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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Fabia Mendoza/Guernsey's
Rosa Parks's Former House in Detroit Will Be Sold at Auction
Fabia Mendoza/Guernsey's
Fabia Mendoza/Guernsey's

The humble wooden house that Rosa Parks moved into after fleeing to Detroit in the fallout of her historic Montgomery bus protest will be auctioned off by Guernsey’s next month. The house has been taken apart, reassembled, and displayed in different locations over the years—including destinations as far-flung as Berlin, Germany—and the structure could theoretically be rebuilt anywhere.

The sale of the home will be part of Guernsey’s “African American Historic & Cultural Treasures” auction to be held July 25-26 in New York City, and proceeds from the house will benefit the Rosa McCauley Parks Heritage Foundation.

The fact that the home is still standing is testament to the resilient spirit of Rosa Parks, but it wasn’t always in such great shape. The home, formerly owned by Parks’s brother, fell into disrepair over the years and was slated to be demolished by the city of Detroit.

That’s when Parks’s niece, Rhea McCauley, stepped in. She bought the house for $500 and handed it over to Ryan Mendoza, an artist who promised to preserve the structure as a monument. He took it apart, transported it thousands of miles to Berlin, and rebuilt the house in his yard, where it remained on public display.

“A lot of people did think that that house was not worth saving because there’s so many in Detroit that looks just like that house,” Mendoza told the BBC. “It sort of goes without saying that she’s a national icon and what she did was so important for so many millions of people even if they don’t know it.”

Most recently, the home was displayed as part of a symposium with the Rhode Island School of Design.

After Parks was arrested on December 1, 1955, for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white man, she lost her job and received a steady stream of death threats. Two years later she and her family decided to move north, and the Detroit home she shared with 17 other relatives represented “a place of love and of peace,” McCauley told the BBC.

Also heading to the auction block is a handwritten account of Rosa Parks’s first meeting with Martin Luther King, Jr., in August 1955, about four months before her bus protest. She wrote of her first impression, “I was amazed and astonished at the youthful appearance and the profound and eloquent speech delivered by Rev. M.L.K. Jr. I knew I would never forget him.”

Other notable items up for sale include a Jackson Five recording contract, signed by Joe Jackson; original score sheets of music from The Supremes and The Temptations; and hundreds of movie posters documenting African Americans’ role in film.

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Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
15 Riveting Facts About Alan Turing
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

More than six decades after his death, Alan Turing’s life remains a point of fascination—even for people who have no interest in his groundbreaking work in computer science. He has been the subject of a play and an opera, and referenced in multiple novels and numerous musical albums. The Benedict Cumberbatch film about his life, The Imitation Game, received eight Oscar nominations. But just who was he in real life? Here are 15 facts you should know about Alan Turing, who was born on this day in 1912.

1. HE’S THE FATHER OF MODERN COMPUTER SCIENCE.

Turing essentially pioneered the idea of computer memory. In 1936, Turing published a seminal paper called “On Computable Numbers” [PDF], which The Washington Post has called “the founding document of the computer age.” In the philosophical article, he hypothesized that one day, we could build machines that could compute any problem that a human could, using 0s and 1s. Turing proposed single-task machines called Turing machines that would be capable of solving just one type of math problem, but a “universal computer” would be able to tackle any kind of problem thrown at it by storing instructional code in the computer’s memory. Turing’s ideas about memory storage and using a single machine to carry out all tasks laid the foundation for what would become the digital computer.

In 1945, while working for the UK’s National Physical Laboratory, he came up with the Automatic Computing Machine, the first digital computer with stored programs. Previous computers didn’t have electric memory storage, and had to be manually rewired to switch between different programs.

2. HE PLAYED A HUGE ROLE IN WINNING WORLD WAR II.

Turing began working at Bletchley Park, Britain’s secret headquarters for its codebreakers during World War II, in 1939. By one estimate, his work there may have cut the war short by up to two years. He’s credited with saving millions of lives.

Turing immediately got to work designing a codebreaking machine called the Bombe (an update of a previous Polish machine) with the help of his colleague Gordon Welchman. The Bombe shortened the steps required in decoding, and 200 of them were built for British use over the course of the war. They allowed codebreakers to decipher up to 4000 messages a day.

