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.
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