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Presenting Moose Murders, the "Worst Play Ever on Broadway"

The Phantom of the Opera has been running at New York City's Majestic Theatre since 1988. The musical Hamilton began its Broadway run at the Richard Rodgers Theatre last August to overwhelmingly superlative reviews from critics and audiences, and you’re lucky if you can get a ticket. Then there’s Arthur Bicknell’s Moose Murders ...

After overwhelmingly negative reviews from theater critics who appeared to relish the chance to sharpen their knives, the play debuted at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre on February 22, 1983—and shuttered the same night. (Even Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark ran for over two years.) According to the BBC, which produced a nearly 10-minute radio segment about the infamously awful play, Moose Murders is "the standard against which all other disastrous plays are judged." AARP The Magazine examined the biggest flops of the entire 20th century—and placed Moose Murders at number five (just behind New Coke).

“I was thought of as a promising young playwright in the vein of Albert Innaurato,” Bicknell told Playbill in 2012. He had penned My Great Dead Sister: World of Domesticity, a “serious light comedy,” which earned strong reviews from the very critics who would later eviscerate him. For Moose Murders, Bicknell was attempting to lampoon stage conventions by writing a farcical murder mystery. He was inspired by the 1906 murder of Grace Brown, who was drowned on the South Bay of Big Moose Lake in the Adirondacks in upstate New York, where Bicknell’s family had a home. “Everything up there is called ‘Moose,’ and that’s where the title came from. I wanted to write a farce and ‘Moose’ is a funny word,” the playwright reasoned.

Here is the official plot of Moose Murders:

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. 

There’s more to it than that. The New York Times critic Frank Rich, “the Butcher of Broadway,” referred to the play's characters as “unappetizing clowns” in his infamous review. Rich got into what those clowns did, exactly:

The wealthy Hedda Holloway, the lodge's new owner, arrives with her husband, Sidney, a heavily bandaged quadriplegic who is confined to a wheelchair and who is accurately described as ''that fetid roll of gauze.'' Sidney's attendant, Nurse Dagmar, wears revealing black satin, barks in Nazi-ese and likes to leave her patient out in the rain. The Holloway children include Stinky, a drug-crazed hippie who wants to sleep with his mother, and Gay, a little girl in a party dress. Told that her father will always be ''a vegetable,'' Gay turns up her nose and replies, ''Like a lima bean? Gross me out!'' She then breaks into a tap dance.

Bicknell has always been quick to point out in interviews that people initially found the play funny; it wouldn’t have been made in the first place if everybody thought it was terrible. A wealthy Texas oil baron found the script particularly amusing, and agreed to produce the play. The foreshadowing of a historic failure coming down the pike came soon thereafter. The play's director—first-timer John Roachcast his wife, Lillie Robertson, as Lauraine Holloway Fay, the oldest child of Hedda Holloway. Robertson created the part herself. To this day it remains her only Broadway credit.

Eve Arden, who earned an Oscar nomination for playing Ida in Mildred Pierce, was planning to return to Broadway for the first time in 42 years by starring as Hedda; she withdrew from a Santa Barbara production of Barefoot in the Park for the opportunity. But Arden quit due to “artistic differences” after the first preview. She had wanted to change lines and was told she could do no such a thing; production personnel claimed she didn’t remember the original lines to begin with.

Holland Taylor (The Practice, Two and a Half Men) briefly saved the day by replacing Arden, lifting the cast and crew’s spirits, but even she knew Moose Murders was doomed. “I had actually read the play and thought it was very very funny,” Taylor told the BBC. “But I didn’t think it worked as a play, and I thought it was extremely campy and just over-the-top.” She had heard the “scuttlebutt” around town about Roach casting his wife and considered it a “recipe for disaster,” and claimed to know the play “wouldn’t run.” She took the part for the money (Holland was in debt at the time), and negotiated a proviso that would allow her to leave the production with two weeks' notice if she got offered other work.

