Leopoldine Huyghues Despointes

The young filmmaker and non-profit founder who just wants people to follow their dreams

Read More
I feel confident and ready to accomplish so much more, the movement is on

George Arriola and Monohm

An heirloom electronic for the post-smartphone era

Read More
We agonized during the design process as all hyper-obsessed craftspeople should

Lulu Mickelson

A civic leader bringing change to NYC through design

Read More
Human-centered design is one of the many tools that we can use to better engage the public

LaToya Ruby Frazier

Documenting the slow, troubling change in Braddock, Pennsylvania

Read More
I am not a journalist, I am a conceptual documentary artist using my visual expression for building narratives that are unseen and unheard

Pauline van Dongen

The Dutch designer blazing the wearable technology path

Read More
I’m fascinated by concepts of change, movement, energy and perception; since they are closely related to the way we experience the world

Roxie Darling

From un-shampoo to transgender identity, the NYC colorist boldly defining the next chapter of hair

Read More
Hair color is as much a science as it is a craft

Joshua Harker

Pushing the boundaries of sculpture with intricate 3D printing

Read More
My intent was to explore and depict the architecture of the imagination, to interpret and share forms evident in the mind’s eye

Vanessa Newman

Redesigning pregnancy for the post-gender generation with Butchbaby & Co.

Read More
I want my customers to feel comfortable and unchanged, in that becoming pregnant didn't take away from or compromise their identity

Melissa Kushner

Addressing the needs of orphans and vulnerable children in Malawi through microenterprise

Read More
Poverty is complicated, there is an increasing temptation and pressure in the development space to oversimplify things

Meredith Perry

How searching the Internet helped a 22-year-old invent wireless electricity

Read More
It’s not about where the information is, it’s about how you use the tools

Tarren Wolfe

The next-generation appliance making kitchens greener—literally

Read More
Our goal is to provide food for everyone in the world, and the best place to start is in our very own community

Matt Kenyon

Fusing art and technology to disrupt concepts of corporate America

Read More
I want the work to live in the world and circulate, so it can generate more dialogue

Jonathan Sparks

Reinventing electronic music by inventing multi-disciplinary instruments

Read More
Recorded music is becoming so cheap, so the value of music is now in live performance

Dan Barasch + James Ramsey

A quest to make the future brighter—underground

Read More
We both share a passion for groundbreaking technology and a shared love of New York

Kegan Schouwenburg

Revolutionizing orthotics through 3D-printed insoles

Read More
What orthotics do is they effectively change the geometry of what your alignment is like

Douglas Riboud + Justin Guilbert

How a mission to create great coconut water led to a whole new way of doing business

Read More
We’ve made a conscious decision to be as transparent and honest as we can, and let people decide for themselves

Sarah Kunst

The entrepreneur single-handedly changing the landscape for women in tech

Read More
People who live on a planet that is half women but can never seem to find any when they need one, I have solved your problem

Alex Kalman

The tiny museum in Manhattan that’s redefining museums

Read More
The mission is to put this small simple and powerful tool into the hands of as many people as possible

Kathleen Supové

The NYC performance artist who’s radically reinventing the piano recital

Read More
I like pieces that are virtuosic, that show off the piano and what it can do, and are awe-inspiring

Corinne Joachim Sanon

The chocolatier bringing social change to Haiti and bean-to-bar chocolate to the world

Read More
Seeing the poverty surrounding me and the lack of jobs and opportunity bothered me

Eelke Plasmeijer

The locally driven restaurant that’s upending Balinese food culture

Read More
We really try to keep things simple and let the produce do the talking
Loading More...