Cynthia von Buhler and Speakeasy Dollhouse were featured in "A Gurney for Grandpa" (Season 3, Episode 16) on the Science Channel (Discovery) television show Oddities. Buy the episode HERE for $1.99.
Inside the Speakeasy Dollhouse, The Documentary
Of Dolls & Murder, directed by Susan Marks and narrated by John Waters is a documentary about Francis Glessner Lee’s crime scene investigation dollhouse dioramas. Marks has recently finished "Inside the Speakeasy Dollhouse" which is a sequel to "Of Dolls & Murder." You can now order the film when you buy your tickets!
The Wall Street Journal
Mobsters and Murder on the Lower East Side
From an opera singer belting it out in a barber-shop-meets-bakery to a birth to an unsolved death—which both occurred on the same day—there is little down time in “Speakeasy Dollhouse,” a recurring re-enactment of a Prohibition-era murder mystery on the Lower East Side.
“There’s constantly something happening,” said Cynthia von Buhler, the creator of this immersive and somewhat secretive gig. “I don’t want there to be lulls. If you’re downstairs, something’s happening. If you’re upstairs, something’s happening.”
The murdered man, Frank Spano, is based on Ms. von Buhler’s real-life grandfather, who was killed the same day as her mother was born, in 1935. “Speakeasy Dollhouse” was born from Ms. von Buhler’s obsession with his death.
“This is a mystery in my family. My mother was very against my looking into it,” she explained, saying sheer curiosity caused her to dig deeper and deeper into the research. “Now [my mom] thinks it’s the greatest thing.”
No ordinary theater experience, the story is brought to life in three hours by rich characters—including mobsters, authorities and burlesque girls—who interact with the crowd as the action unfolds. Held at the Back Room with interiors, tunnels and an alley setting the scene perfectly, ticketholders line up outside on the first Saturday and Monday of every month, supplying a password they’ve been sent via email at the door. Additional emails sent in advance of the event include news articles, court documents and autopsy reports.“Every show is different from the previous. It’s a working crime lab,” said Josh Weinstein, who assumes the role of German-Jewish-American mobster Dutch Schultz.
“We improvise a lot of it,” added Ms. von Buhler’s husband, Russell Farhang, who also acts as her late grandfather, Frank Spano.
“We’ve made a lot of changes,” explained Ms. von Buhler. “The show has become more surreal. I’m from 1979.” Though surrounded by people dressed in flapper garb, her own outfit included Chuck Taylor sneakers and a tattered Ramones tee, as well as a black wig styled in a bob with bangs.
“I think dressing up is fun, no matter the occasion, so I was all into it,” offered Mark Becker, a handyman and part-time actor himself. “It creates a sort of solidarity among people, and this event was no exception. I noticed lots of folks admiring each others’ costumes. I’m not sure what era my style is from, but I did my best with a paperboy hat and suspenders.”
Though the monthly production launched in October 2011, “It’s kind of underground,” Ms. von Buhler said of her creation, which actually began as a Kickstarter campaign and was meant to run only one night. “It’s been entirely word-of-mouth and social networking,” added Mr. Farhang.
Ms. von Buhler and her team also have an unconventional approach to generating buzz, plastering tiny wooden doors with peepholes throughout Manhattan, each containing a QR code providing smartphone users with additional details.
“It’s selling out,” Ms. von Buhler beamed. “It’s like this thing that started small and just keeps growing.” She continued, “We have people come back who have been to every show. We see many of the same faces.” Maybe that is why it has been extended through June, possibly longer.
Nino Giaimo, perhaps better known as Vinny Guadagnino’s Uncle Nino on “Jersey Shore” and “The Show with Vinny,” acts as the undertaker, Dominick Grimaldi.
“It’s exciting,” Mr. Giaimo said. “It’s fake, but it’s real.” To this Ms. von Buhler chimed in, “It’s more real than reality TV!”
