Recap: The “Speakeasy Dollhouse” on the Lower East Side

Posted on: June 11th, 2012 at 11:39 am by

“Be nosy and talk to strangers. Wander. If you sit in one place, you will miss everything.”

These were the cryptic instructions handed to us, when we arrived at the Speakeasy Dollhouse, an “immersive theater” performance at a secret location on the Lower East Side.

The theater piece is the brainchild of Cynthia von Buhler, a visual artist, illustrator, children’s book author, performer, and uber-creative gal about town. The performance tells the true story of von Buhler’s grandfather Frank Spano, who owned two speakeasies in the Bronx during prohibition. One was a bar and one was a bakery, which are both recreated in the theater piece.

Spano was shot on a street in Manhattan, and his murderer was never caught. Von Buhler’s grandmother Mary was pregnant at the time, and the news of her husband’s death caused such a severe reaction that she went into labor, causing von Buhler’s mother to be born at the same time that her grandfather was murdered. (You got all that?) Mary Spano never talked about her husband’s business, or gave any insight into the murder.

Trying to piece together the history and events of the murder, von Buhler first created a graphic novel using photographs of dioramas that she built, depicting various scenes of the crime. She then got inspired by the concept of immersive theater (similar to the idea behind the popular NYC performance “Speak No More,” in which the audience wanders through various rooms amidst the actors, often becoming part of the story). This led her to create the companion theater piece to the graphic novel.

After ordering tickets online, we were sent an email a few days later with a password for the night. Other emails followed, which contained images of authentic documents, paperwork and newspaper articles having to do with the murder. Once you arrive and give the password to the “cops” outside, you are led down a set of stairs into an alleyway, which brings you to Spano’s bakery. You can buy cannoli (a specialty of Mary Spano’s) at the “bakery,” get a cup of “special coffee,” and also pick up copies of the graphic novel and evidence book.

While waiting at the bakery, the actors begin to reveal themselves to the guests. Scenes start to unfold, many of which involve the actors speaking directly to members of the audience. There was some great ad libbing when we were there. Most guests were happy to play along (New Yorkers don’t exactly need arm-twisting to talk to strangers), while those who were more introverted sat on the sidelines and enjoyed watching the show. Some guests also joined in on the “poker game” taking place in the bakery.

Guests moved on from the bakery, walking through an alleyway and getting the “approval” of Frank and Mary Spano before being allowed in to the speakeasy nightclub, located close by. As you enter the club, you are immediately transported to the prohibition era by the decor, costumes and music, and you begin to piece together who’s who. Part of the fun is trying to figure out who is an actor and who is a guest, since the guests are also encouraged to dress in period attire. (We needed little encouragement on that front. This writer happily left a trail of sequins and feathers throughout the streets of the Lower East Side on the way home).

Don't forget to stop by the medical examiner's office

The live music provided by the house band, The Howard Fishman Quartet, can only be described as absolutely fantastic. Each month there are different themes along with surprise guest performers. On this night, we were happily surprised by Amanda Palmer (formerly of the art-punk cabaret band The Dresden Dolls, now a solo artist and also one half of the duo Evelyn Evelyn) and her husband Neil Gaiman (author of The Sandman graphic novel series, along with other novels). Since the theme of the night was “Sex,” they decided to canoodle a bit on a stair railing. Palmer played ukulele, while the duo, well, duetted a fabulous rendition of “Making Whoopee.”

Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer

There are many surprises which we don’t want to spoil here, so to find out more, you’ll just have to attend. The shows generally take place during the first weekend of each month, however the next lineup is in August. Tickets for the Speakeasy Dollhouse can be found here.

-Writeup and photos by Lori Greenberg

Recent Stories

Celebrate Chanukah with 150 Eclectic Menorahs at the Eldridge Street Synagogue

Chanukah has arrived, and with it, over one-hundred-fifty menorahs for a special holiday exhibit at the Eldridge Street Synagogue. “Let There Be Light!,” as it’s called, is a collection of quirky and one-of-a-kind menorahs on loan from the Lori and David Moore family, who have amassed the eclectic array as part of an annual family […]

14-Story Luxury Tower Planned for Chrystie Street Corridor

Once again, art was employed as precursor to demolition. In this case, it was JR and Os Gemeos as it relates to 199 Chrystie Street, an old tenement walk-up that’s been slated for a gold-crusted makeover. Both this building and its immediate neighbor to the north are slated for destruction in the coming months to […]

Essex Crossing Rental Complex Named After Jazz Legend Sonny Rollins

Jazz saxophonist Sonny Rollins once lived in a walkup tenement at 400 Grand Street. That history was decimated two years ago when Essex Crossing muscled into the neighborhood. Now the mega-development is honoring the musician by naming the new fifteen-story tower at Site 5 in his honor. Here comes The Rollins, offering wallet-busting luxury rentals. One […]

Two Scoops: Chinatown Ice Cream Factory Expanding into New Essex Street Market

The beloved Chinatown Ice Cream Factory is expanding to the Lower East Side next year. It will take up residence inside the new Essex Street Market facility as part of Essex Crossing. This cross-neighborhood expansion is a first for the popular scoop shop, which has been serving its namesake neighborhood for four decades. Second-generation owner […]

Join Hester Street at the Third Meeting for a Coastal Resiliency Update! [Sponsor]

JOIN US AT THE THIRD MEETING FOR AN LMCR UPDATE! Tuesday Dec. 19, 2017 6:30pm – 8:30pm PS 184 Shuang Wen 327 Cherry Street (between Clinton St. and Montgomery St.) This meeting will focus on the waterfront from Montgomery Street to the Brooklyn Bridge. ALL ARE WELCOME! Childcare, translation (Cantonese, Mandarin, Spanish), and a light […]