His greatest achievement was cracking the Enigma, a mechanical device used by the German army to encode secure messages. It proved nearly impossible to decrypt without the correct cipher, which the German forces changed every day. Turing worked to decipher German naval communications at a point when German U-boats were sinking ships carrying vital supplies across the Atlantic between Allied nations. In 1941, Turing and his team managed to decode the German Enigma messages, helping to steer Allied ships away from the German submarine attacks. In 1942, he traveled to the U.S. to help the Americans with their own codebreaking work.

3. HE BROKE THE RULES TO WRITE TO CHURCHILL.

Early on, Bletchley Park’s operations were hampered by a lack of resources, but pleas for better staffing were ignored by government officials. So, Alan Turing and several other codebreakers at Bletchley Park went over their heads to write directly to Prime Minister Winston Churchill. One of the codebreakers from Bletchley Park delivered the letter by hand in October 1941.

“Our reason for writing to you direct is that for months we have done everything that we possibly can through the normal channels, and that we despair of any early improvement without your intervention,” they wrote to Churchill [PDF]. “No doubt in the long run these particular requirements will be met, but meanwhile still more precious months will have been wasted, and as our needs are continually expanding we see little hope of ever being adequately staffed.”

In response, Churchill immediately fired off a missive to his chief of staff: “Make sure they have all they want on extreme priority and report to me that this had been done.”

4. HE HAD SOME ODD HABITS.

Like many geniuses, Turing was not without his eccentricities. He wore a gas mask while riding his bike to combat his allergies. Instead of fixing his bike’s faulty chain, he learned exactly when to dismount to secure it in place before it slipped off. He was known around Bletchley Park for chaining his tea mug to a radiator to prevent it from being taken by other staffers.

5. HE RODE HIS BIKE 60 MILES TO GET TO THE FIRST DAY OF SCHOOL.

Though he was considered an average student, Turing was dedicated enough to his schooling that when a general strike prevented him from taking the train to his first day at his new elite boarding school, the 14-year-old rode his bike the 62 miles instead.

6. HE TRIED OUT FOR THE OLYMPICS.

Turing started running as a schoolboy and continued throughout his life, regularly running the 31 miles between Cambridge and Ely while he was a fellow at King’s College. During World War II, he occasionally ran the 40 miles between London and Bletchley Park for meetings.

He almost became an Olympic athlete, too. He came in fifth place at a qualifying marathon for the 1948 Olympics with a 2-hour, 46-minute finish (11 minutes slower than the 1948 Olympic marathon winner). However, a leg injury held back his athletic ambitions that year.

Afterward, he continued running for the Walton Athletic Club, though, and served as its vice president. ”I have such a stressful job that the only way I can get it out of my mind is by running hard,” he once told the club’s secretary. “It's the only way I can get some release."

7. HE WAS PROSECUTED FOR BEING GAY.

In 1952, Turing was arrested after reporting a burglary in his home. In the course of the investigation, the police discovered Turing’s relationship with another man, Arnold Murray. Homosexual relationships were illegal in the UK at the time, and he was charged with “gross indecency.” He pled guilty on the advice of his lawyer, and opted to undergo chemical castration instead of serving time in jail.

8. THE GOVERNMENT ONLY RECENTLY APOLOGIZED FOR HIS CONVICTION …

In 2009, UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued a public apology to Turing on behalf of the British government. “Alan and the many thousands of other gay men who were convicted as he was convicted under homophobic laws were treated terribly,” Brown said. "This recognition of Alan's status as one of Britain's most famous victims of homophobia is another step towards equality and long overdue." Acknowledging Britain’s debt to Turing for his vital contributions to the war effort, he announced, “on behalf of the British government, and all those who live freely thanks to Alan's work I am very proud to say: we're sorry, you deserved so much better."

His conviction was not actually pardoned, though, until 2013, when he received a rare royal pardon from the Queen of England.

9. … AND NAMED A LAW AFTER HIM.