Had Holland known what would happen during one of the 13 preview performances, she might have reconsidered. It was apparent the crew was already sensing they were working on a disaster:

One night, the play closes on a blackout laugh line, which is my line. One night, I said the line, it got its fairly weak response, and the lights did not go out. And the curtain did not come down. And that was the end of the play. The others all started scattering like rats on the ship. I said “Come back here!” And made them all come back and we stood in a line, took hands and bowed and I said, “That is the end of the play.” It was just one the most nightmarish moments of my entire life. No blackout, no curtain, end of play, on a weak laugh, with everyone standing there.

Even more surreal was Holland’s memory of the reaction for the one official performance. She recalled to the BBC sensing feelings from the audience of “glee” and “astonishment”—glee from the witnesses at being able to report later on what they had seen, and astonishment at how bad it all was. “I can feel the wind from the heads shaking," she said. "I can actually feel the wind from the heads shaking, I can feel the disbelief and incredulity and the delight they were there at the shipwreck.”

Concerned friends of Bicknell tried to shield him from reading any of the official reviews. At the after-party, one friend simply told him that the reviews were “the worst.” Here's just a sampling:

“If your name is Arthur Bicknell—or anything like it—change it.” —Dennis Cunningham, WCBS-TV

“[It] would insult the intelligence of an audience consisting entirely of amoebas.” —Brendan Gill, The New Yorker

“So indescribably bad that I do not intend to waste anyone’s time by describing it.” —Clive Barnes, New York Post

“I will not identify the cast pending notification of next of kin.” —Jay Sharbutt, Associated Press

“A visit to ‘Moose Murders’ will separate the connoisseurs of Broadway disaster from mere dilettantes for many moons to come.” —Frank Rich, The New York Times

"There are bad plays, terrible plays and plays like ‘Moose Murders’. —Variety

“[An] abysmally imbecile comedy-thriller ... Selective patrons cannot even imagine what horrors reviewers are exposed to, night after nightmarish night.” —John Simon, New York Magazine

“From now on, there will always be two groups of theatergoers in this world: those who have seen ‘Moose Murders,’ and those who have not ... The 10 actors trapped in this enterprise, a minority of them of professional caliber, will not be singled out here. I'm tempted to upbraid the author, director and producers of ‘Moose Murders,’ but surely the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals will be after them soon enough. Paging the A.S.P.C.A.” —Frank Rich

Bicknell had heard worse reviews. After one performance, he witnessed a woman on the street shout to a cop, “Officer, arrest that show!”

At the after-party, the mother of one of Bicknell’s friends hugged him and told him how much she loved him, which made him cry. Bicknell spent the rest of the night drinking with friends and “talking about life.” Before he went to bed the next morning, he walked by the theater and saw the set getting unloaded. The wealthy Texas oil baron producer and his wife had escaped to Paris by Concorde.

According to actress June Gable (failed entertainer Snooks Keene in Moose Murders, Estelle on Friends), the days after the opening/closing performance were filled with phone calls to the box office. "After those awful reviews, the box office was flooded with calls," she said. "They kept telling them the show had closed and people would say ‘What? We can’t buy tickets?’ We could have sold out for a month.”

But Moose Murders was dead.

Bicknell carried on. He wrote another play, and a midnight drag show. He went back to his job as an Air France reservations clerk. He worked his way up to becoming the chief publicist for Merriam-Webster. Somewhere along the way, someone requested his permission to stage a Moose Murders: The Afterbirth musical. Bicknell said no. But when Playbill caught up with him, he had co-created the Homecoming Players, a small theater company in Ithaca, New York. In 2013, he wrote a memoir, Moose Murdered: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love My Broadway Bomb. The book was released around the time of a revival production at the East Village's Connelly Theater, featuring script revisions by Bicknell himself (he told Playbill he was “appalled” by the structural mistakes in his original text). Charles Isherwood of The New York Times wrote that witnessing the revival was “among the most insufferable nights” he had ever spent at the theater.