As for his favorite aspect of the performance, Mr. Becker shared his affinity for the macabre. “I was definitely most impressed with the coffin scene, based on what went into it.”
Mr. Farhang later said, “It’s actually pretty traumatic to go through the whole thing—the fighting and the dying. Then to hear people grieve at your funeral? It blew my mind the first time I did it.”
Of the actual casket, Ms. von Buhler said in all seriousness, “I want to be buried in it."
All The World's A Stage– Elisabeth Vincentelli, New York Post MORE
Theater heads offshore & to the bar
MURDER IN A BAR
Cynthia von Buhler has the kind of family footnote any writer would kill for: In 1935, her grandfather, Frank Spano, was shot dead on a Manhattan street. Intrigued, von Buhler started researching the case, discovering that Grandpa had ran a couple of speakeasies in The Bronx. First, the award-winning illustrator did a graphic novel about the story, reconstituting key scenes with dollhouse-like dioramas.
“Then I saw ‘Sleep No More,’ ” she says of the hit riff on “Macbeth,” set in a sprawling Chelsea warehouse, “and thought this could be a great immersive play.”
The result — “Speakeasy Dollhouse” — is performed twice a month at a Lower East Side club. Though the show is scripted and features two dozen actors, there’s also a participatory component as the audience helps investigate the mystery. “We have a complete environment with a private alley where we do the shooting, a bar, a living room where we lay the body,” von Buhler explains. “There’s even an abandoned bakery in the basement, and a secret bedroom that you access through a revolving bookshelf!”
The audience takes it to the next level: “You don’t have to dress up in period costumes, but most people do,” von Buhler says. “It’s a play, but it’s also a party.”
Immersive Theater Experiences
At these interactive shows, audiences don't just passively watch—they're part of the action.
Whether it’s diving into the madness of MacBeth, paying a visit to Wonderland or helping solve a decades-old murder, at a growing number of immersive theater productions around the city, audience members are invited to become part of the drama.
Rather than simply watching shows like Sleep No More or Then She Fell, you get to experience them viscerally–engaging with the characters and sets and often playing a role in the story yourself. Audience-engagement classics like the Blue Man Group have been incorporating the crowd for years, but this next generation of interactive shows pushes the participatory envelope even further. Here are a few of our current favorites.
Based on the unsolved 1935 murder of Prohibition-era speakeasy owner Frank Spano, Speakeasy Dollhouse invites guests to help solve the crime and become part of the drama. The show, created by Spano’s granddaughter Cynthia von Buhler, is housed in the downtown building that once served as mobster Meyer Lansky’s hangout (the address is kept a secret). Guests are assigned a name and a role and encouraged to collect as many clues as possible while exploring the unlocked doors and revolving bookshelves that adorn the 1920’s-inspired set.
Frank Spano, who immigrated from Italy in the Roaring Twenties, ran two speakeasies in the Bronx and was shot and killed in downtown Manhattan shortly after Prohibition ended. The mystery of his murder remains unsolved to this day. Von Buhler, who also authored a book about the crime, says her grandmother took the secret of her husband’s death to her grave, but guests are encouraged to put their whodunnit skills to the test and uncover the truth themselves. And when they’re not busy sorting out clues, they can enjoy the 1920’s-style moonshine, live jazz and burlesque dancers.