Turing was only one of the many men who suffered after being prosecuted for their homosexuality under 19th-century British indecency laws. Homosexuality was decriminalized in the UK in 1967, but the previous convictions were never overturned. Turing’s Law, which went into effect in 2017, posthumously pardoned men who had been convicted for having consensual gay sex before the repeal. According to one of the activists who campaigned for the mass pardons, around 15,000 of the 65,000 gay men convicted under the outdated law are still alive.

10. HE POISONED HIMSELF … MAYBE.

There is still a bit of mystery surrounding Turing’s death at the age of 41. Turing died of cyanide poisoning, in what is widely believed to have been a suicide. Turing’s life had been turned upside down by his arrest. He lost his job and his security clearance. By order of the court, he had to take hormones intended to “cure” his homosexuality, which caused him to grow breasts and made him impotent. But not everyone is convinced that he died by suicide.

In 2012, Jack Copeland, a Turing scholar, argued that the evidence used to declare Turing’s death a suicide in 1954 would not be sufficient to close the case today. The half-eaten apple by his bedside, thought to be the source of his poisoning, was never tested for cyanide. There was still a to-do list on his desk, and his friends told the coroner at the time that he had seemed in good spirits. Turing’s mother, in fact, maintained that he probably accidentally poisoned himself while experimenting with the chemical in his home laboratory. (He was known to taste chemicals while identifying them, and could be careless with safety precautions.)

That line of inquiry is far more tame than some others, including one author’s theory that he was murdered by the FBI to cover up information that would have been damaging to the U.S.

11. HIS FULL GENIUS WASN’T KNOWN IN HIS LIFETIME.

Alan Turing was a well-respected mathematician in his time, but his contemporaries didn’t know the full extent of his contributions to the world. Turing’s work breaking the Enigma machine remained classified long after his death, meaning that his contributions to the war effort and to mathematics were only partially known to the public during his lifetime. It wasn’t until the 1970s that his instrumental role in the Allies' World War II victory became public with the declassification of the Enigma story. The actual techniques Turing used to decrypt the messages weren’t declassified until 2013, when two of his papers from Bletchley Park were released to the British National Archives.

12. THE TURING TEST IS STILL USED TO MEASURE ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE …

Can a machine fool a human into thinking they are chatting with another person? That’s the crux of the Turing test, an idea developed by Turing in 1950 regarding how to measure artificial intelligence. Turing argued in his paper “Computing Machinery and Intelligence” [PDF] that the idea of machines “thinking” is not a useful way to evaluate artificial intelligence. Instead, Turing suggests “the imitation game,” a way to assess how successfully a machine can imitate human behavior. The best measure of artificial intelligence, then, is whether or not a computer can convince a person that it is human.

13. … BUT SOME CONSIDER IT TO BE AN OUTDATED IDEA.

As technology has progressed, some feel the Turing test is no longer a useful way to measure artificial intelligence. It’s cool to think about computers being able to talk just like a person, but new technology is opening up avenues for computers to express intelligence in other, more useful ways. A robot’s intelligence isn’t necessarily defined by whether it can fake being human—self-driving cars or programs that can mimic sounds based on images might not pass the Turing test, but they certainly have intelligence.

14. HE CREATED THE FIRST COMPUTER CHESS PROGRAM.

Inspired by the chess champions he worked with at Bletchley Park, Alan Turing created an algorithm for an early version of computer chess—although at that time, there was no computer to try it out on. Created with paper and pencil, the Turochamp program was designed to think two moves ahead, picking out the best moves possible. In 2012, Russian chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov played against Turing’s algorithm, beating it in 16 moves. “I would compare it to an early caryou might laugh at them but it is still an incredible achievement," Kasparov said in a statement after the match-up.

15. THERE IS ALAN TURING MONOPOLY.

In 2012, Monopoly came out with an Alan Turing edition to celebrate the centennial of his birth. Turing had enjoyed playing Monopoly during his life, and the Turing-themed Monopoly edition was designed based on a hand-drawn board created in 1950 by his friend William Newman. Instead of hotels and houses, it featured huts and blocks inspired by Bletchley Park, and included never-before-published photos of Turing. (It’s hard to find, but there are still a few copies of the game on Amazon.)

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