Community and dinner theaters over the years have mounted their own versions of Moose Murders, in Queens, and Rochester, New York, as well as in Montana, Ohio, and Oklahoma. The cast of the Rochester performance featured an antiques retailer, a culinary student, and a muralist. The appeal of its terribleness lives on. And Arthur Bicknell seems to have made peace with it.

"I kept expecting—you know even the worst plays, people forget about in time," he said. "There is such a thin line between fame and infamy, and I’m almost proud of my infamy ... so many people know Moose Murders. I did that. I wrote the worst play that was ever on Broadway. That’s something."

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13 Fascinating Facts About Nina Simone
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Nina Simone, who would’ve celebrated her 85th birthday today, was known for using her musical platform to speak out. “I think women play a major part in opening the doors for better understanding around the world,” the “Strange Fruit” songstress once said. Though she chose to keep her personal life shrouded in secrecy, these facts grant VIP access into a life well-lived and the music that still lives on.

1. NINA SIMONE WAS HER STAGE NAME.

The singer was born as Eunice Waymon on February 21, 1933. But by age 21, the North Carolina native was going by a different name at her nightly Atlantic City gig: Nina Simone. She hoped that adopting a different name would keep her mother from finding out about her performances. “Nina” was her boyfriend’s nickname for her at the time. “Simone” was inspired by Simone Signoret, an actress that the singer admired.

2. SHE HAD HUMBLE BEGINNINGS.


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There's a reason that much of the singer's music had gospel-like sounds. Simone—the daughter of a Methodist minister and a handyman—was raised in the church and started playing the piano by ear at age 3. She got her start in her hometown of Tryon, North Carolina, where she played gospel hymns and classical music at Old St. Luke’s CME, the church where her mother ministered. After Simone died on April 21, 2003, she was memorialized at the same sanctuary.

3. SHE WAS BOOK SMART...

Simone, who graduated valedictorian of her high school class, studied at the prestigious Julliard School of Music for a brief period of time before applying to Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music. Unfortunately, Simone was denied admission. For years, she maintained that her race was the reason behind the rejection. But a Curtis faculty member, Vladimir Sokoloff, has gone on record to say that her skin color wasn’t a factor. “It had nothing to do with her…background,” he said in 1992. But Simone ended up getting the last laugh: Two days before her death, the school awarded her an honorary degree.

4. ... WITH DEGREES TO PROVE IT.

Simone—who preferred to be called “doctor Nina Simone”—was also awarded two other honorary degrees, from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Malcolm X College.

5. HER CAREER WAS ROOTED IN ACTIVISM.

A photo of Nina Simone circa 1969

Gerrit de Bruin

At the age of 12, Simone refused to play at a church revival because her parents had to sit at the back of the hall. From then on, Simone used her art to take a stand. Many of her songs in the '60s, including “Mississippi Goddamn,” “Why (The King of Love Is Dead),” and “Young, Gifted and Black,” addressed the rampant racial injustices of that era.

Unfortunately, her activism wasn't always welcome. Her popularity diminished; venues didn’t invite her to perform, and radio stations didn’t play her songs. But she pressed on—even after the Civil Rights Movement. In 1997, Simone told Interview Magazine that she addressed her songs to the third world. In her own words: “I’m a real rebel with a cause.”

6. ONE OF HER MOST FAMOUS SONGS WAS BANNED.

Mississippi Goddam,” her 1964 anthem, only took her 20 minutes to an hour to write, according to legend—but it made an impact that still stands the test of time. When she wrote it, Simone had been fed up with the country’s racial unrest. Medger Evers, a Mississippi-born civil rights activist, was assassinated in his home state in 1963. That same year, the Ku Klux Klan bombed a Birmingham Baptist church and as a result, four young black girls were killed. Simone took to her notebook and piano to express her sentiments.

“Alabama's gotten me so upset/Tennessee made me lose my rest/And everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam,” she sang.

Some say that the song was banned in Southern radio stations because “goddam” was in the title. But others argue that the subject matter is what caused the stations to return the records cracked in half.

