Frank Spano worked his way down a line of guests, welcoming the men in fedoras and women in flapper dresses to his hidden nightclub. He was tall, wore a grey suit and spoke with old-fashioned politeness. When he shook my hand and introduced himself, I shared a knowing smile with the other guests. We were all aware that Frank Spano would soon be shot dead in the narrow alleyway where we stood. We were here to find out why.
Based on the unsolved case of her grandfather’s murder, Cynthia von Buhler’s Speakeasy Dollhouse is an immersive theater experience that brings the seedy underground of the Prohibition era back to the Lower East Side. It’s Clue meets Boardwalk Empire, but on a level so intimate that at times it’s hard to distinguish the cast from the audience. Guests are asked to dress in their finest 1930s garb and everyone is given a small role to play. Mingling with strangers is encouraged as anyone might be in possession of a clue to help unlock the mystery.
Speakeasy Dollhouse launched in October of 2011, after von Buhler had spent years investigating the strange circumstance of her grandfather’s real-life murder. When you purchase a ticket to the show, you receive a series of newspaper clippings and police records elucidating the details of the case. According to these documents, Frank Spano was shot and killed by the father of one of his son’s friends following a dispute between the two boys. But for reasons that may have included bribery and mob involvement, the shooter was released and the case remained unresolved. Speakeasy Dollhouse is a von Buhler’s attempt to reopen the case and bring the grandfather she never knew back to life.
When I arrived at 102 Norfolk Street just before 5 p.m., a crowd of lavishly dressed guests stood around two policemen guarding a gate. When I whispered the password I’d been sent into one of theirs ears, the gate opened and I went down a short flight of stairs. The stairs led into a dimly lit hallway where I was given a piece of paper explaining my role in the proceedings. I then slipped under a short door and into the alleyway.
The eventual scene of the crime was full of guests interacting with the cast under zigzagging fire escapes and along brick walls. A woman sold sweet coffee and cannoli from a wooden cart. Upstairs in Frank Spano’s club, the action began to unfold.
In true prohibition fashion, bar patrons were served beer in brown paper bags and cocktails in teacups. A drunk mayor played cards with guests on a beer-barrel table while Italian mobsters in black suits and black fedoras roamed the premises. A jazz quartet played ragtime and show tunes on the upper level. Guests and cast members sat on red velvet couches before a fireplace decorated with Catholic iconography.
My role was a pigeon homer and I was tasked with finding Spano’s son, Dominique, to ask him about his pigeons. But before I got my chance, a racy burlesque show unfolded on the bandstand. Later, a cleaning lady led me into a backroom where I witnessed an illicit affair.
Back at the bar, a fight broke out between Spano and the mobster Dutch Schultz and soon everyone was crowding into the alleyway and onto the fire escape to witness Frank Spano’s fatal moment.
A funeral was held, complete with a beautiful rendition of Musetta’s Waltz from Puccini’s “La Boheme.”
After the funeral, police began to investigate the crime, an arrest was made, and the guests and cast gathered for a trial. Guests had a part as witnesses and anyone was free to pipe in with their version of the events. One guest stole the show, laying on a thick Italian accent to come to the defense of the accused (I found out later that the man was Anthony Laciura, who played Nucky Thompson’s right-hand man on Boardwalk Empire).
The trial brought the night to a riotous climax, but not necessarily an end to the murder and mystery.
Held in the speakeasy-style Backroom Bar on Norfolk Street, the bar’s secretive atmosphere and excellent cast so thoroughly transport you back in time that walking up the steps back to modern day New York can make for a disorienting experience. Audience members lucky enough to attend the next show, on December 7, will be have the added treat of seeing Tony Award nominee Euan Morton — nominated for a Tony when he played Boy George in Taboo — play the role of bandleader. Tickets are available only in advance.