-Carey Purcell, NewYork.com MORE
Step Back in Time at Speakeasy DollhouseMobsters, murder, moonshine, and more at this immersive theater event
If you've always wondered what is was like during Prohibition, now is your chance to find out. Throw back some moonshine, cozy up to gangsters, ogle at burlesque dancers and solve a murder. Artist and author Cynthia Von Buhler is the woman behind Speakeasy Dollhouse. Cynthia's Italian immigrant grandfather, Frank Spano, owned a speakeasy and was killed in Manhattan in 1935. The shooter was caught but the case was inexplicably dismissed, leaving the murder a complete mystery.Cynthia brings this real-life crime to life as an immersive theater event that takes place the first weekend of each month. Each month's show explores a different motive behind the murder, from possible affairs to the Mafia. Prior to the show, guests will receive e-mails featuring actual news articles, court documents and autopsy reports, along with a secret password that will garner them entrance to the show. Make sure to come dressed in the proper attire...1930s-style.Each guest is assigned a role or task that they will need to complete during the course of the show (just hope you don't have to flirt with Dutch Schultz). Audience members can wander through the speakeasy, through the alleyway, indulge in cannolis at the bakery, stop in for a trim at the barber shop and even meander through the morgue. The audience does more than watch—they interact with the characters of the show, learning what they can, passing notes, and eavesdrop on private conversations. Guest performers have included Neil Gaiman, Amanda Palmer, Edgar Oliver, Nino Giaimo, and more. The show constantly evolves, making it a show you could see over and over again without getting bored.Speakeasy Dollhouse was originally intended to last only one night, but with such success, it has been extended through June and shows the first Saturday and Monday of each month. Tickets start at just $30 and can be purchased here. Don't miss your chance to see this truly unique show, because unlike other shows in the city, this one won't have you itching to get out of your seat. Von Buhler does an amazing job recreating the glamorous '30s lifestyle, paying attention to the smallest details, and making it seem authentic. Trust us, you'll be glad you took the time to check out this must-see show...besides, who would pass up the opportunity to dress up?
Immerse Yourself in a Real-Life, Unsolved Murder at Speakeasy Dollhouse
"Someone else is going to be killed!"
Such a devil-may-care attitude may be surprising in everyday life, but it is completely suitable for Speakeasy Dollhouse, the immersive theater experience created by Cynthia von Buhler. Inspired by the murder of her real-life grandfather Frank Spano, whose mysterious death remains unsolved to this day, Speakeasy Dollhouse takes place in a Prohibition-era speakeasy housed atop a bakery and barbershop which also serve as entrances to the bar. Guests at Speakeasy Dollhouse are invited to interact with the, "Ladies and gentlemen, flappers and dappers!" of the era, all of whom have secrets and ulterior motives which are revealed as the night continues.
Von Buhler, who designed and built an actual dollhouse and written a book about her grandfather's murder, has created an impressively detailed experience that spans several years as well as thrilling and delighting all of the senses. Before arriving at the Dollhouse, guests receive several e-mails from von Buhler that contain information and evidence about the murder as well as the secret password they need to be granted access to the Dollhouse. Police records, autopsy reports, a cast of characters and detailed history of organized crime and corruption in the 1920s are provided before the night begins. The information, all of which is beautifully prepared on artistically aged paper, with old-fashioned typeface and artwork, provides a crash course in criminal history during the era of Prohibition. While reading the documents is interesting and does enhance the experience at Speakeasy Dollhouse, it is not necessary to memorize every fact before arriving.
Upon arriving at the Dollhouse, guests are ushered in by policemen dressed in period-specific uniforms and handed a slip of paper that contains a role or assignment for the night. They might have to warn one character about the secret scheming of another or try to stir up some trouble by hinting that a man's wife is cheating on him with a fellow bootlegger. The paper encourages guests to ignore the advice their parents told them; tonight they should talk to strangers, explore behind closed doors, and look behind revolving bookcases.
Guests first enter a crowded bakery, where a circle of men are gambling. Here they can purchase cannolis and "special coffee," sit and play cards with the gangsters, explore the adjacent barbershop where the woman cutting hair also sings beautifully of Ireland, or continue through an ominously dark alley up a flight of stairs into the speakeasy itself. Based on the dollhouse set previously constructed by von Buhler, the speakeasy is beautifully decorated, with dim red lighting, cocktails served in teacups and a live jazz band (The Howard Fishman Quartet) performing period music. It is a dream-like atmosphere which is easy to become lost in.
