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.
Author Henry Denker had a couple well-received plays to his credit.
This was not one of them.
You can skip this paragraph if the plot of Moose Murders is of no interest. But according to its listing at the Samuel French website (yes, you can buy a copy of it anytime you like and even inquire into the rights to produce it, if you and your theatre company are that suicidal), it reads: “The wealthy heirs of a wealthy but ailing old man named Sidney Holloway have purchased the Wild Moose Lodge in the Adirondacks as a place for daddy to live out his last days. During an innocuous game of “murder” suggested by one of the clan, mousey young Lorraine Holloway is murdered for real. Who done it? Could it have been the legendary “Butcher Moose” which haunts the mountains? Or, is it a member (or members) of the eccentric Holloway family itself? Before dawn breaks, there are a series of disclosures which lead to the murder of more than one of the cast of loonies as well as to the awful truth behind the ‘Moose’ murders.”
The stories about what transpired on the stage of the O’Neill in this so-called comedic mystery sound made up, but they’re true, as Frank Rich described in his review: “I won’t soon forget the spectacle of watching the mummified Sidney rise from his wheelchair to kick an intruder, unaccountably dressed in a moose costume, in the groin. This peculiar fracas is topped by the play’s final twist, in which Hedda serves her daughter Gay a poison-laced vodka martini. As the young girl collapses to the floor and dies in the midst of another Shirley Temple-esque buck and wing, her mother breaks into laughter and applause.”
The Broadway poster for Moose Murders, available to view in person
at Joe Allen Restaurant on its wall of shame.
Yes, of course NOW I’m disappointed that back in 1983 I didn’t take my hard-earned dollars and head over to see Moose Murders. I’m sure what Rich described would be imprinted on my brain in ways that many one-performance wonders I have seen over the years have not. Most of the time, a bomb is a bomb, and there’s not much to recall from something that was boring and a waste of time. But from all the reports I’ve ever heard (and read), Moose Murders was not boring. And if you are a connoisseur of such things, it surely was not a waste of time either.
Before retiring from the New York Times theatre beat, Frank Rich wrote an article entitled “Exit the Critic.” In it, he refers to Moose Murders as “the worst play I’ve ever seen on a Broadway stage.” Wearing that as a badge of honor, its playwright Arthur Bicknell wrote a memoir, Moose Murdered: Or How I Learned to Stop Worry and Love My Broadway Bomb (clever title), its publication coinciding with a daring revival at the Connelly Theatre in the East Village in 2013. A few years (and a few rewrites) did nothing to alter its status as a cult-failure. Charles Isherwood in the New York Times wrote that witnessing the revival was “among the most insufferable nights I have ever spent at the theatre.”
And for the last word on Moose Murders, here’s a pretty recent audio interview with the playwright Arthur Bicknell and Holland Taylor: a bumpy ride down memory lane.
Ron Fassler’s Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, is now available for pre-order exclusively from Griffith Moon Publishing.