7. SHE NEVER HAD A NUMBER ONE HIT.

Nina Simone released over 40 albums during her decades-spanning career including studio albums, live versions, and compilations, and scored 15 Grammy nominations. But her highest-charting (and her first) hit, “I Loves You, Porgy,” peaked at #2 on the U.S. R&B charts in 1959. Still, her music would go on to influence legendary singers like Roberta Flack and Aretha Franklin.

8. SHE USED HER STYLE TO MAKE A STATEMENT.

Head wraps, bold jewelry, and floor-skimming sheaths were all part of Simone’s stylish rotation. In 1967, she wore the same black crochet fishnet jumpsuit with flesh-colored lining for the entire year. Not only did it give off the illusion of her being naked, but “I wanted people to remember me looking a certain way,” she said. “It made it easier for me.”

9. SHE HAD MANY HOMES.

New York City, Liberia, Barbados, England, Belgium, France, Switzerland, and the Netherlands were all places that Simone called home. She died at her home in Southern France, and her ashes were scattered in several African countries.

10. SHE HAD A FAMOUS INNER CIRCLE.

During the late '60s, Simone and her second husband Andrew Stroud lived next to Malcolm X and his family in Mount Vernon, New York. He wasn't her only famous pal. Simone was very close with playwright Lorraine Hansberry. After Hansberry’s death, Simone penned “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” in her honor, a tribute to Hansberry's play of the same title. Simone even struck up a brief friendship with David Bowie in the mid-1970s, who called her every night for a month to offer his advice and support.

11. YOU CAN STILL VISIT SIMONE IN HER HOMETOWN.

Photo of Nina Simone
Amazing Nina Documentary Film, LLC, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

In 2010, an 8-foot sculpture of Eunice Waymon was erected in her hometown of Tryon, North Carolina. Her likeness stands tall in Nina Simone Plaza, where she’s seated and playing an eternal song on a keyboard that floats in midair. Her daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly, gave sculptor Zenos Frudakis some of Simone’s ashes to weld into the sculpture’s bronze heart. "It's not something very often done, but I thought it was part of the idea of bringing her home," Frudakis said.

12. YOU'VE PROBABLY HEARD HER MUSIC IN RECENT HITS.

Rihanna sang a few verses of Simone’s “Do What You Gotta Do” on Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo. He’s clearly a superfan: “Blood on the Leaves” and his duet with Jay Z, “New Day,” feature Simone samples as well, along with Lil’ Wayne’s “Dontgetit,” Common’s “Misunderstood” and a host of other tracks.

13. HER MUSIC IS STILL BEING PERFORMED.

Nina Revisited… A Tribute to Nina Simone was released along with the Netflix documentary in 2015. On the album, Lauryn Hill, Jazmine Sullivan, Usher, Alice Smith, and more paid tribute to the legend by performing covers of 16 of her most famous tracks.

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13 Secrets From the Guinness Archives
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Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images

Guinness has been a staple in Irish pubs for nearly 260 years. With so much history, it's no surprise that the Guinness Storehouse Archives—which are open to the public—are stuffed with intriguing artifacts that tell some pretty wild stories. Here are a few.

1. THE LEASE TO THE DUBLIN BREWERY WAS INTENDED TO LAST 9000 YEARS.

In 1759, founder Arthur Guinness signed a lease for a four-acre property at St. James’s Gate in Dublin. The lease required a down payment of £100, an annual rent of £45, and a term of 9000 years (not a typo). Such lengthy leases were relatively common back then: “At the time in Ireland, there was a lot of instability to do with land tenure,” explains Fergus Brady, Archives Manager at Guinness. Centuries earlier, the British had begun confiscating land from native Irish in an effort to build plantations, and extra-long leases were a means of avoiding this fate. As Brady explains, “You see these really long leases: 99-year or 999-year leases. It seemed to be a legal custom at the time that they used the number nine.”