Costumed actors greet everyone warmly and remain in character throughout the evening, while watching the risque and skillful burlesque performances by Lillet St Sunday, Kat Mon Dieu and Delysia LaChatte. Guests can explore the Dollhouse at their own pace, watching scenes unfold while talking and drinking with the cast, including Frank's wife, the devoutly religious and very pregnant Mary (Dana McDonald). (She goes into labor later in the evening, giving birth to a girl who, we learn, turns out to be von Buhler's mother.)
All is not fun and games, despite the affectionate speech Frank Spano gives to his guests; soon an angry confrontation takes place between Dutch Schultz and Frank, and the men and their two sons are ushered out into the lobby. To no one's surprise, when Frank returns, he has been shot. The cheerful crowd of the speakeasy quickly shifts into chaos as the police begin investigating and a funeral and wake are held, complete with crying family members and friends giving heavily intoxicated speeches while Frank lies in an actual coffin in front of the fireplace.
Guests of the Dollhouse can quickly become part of the story, encouraged to stir up conflict or assist a character in helping to solve the mystery of who shot Frank. John the Barber (whose last name, we find out later in the evening, is Guerrieri, played by Silent James) appears to be a soft-spoken man oblivious to the fact that his wife is "making time" with Frank, but he is promptly arrested for the crime, despite his pleas for innocence.
While the story behind Speakeasy Dollhouse is indeed fascinating and the prepared scenes between the actors are talented and delightful to watch, the atmosphere of the show, enhanced by the beauty of of the set, is as much a star of the night as the cast or plot is. The detail of the period aesthetics at Speakeasy Dollhouse are extremely impressive, from the red velvet couches visitors can relax on, the deep teacups the cocktails are served in, and the dark secret apartment where Mary spends much of the evening resting and praying, until her older son Dominic (Rachel Boyadjis) breaks the news to her about Frank. (The scene is truly devastating to watch.) A record player and nickelodeon film viewer can be found in the dark, along with actual photographs of the Spano family on the mantle above the fireplace. One can refer to these photographs after chatting with von Buhler herself, who appears dressed in clothes from 1979, claiming her grandmother's liquor gives her the ability to time travel. I found talking with von Buhler to be the most eerie experience of the night, highlighting the mysterious atmosphere of the speakeasy, especially when, after hearing a baby crying, she said quietly, "My mother's just been born."
But there is no shortage of the surreal or the mysterious at Speakeasy Dollhouse. A trip here -- through both space and time -- is truly unlike anything else.
A different artist going a separate route is Cynthia Von Buhler. She’s started a Kickstarter page for her Speakeasy Dollhouse (think The Dollhouse Murders meets Some Like It Hot meets The Godfather). It’s one of the cleverer Kickstarter pages, not least because Von Buhler’s family history makes everyone else’s sleepy in comparison. I love the models and I love that folks who contribute a little can get an Amanda Palmer song while those who contribute a lot can get a tiny version of themselves in the upcoming book.
