Somehow I let yesterday’s anniversary slip by that marked the historic opening of Moose Murders, the one-performance comedy/mystery which overnight was enshrined for all eternity; its title synonymous with the word “flop.” As Frank Rich of the New York Times wrote in one of his most memorable reviews: “Those of us who have witnessed the play that opened at the Eugene O’Neill Theater last night will undoubtedly hold periodic reunions, in the noble tradition of survivors of the Titanic.”
I was not one of those survivors. I threw away my shot at seeing the show even though I had caught wind of what was transpiring (soon to be expiring) on West 49th Street as the rumors drifted their way uptown to West 85th Street where I was living at the time. In the days before email and texting, my phone was ringing with friends telling me that “If I knew what was good for me, I had better get down to see Moose Murders, because not only wasn’t it going to be there very long, but it simply had to be seen to be believed.”
Mr. Moose from “The Captain Kangaroo Program,” an indelible image from
my pre-teen years which has nothing to do with Arthur Bicknell’s “Moose Murders”…
but this is forever the image I associate with the show.
In 1983, I was a 26 year-old struggling actor who was saving up his money for good shows, not bad ones, these kinds of pronouncements which always found their way to me did little to make me spring into action. I don’t relish a disaster on stage, in fact, I find it quite painful. As I always say, I would rather sit through a bad movie than a bad play any day. At a film, I can always eat popcorn and Skittles and get up to go the bathroom whenever I want. At a play, when it’s not going so great, I feel trapped as well as feel incredibly bad for the actors. No one gets involved in a show to produce a bad one — no one — save for Bialistock and Bloom. And I’m sure thoughts about those two fictitious souls went through the minds of the couple of thousand audience members who did manage to catch the one and only performance of Moose Murders with Eve Arden in the lead, or any of the subsequent 12 previews and its opening (and closing) night with the talented (and very game) Holland Taylor, who (from all reports) valiantly attempted to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.
When Moose Murders was first announced, the name Eve Arden raised a few eyebrows. Her last appearance on Broadway had been 42 seasons ago — when she got rave reviews for Cole Porter’s Let’s Face It!, and where she introduced the song, “Let’s Not Talk About Love,” in a duet with the above-the-title star of the show, Danny Kaye. The better part of those forty-plus years away from the stage had her in films like Mildred Pierce, for which she received an Academy Award nomination, as well as a great turn in Anatomy of a Murder opposite James Stewart. But it was on radio and television (and even a movie version) of her comedy series Our Miss Brooks, where she achieved the hat trick of having incarnations in all three mediums as the beloved school teacher Connie Brooks.
A rare publicity still of Eve Arden in Moose Murders.
For the first-time producer of Moose Murders (a wealthy Texas oil baron) and its neophyte playwright Arthur Bicknell, they must have been overjoyed to have nabbed a name that still meant something to a certain segment of the theatregoing crowd, even if she’d been away even longer than Dolly from the Harmonia Gardens. But the notion of it being “so nice to have you back where you belong,” only lasted one preview. After the gasps, the unwanted laughs and the walk-outs, Ms. Arden made it clear to the powers-that-be that she had no intention of ever going back out on that stage again (although it was reported Arden had tremendous difficulty with her lines … but with lines like the ones she was given did it really matter?).
It’s remarkable that all involved didn’t fully comprehend this disastrous first preview, and its star’s refusal to continue on, as danger signals. Even though it was closed down immediately following Arden’s abrupt departure, they had the temerity to reopen ten days later for a week and half of previews in order to get Arden’s replacement, Holland Taylor, up to speed. Today a revered and award winning actress, Taylor was a struggling actor in search of good parts that suited her talents, going from job to job thirty-four years ago when she was offered Moose Murders. Her Broadway debut had been in 1965 in the ensemble of a controversial (and overheated) production of John Whiting's The Devils, with a very game Anne Bancroft and Jason Robards and a company that totaled 50 actors. She made a good impression in a supporting role in Simon Gray’s Butley, which won a well-deserved Tony for its star Alan Bates, but her last Broadway show, six years prior to Moose Murders was another one-night-stand: Something Old, Something New, ran but a single performance at the Morosco in 1977 and starred Hans Conried and Molly Picon. I have no memory of the show ever having existed, but it apparently did, as this Playbill proves.