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

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

This image has been archived or removed.

“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.

This image has been archived or removed.

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.

This image has been archived or removed.

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.

This image has been archived or removed.

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).

This image has been archived or removed.

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.”

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

Trees in East River Park Marked for ‘Demolition’

Over a thousand trees will be uprooted later this fall when the city commences its demolition and redevelopment of East River Park. Faux demolition flyers now dot the park to raise awareness of the impending arborcide for the controversial resiliency project. The bright-red bills announce trees as “marked for demolition by the mayor and City […]

Upside Pizza Heads to Little Italy, Replacing Pomodoro on Spring Street

Out with the old style, in with the new. Pomodoro Pizzeria, which shuttered at the outset of the pandemic, is to be replaced by the popular midtown slice shop, Upside Pizza. Founder Noam Grossman and partners Eli and Oren Halali (behind 2 Brothers and Taqueria Diana) together submitted an application to Community Board 2 for […]

Looking at the Luxury Conversion of the Former Bialystoker Nursing Home

Conversion of the former Bialystoker Nursing Home is well underway on East Broadway. Work commenced a year ago, but visible progress is now palpable. The landmark building – designated as such in 2013 – is encased in scaffolding, elevator shaft, and cranes, and windows busted out. In the near future, it will yield more luxury […]

Petisco Vegano to Close Tomorrow, Blaming ‘Difficult’ Landlord

Petisco Vegano, the reimagined iteration of Cafe Petisco, this week joins the rank of restaurant closures related to the coronavirus pandemic. Last day in business is tomorrow (October 20). Ownership took to Instagram Friday evening with a screed blaming the landlord for making it “extremely difficult for us to operate” since March. Apparently, there was […]

CB3 Committee Approves Grassroots Plan to Save Historic East River Park Buildings

An ambitious grassroots proposal to rehabilitate two endangered East River Park structures received backing from Community Board 3 last week. As previously reported, two Art Deco gems rooted in East River Park were recently deemed eligible for the State and National Registers of Historic Places by the New York State Historic Preservation Office. Both the […]