– Elizabeth Bird, Fuse # 8, Publisher’s Weekly, School Library Journal MORE
Artist Cynthia von Buhler has launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund a project she's already been working on for years, and is a lifetime in the making. To sum it up, her grandfather was murdered in Manhattan before she was born, and to figure out why, she created a miniature version of all the places that played key roles during her family's life at that time. These are based off "Nutshell Studies—dollhouses that students could examine from every angle... complete with minute and authentic crime scene details" which have been used to "challenge detectives and strengthen their ability to read evidence." Her Speakeasy Dollhouse project also consists of a gorgeous book, and an immersive play, along with the handmade dolls and sets. We highly recommend you fund it so you can participate in the completed project!- Jen Carlson, Gothamist MORE
With the stunning popularity of Sleep No More, we guess it's not surprising to see more immersive theatre in the downtown NYC performing arts scene. But we were surprised to see such an ornately turned-out, unique, and well-produced experience, which stands entirely on its own. What sets Speakeasy Dollhouse apart, is that (if we take creator and director Cynthia von Buhler's word for it — and we do) it's all based on a true story: the murder of her grandfather Frank Spano, a recent Italian immigrant and a speakeasy operator in the Bronx, and the near-simultaneous birth of her mother. A rich cast of Roaring '20s gangsters and molls populate the space, as you wine and dine (on cannolis from Spano's Bakery, no less), and try to crack the as-yet unsolved mystery...- Leah Taylor, Flavorpill MORE
The "Speakeasy Dollhouse," a Prohibition-era interactive play by Cynthia von Buhler, is puzzling. It’s a participatory work of theater, a whodunit and an unsolved mystery. Audience members are encouraged to study evidence before experiencing the play, which is set in a speakeasy (based on a previously constructed dollhouse set). Most importantly, it’s based on a true story: Von Buhler created "Speakeasy Dollhouse" to try and solve the mystery of her grandfather's unexplained murder, almost a century ago...- Intern Maura, BUST MORE
...The "Speakeasy Dollhouse" is an inspired and unique mission, and the period aesthetics of the set are also begging to be admired. In fact, von Buhler was featured on the Discovery Channel show “Oddities,” on which she hired two antique dealers to find her a gurney and some surgical tools from the ‘30s (now centerpieces of the show).
Located on New York’s Lower East Side in von Buhler’s art studio, the creepy-cool immersive play has added additional dates due to increased demand. So nab your tickets here!
Weird Fiction Review
Remember:- Nancy Hightower, Weird Fiction Review MORE
Ignore the warnings your parents gave you as children. Be nosy and talk to strangers.
Wander. If you sit in one place all night you will miss everything.
If you have any questions or need assistance come and find me. I will whisper secrets in your ear.
Cynthia von Buhler
Send from the future.”
I received this email the day before participating in Cynthia von Buhler’s immersive play Speakeasy Dollhouse. A few days before this, I was sent emails containing real documentation from the coroner’s office, as well as newspapers clippings about the murder of Frank Spano, von Buhler’s grandfather. You don’t attend this event, you are immersed in the ongoing attempts to solve the mystery about why Spano was killed. Despite that rather dark description, Speakeasy Dollhouse is actually a festive, carnivalesque affair. I arrived at the location, which is staged in a mobster’s former Lower East Side speakeasy. Two policemen greeted me and engaged in some friendly chatter — but what they really wanted was a password to let them know I was an okay dame. I went down a dark flight of stairs, and then opened a doorway into the holodeck of Star Trek.
Almost everyone was dressed up — I could not differentiate the actors from the audience. The set is elaborate and every detail threw me back in time to a 1920’s speakeasy. At the bar I ordered a special cup of coffee, talked to my friends, and drank in the ambience. I couldn’t say when the play started or when it ended. I was given a part to play — that of a hired killer. I talked to mobsters, socialites, burlesque dancers, Frank’s possible lover, his pregnant wife, and his son. I had to ask the mobster Dutch Shultz where the after party was, but not let on that he would soon be murdered as well. It was a time-travel experience where I wandered in between the real and the unreal, the known and unknown. Von Buhler’s grandfather was shot and killed by John Guerrieri, but despite a confession, was let go. Von Buhler wrote about meeting the granddaughter of Guerrieri , who had no idea of this history. The more I heard, read, and relived, the further I fell into the rabbit hole of a weird narrative that invited me to participate even after the event ended. Attendees are asked to go to the Speakeasy blog to speculate on the reasons behind Spano’s killing, and these answers then add evidence to the next production.