2. ARTHUR GUINNESS WAS NOT AFRAID TO DEFEND HIS PROPERTY WITH A PICKAXE.

In 1775, the Dublin Corporation—that is, the city government—demanded that Arthur Guinness pay for the spring water flowing to his brewery. When Guinness argued that he was already paying for water rights through his 9000-year rental agreement, the Dublin Corporation sent a sheriff and a committee to his brewery to cut off the water supply. Guinness was livid. He seized a pickaxe and unleashed a torrent of obscenities so colorful that the Dublin Corporation’s goons eventually retreated.

3. GUINNESS ONCE DEPLOYED FIELD AGENTS TO CATCH COUNTERFEITERS.

Guinness Apology
Guinness Archive, Diageo Ireland

In the 19th century, there was no such thing as brand consistency. Guinness did not bottle its own beer; instead, it shipped the suds in wooden casks to publicans who supplied their own bottles and applied their own personalized labels. Occasionally, these publicans sold fake or adulterated Guinness. To prevent such sales, the company sent special agents called “travellers” into the field to collect beer samples, which it tested in a laboratory. “If a publican was found to be serving adulterated or counterfeit Guinness, they had to give a public apology in their local newspaper—and even the national newspapers,” archivist Jessica Handy says.

4. FOR 21 YEARS, THE COMPANY HIRED A GUY TO TRAVEL THE WORLD AND DRINK BEER.

In 1899, Guinness hired an American ex-brewer named Arthur T. Shand to be a “Guinness World Traveller.” It was arguably the coolest job in the world. For 21 years, Shand traveled the world taste-testing beer. According to Brady, “His job was to travel the world and taste Guinness, say whether it was good or bad, who our bottlers in the market were, who our major competition was, what kind of people were drinking our product.” Shand traveled to Australia and New Zealand, to Southeast Asia and Egypt. “He was sort of a Guinness sommelier,” Brady says.

5. THE COMPANY'S HARP LOGO CAUSED TROUBLE WITH THE IRISH GOVERNMENT.

The Celtic harp—based on the 14th century “Brian Boru Harp” preserved at Trinity College—became a trademarked Guinness logo in 1876. Forty-five years later, when Ireland gained independence from England, the Irish Free State decided to use the same Celtic harp as its official state emblem. This became awkward. Guinness owned the trademark, and the Irish government was forced to search for a workaround. You can find their solution on an Irish Euro coin. Look at the coin, and you’ll notice that the harp’s straight edge faces the right; meanwhile, the harp on a glass of Guinness shows the straight edge facing left [PDF].

6. GUINNESS REPORTEDLY SAVED LIVES ON THE BATTLEFIELD.

The old slogan “Guinness is good for you” sounds like a marketing gimmick, but it was born out of a genuine belief that the beer was, in fact, a restorative tonic. The health claim dates back to 1815, when an ailing cavalry officer wounded at the Battle of Waterloo reportedly credited Guinness for his recovery. For decades, the medical community widely claimed that the dark beer possessed real health benefits—and they weren’t necessarily wrong. “There was little safe drinking water at the time,” Handy says. “But with brewing, consumers knew they were getting a safe beverage.”

7. THE COMPANY CREATED A SPECIAL RECIPE FOR CONVALESCENTS.

A label for Guinness invalid stout
Guinness Archive, Diageo Ireland

From the 1880s to the 1920s, Guinness produced a special “Nourishing Export Stout”—a.k.a. “Invalid Stout”—that contained extra sugars, alcohol, and solids and came in cute one-third pint bottles. “It was very common practice for people to buy a couple bottles and keep them as a tonic, even if it was just a glass or half a glass,” Handy says. In fact, Guinness went as far as asking general practitioners for testimonials attesting to the beer’s medical benefits. According to Brady, “Many of them wrote back and said yes, we prescribe this for various ailments.” One doctor even claimed a pint was “as nourishing as a glass of milk.”