Even more deliciously macabre, the play is modeled upon an actual set of dollhouses that von Buhler built to explore the circumstances regarding her grandfather’s murder. We can have all kinds of uncanny fun with that, of course, but understand that even this creepy little detail is part of American history. The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, created in the 1930’s by Frances Glessner Lee, were dollhouses that detectives used to “better assess visual evidence” in the most mysterious and violent of deaths. These studies inspired von Buhler’s own grotesque recreation of events (von Buhler). Such layering of storytelling, reporting, and mythmaking is but one reason to experience this play if you live or are visiting New York City. The other is this: Imagine Edgar Allen Poe has created a speakeasy in the Enterprise’s holodeck, and you get to play in that universe for three hours, attending the most fabulous party while helping to solve a real-life crime. There you go.
The New York Times
"Using a Dollhouse to Reconstruct a Murder, 77 Years Later"
Cynthia von Buhler figured the simplest way to make sense of a Depression-era murder that intrigued her was to reconstruct the crime scene.- James Barron, The New York Times MORE (including a photo slideshow by The New York Times)
She wanted to be able to look at it from every angle, to manipulate the lamp post on the corner or the sleek sedan parked at the curb. She hoped that recreating everything in minute detail would help her understand why the trigger had been pulled, not once but twice — and whether the racketeer known as Dutch Schultz was somehow behind the deed.
So, she built a dollhouse. The victim’s bakery is on one level, his bar on another and his blood-spattered body in the street outside. All of it was reduced to the scale of a three-and-a-half-foot-high structure with a little neon sign that says “open.”
The victim, Frank Spano, was shot on March 14, 1935. A newspaper article that misspelled his last name as Stano said there were two witnesses, both teenagers: Mr. Spano’s son, Dominick, and a boy whose father was taken into custody.
Ms. von Buhler, an artist and performer who has written and illustrated several children’s books, has spent thousands of hours researching the shooting and what prompted it. There is a deep-seated reason for her fascination with this case: “Frank Spano was my grandfather.”
Ms. von Buhler maintains that Dutch Schultz — real name Arthur Flegenheimer — figured in the story in several ways. She said he had owned a speakeasy near her grandfather’s bar and had bootlegged liquor during Prohibition, as had her grandfather. She also suspected that the gunman, John Guerrieri, a neighbor of her grandfather’s, was Mr. Flegenheimer’s barber.
Mr. Guerrieri admitted to shooting Mr. Spano, but the charges were dismissed a month later. Ms. von Buhler said Hulon Capshaw, the city magistrate who signed the dismissal papers, also had ties to Mr. Flegenheimer.
The accusation from the Manhattan district attorney, Thomas E. Dewey, in 1938, was that Mr. Capshaw had been “intimidated, influenced or bribed” by the Tammany Hall leader James J. Hines or his aides to further Mr. Flegenheimer’s interests. Mr. Capshaw was later removed from the bench and disbarred. Mr. Hines was convicted in 1940 of providing protection to Mr. Flegenheimer’s gangsters.
All that prompted Ms. von Buhler to dig deep into a chapter of family history that had gone unrecorded and unexplored through the generations: “a complicated tale of bootlegging, Mafia, infidelity and murder,” as she described it.
No one who was still alive could explain the motive for the shooting. An unresolved feud? An unpaid debt? Ms. von Buhler’s grandmother, who died in 1983, “took these secrets to her grave,” Ms. von Buhler wrote in an account of her research. Dominick Spano also said nothing before he died.
Ms. von Buhler dredged up the autopsy report on her grandfather and combed the municipal archives for other clues: police reports, court documents, newspaper articles. But she wanted to bring the case to life in a way that tattered, yellowed files could not. She had read about the dollhouse dioramas of crime scenes assembled in the 1940s by Frances Glessner Lee, an heiress turned amateur criminologist. She decided to follow her lead and build the setting in miniature.
Ms. von Buhler bought “the beginnings of the structure” on eBay. She did some remodeling and did the plaster work — “I’m really good with plaster” — and the painting, the intricate tile work and the installation of the tiny furniture herself. She also made all the dolls with clay and real human hair.
She used the dollhouse as the set for a graphic novel, “Speakeasy Dollhouse,” with photographs of the shooting as she imagined it. She even made a separate diorama of a coroner’s office with a tiny body under a tiny sheet on a tiny gurney, with a toe tag bearing her grandfather’s name in tiny letters.
The graphic novel, in turn, became the basis for a theatrical piece, which Ms. von Buhler calls an “immersive play” because she involves the audience in the action. She is also writing a fuller account of the shooting — “pulp nonfiction,” she called it, “a true story told in a pulp-fiction style.”
Along the way, Ms. von Buhler realized that some elements of the information that had been passed down in the family were wrong. The family story was that Mr. Spano had been shot in an apartment in the Bronx, where his club and bakery were, near Arthur Avenue. But the shooting took place in Manhattan, on East 48th Street.
“I think they all knew each other,” she said. “Maybe Dutch Schultz got Guerrieri to do the murder by telling him his wife was having an affair with my grandfather. And then you find out in the end the magistrate was corrupt — and was connected to Dutch Schultz. That’s the clincher. But my grandfather died before that had been revealed.”
NYTheater: What is your job on this show?
Cynthia von Buhler: Producer/Playwright/Director/Set Designer.
NYTheater: What is your show about?
Cynthia von Buhler: Speakeasy Dollhouse is more than just a play – it is a time capsule that transports audiences to the scene of an actual 1935 crime and then invites them to live fully in that world, erasing the boundary between themselves and the performers.
NYTheater: Where were you born? Where were you raised? Where did you go to school?
Cynthia von Buhler: My maiden name is Carrozza. My parents were from the Bronx. They wanted to get out of New York City and take their children to safer place to grow up. I was born in Newark, New Jersey, but I grew up in the Berkshires of Massachusetts. I attended art school in Boston and studied humanities in London.
NYTheater: Complete this sentence: My show is the only one opening in NYC this winter that...?
Cynthia von Buhler: ...expects you to climb through a tiny door into the past where you help deliver a baby, carry a coffin to a funeral, assist with an autopsy, flirt with burlesque girls, get a shave, and possibly murder a mobster while eating cannolis and drinking illegal booze from coffee cups.
NYTheater: Are there any cautions or warnings you’d like to make about the show (e.g., not appropriate for little kids)?
Cynthia von Buhler: Ignore the advice your parents gave you as a child, be nosy and and talk to strangers.
NYTheater: Which “S” word best describes your show: SMOOTH, SEXY, SMART, SURPRISING?
Cynthia von Buhler: Surprising.
NYTheater: If you had ten million dollars that you had to spend on theatrical endeavors, how would you use the money?
Cynthia von Buhler: I would buy and refurbish The Amato Opera House which has been sitting vacant on Bowery for years. On Friday it would be Speakeasy Dollhouse, The Musical, on Saturday it would be Speakeasy Dollhouse, The Opera and on Sunday it would be the immersive play it is now. All other nights would be Italian-themed theater and music. Please give me $10 million. You won't be sorry.
Artbite: This past October we experienced the spectacular magic that is Speakeasy Dollhouse. Walk us through this charmed menagerie….- Amit Gilberto, Artbite, MORE< Gadabout (interview)
Cynthia von Buhler: "Nobody still living in my family knows why my grandfather was shot. When I began my search, nothing was known about the killer, his motive, or a trial. My grandmother took these secrets to her grave. And so, over the past year, I have been dusting off a complicated tale of bootlegging, mafia, infidelity, and murder set in Prohibition-era New York City.
I was inspired by Frances Glessner Lee’s miniature crime scene sets. She established the Department of Legal Medicine at Harvard in 1936. At that time, innumerable murders went unsolved because evidence was mishandled or downright ignored. To train investigators of sudden or violent deaths (like my grandfathers) and to better assess visual evidence, Lee created the Nutshell Studies: dollhouses that students could examine from every angle. Inspired by Lee’s murder dioramas, I decided to create the scenes from my own family mystery using handmade sets and dolls. Utilizing evidence from autopsy reports, police records, court documents, and interviews, I built a dollhouse-sized speakeasy, a hospital room, a child’s bedroom, and a pre-war apartment. I also created lifelike dolls with moveable limbs to live in these sets.