8. DOCTORS REGULARLY PRESCRIBED THE BEER TO NURSING MOTHERS.

From the 1880s to the 1930s, many physicians believed Guinness was an effective galactagogue—that is, a lactation aid. The company sent bottles to hospitals as well as wax cartons of yeast (which supposedly helped skin problems and migraines). Hundreds, possibly thousands, of doctors prescribed the beer for ailments such as influenza, insomnia, and anxiety, David Hughes writes in A Bottle of Guinness Please: The Colourful History of Guinness. According to Brady, the company was sending beer to hospitals as late as the 1970s.

9. THE COMPANY ONCE DROPPED 200,000 MESSAGES-IN-A-BOTTLE INTO THE OCEAN.

A Guinness message in a bottle
The message within every bottle dropped in the Atlantic Ocean in 1959.
Guinness Archive, Diageo Ireland

In 1954, Guinness dumped 50,000 messages-in-a-bottle in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans. In 1959, they repeated the stunt again, with 38 ships dropping 150,000 bottles in the Atlantic. The first bottle was discovered in the Azores off Portugal just three months after the initial drop [PDF]. Since then, the bottles have turned up in California, New Zealand, and South Africa. Just last year, a bottle was discovered in Nova Scotia. (If you find one, you just might be offered a trip to the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin.)

10. THE PERSONNEL FILES IN THE GUINNESS ARCHIVES CONTAIN SOME DOOZIES.

The Guinness corporate archives are open to the public. According to Handy, “Some of the stories you get in there are amazing, because you get accident reports and you get crazy stories of people bouncing on bags of hops outside the brewery." This may sound less surprising considering that, back in the day, Guinness employees were given an allowance of two pints of beer every day [PDF].

11. A GUINNESS SCIENTIST MADE A STATISTICALLY SIGNIFICANT MARK IN THE FIELD OF STATISTICS.

If you’ve taken a statistics class, you might be familiar with the Student’s t-test or the t-statistic. (It’s a method of working with a small sample size when the standard deviation is unknown.) The t-test was first described by William S. Gosset, a brewer and statistician at Guinness who was attempting to analyze a small sample of malt extract. Gosset’s discovery not only helped Guinness create a more consistent-tasting beer, it would lay the bedrock for one of the most important concepts in statistics: statistical significance.

12. GUINNESS IS SO BIG IN AFRICA, IT LAUNCHED A SUCCESSFUL FEATURE-LENGTH FILM.

Guinness began exporting beer to Africa in 1827. In the 1960s, it opened a brewery in Nigeria—followed by Cameroon and Ghana. Today, there are reportedly more Guinness drinkers in Nigeria than there are in Ireland. “In Ireland, England, and the United States, everybody thinks that Guinness is synonymous with Ireland,” Brady says. “But in Nigeria, there’s a very very low conception of that.” The beer is such a cultural staple that a fictional character who advertised the product named Michael Power—a James Bond-like, crime-fighting journalist—became the star of a feature film in 2003 called Critical Assignment, which was a box office smash. (Of course, there’s some branding built into the script. As Brady explains, “There are definitely scenes where Michael Power is enjoying a pint of Guinness.”)

13. DISPENSING BEER WITH NITROGEN WAS ORIGINALLY CONSIDERED LAUGHABLE.

In the 1950s, Guinness scientist Michael Ash was tasked with solving the “draft problem.” At the time, dispensing a draft pint of Guinness was ridiculously complicated, and the company was losing market share to draft lagers in Britain that could be easily dispensed with CO2. “The stout was too lively to be dispensed with CO2 only,” Brady says. “Ash worked on the problem for four years, working long hours day or night, and became a bit of a recluse apparently. A lot of doubters at the brewery called the project ‘daft Guinness.’” But then Ash attempted dispensing the beer with plain air. It worked. The secret ingredient, Ash discovered, was nitrogen. The air we breathe is 78 percent nitrogen. Today, a Guinness draft contains 75 percent nitrogen. Not only did the discovery make dispensing the beer easier, it created a creamy mouthfeel that’s been the signature of Irish stouts since.

Full disclosure: Guinness paid for the author to attend an International Stout Day festival in 2017, which provided the opportunity to speak to their archivists.

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