But dolls don’t make their own decisions. By adding actual human recreations of the characters and placing them in an interactive theater setting, I am taking Lee’s method of dollhouse crime scene investigation one step further. The play stages these events in mobster Meyer Lansky’s former Lower East Side speakeasy. The location is elaborately set up to mirror the dollhouse sets from the book. I like to think of the speakeasy as my dollhouse and the actors as my dolls.”
Walk you through it? I’ll let my assistant Rachel Boyadjis-- or Dominick Spano, rather-- walk you through it. Rachel is also an actor, and plays my uncle as a young boy.
Photograph by Kate Black.
Dominick Spano: “My Pa owns the best speakeasies in the whole Bronx. He’s the biggest man around. Mister door man runs the club at night, but really my Pa runs it because he knows everybody and everybody knows him, and his place is better than stupid old Dutch’s place. Mister Dutch Schulz owns a place too, but it isn’t as good as my Pa’s place. And it doesn’t have the best cannolis in the city, either-- my Ma makes those. She makes the tea and soda pop too, but I help, I’m always helping and I’m getting better and better at it, really I am. I made the last batch of tea all by myself even, and Pa says it’s real good.
If you come by the club or the bakery you can try some tea or special coffee. In the bakery the nice lady sometimes gives me coffee if I ask real polite-like, and if that bad police man isn’t looking I can snatch some candy from the jars. Nobody but the mean old police man minds. Sometimes my Uncle Frankie is down there too, playin’ cards with the boys. But my Aunt Anna always beats the boys, and she leaves messy lipstick on Uncle Frankie’s cheek.
If you go up to the club you have to know the password to get in. Mister door man only lets me in without the password, because my Pa is important and that means I’m important too, because someday I’m gonna run the whole place myself, because I’m the biggest. If you get into the club, you can hear some real good music and meet some real nice people-- some bad people too, though. Sometimes big old mister Tammany Hall man is there, his name is Jimmy Hines. He comes with his friend with a real nice top hat, Hulon Capshaw. He talks to Jimmy Hines but Jimmy don’t say much because he’s just drinking and singing Irish songs. You can dance up there too, but be careful if you see those pretty ladies Mrs. Guerrieri and her friend Lena. . . they’re friendly, but Ma thinks they dance too much. She says they should go to church and ask the Lord to forgive them. My Ma prays to Mary, the Mother of God all the time. Ma might give you a special present if you’re nice to her.
Frankie Guerrieri goes to my school. We were friends before when he lived in the Bronx. Now I hate him. I’ll tell you why if you buy me a drink. I’m old enough, promise, I just don’t want to go and bother the bartender right now. . .
His Pa, Mr. Guerrieri, is one of those quiet types. He owns a barbershop and sometimes he cuts my Pa’s hair, but I don’t like him either. I think he’s got funny eyes and I don’t think he likes my Pa very much.
My Ma is pregnant with a little baby boy. I know it’s gonna be a boy because the Spanos are big and strong, and boys are big and strong. If you want, you can come see my house where my Ma and my Pa and me live, and where my little baby brother will be born.
But if you do come by (and you should, you’re such a good friend of the family and we haven’t seen you in such a long time!) you should keep your eyes and ears open. You never know what will happen around here, and I got something to tell my Ma that she isn’t gonna like very much...”
Cynthia von Buhler created this book trailer utilizing hundreds of her Speakeasy Dollhouse photographs.
Jamie Rojo for Brooklyn Street Art.
The printing of book one was paid for through the crowdfunding site Kickstarter. This is the video which explained the Kickstarter project: