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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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12 Pieces of 100-Year-Old Advice for Dealing With Your In-Laws
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Hulton Archive // Getty Images

The familial friction between in-laws has been a subject for family counselors, folklorists, comedians, and greeting card writers for generations—and getting along with in-laws isn't getting any easier. Here are some pieces of "old tyme" advice—some solid, some dubious, some just plain ridiculous—about making nice with your new family.

1. ALWAYS VOTE THE SAME WAY AS YOUR FATHER-IN-LAW (EVEN IF YOU DISAGREE).

It's never too soon to start sowing the seeds for harmony with potential in-laws. An 1896 issue of one Alabama newspaper offered some advice to men who were courting, and alongside tips like “Don’t tell her you’re wealthy. She may wonder why you are not more liberal,” it gave some advice for dealing with prospective in-laws: “Always vote the same ticket her father does,” the paper advised, and “Don’t give your prospective father-in-law any advice unless he asks for it.”

2. MAKE AN EFFORT TO BE ATTRACTIVE TO YOUR MOTHER-IN-LAW.

According to an 1886 issue of Switchmen’s Journal, “A greybeard once remarked that it would save half the family squabbles of a generation if young wives would bestow a modicum of the pains they once took to please their lovers in trying to be attractive to their mothers-in-law.”

3. KEEP YOUR OPINIONS TO YOURSELF.

In 1901, a Wisconsin newspaper published an article criticizing the 19th century trend of criticizing mothers-in-law (a "trend" which continues through to today):

“There has been a foolish fashion in vogue in the century just closed which shuts out all sympathy for mothers-in-law. The world is never weary of listening to the praises of mothers ... Can it be that a person who is capable of so much heroic unselfishness will do nothing worthy of gratitude for those who are dearest and nearest to her own children?”

Still, the piece closed with some advice for the women it was defending: “The wise mother-in-law gives advice sparingly and tries to help without seeming to help. She leaves the daughter to settle her own problems. She is the ever-blessed grandmother of the German fairy tales, ready to knit in the corner and tell folk stories to the grandchildren.”

4. IF RECEIVING ADVICE, JUST LISTEN AND SMILE. EVEN IF IT PAINS YOU.

Have an in-law who can't stop advising you on what to do? According to an 1859 issue of The American Freemason, you'll just have to grin and bear it: “If the daughter-in-law has any right feeling, she will always listen patiently, and be grateful and yielding to the utmost of her power.”

Advice columnist Dorothy Dix seemed to believe that it would be wise to heed an in-law's advice at least some of the time. Near the end of World War II, Dix received a letter from a mother-in-law asking what to do with her daughter-in-law, who had constantly shunned her advice and now wanted to move in with her. Dix wrote back, “Many a daughter-in-law who has ignored her husband’s mother is sending out an SOS call for help in these servantless days,” and advised the mother-in-law against agreeing to the arrangement.

5. STAY OUT OF THE KITCHEN. AND CLOSETS. AND CUPBOARDS.

An 1881 article titled "Concerning the Interference of the Father-in-Law and Mother-in-Law in Domestic Affairs," which appeared in the Rural New Yorker, had a great deal of advice for the father-in-law:

“He will please to keep out of the kitchen just as much as he possibly can. He will not poke his nose into closets or cupboards, parley with the domestics, investigate the condition of the swill barrel, the ash barrel, the coal bin, worry himself about the kerosene or gas bills, or make purchases of provisions for the family under the pretence that he can buy more cheaply than the mistress of the house; let him do none of these things unless especially commissioned so to do by the mistress of the house.”

The article further advises that if a father-in-law "thinks that the daughter-in-law or son-in-law is wasteful, improvident or a bad manager, the best thing for him to do, decidedly, is to keep his thought to himself, for in all probability things are better managed and better taken care of by the second generation than they were by the first. And even if they are not, it is far better to pass the matter over in silence than to comment upon the same, and thereby engender bad feelings.”

6. NEVER COHABITATE.

While there is frequent discussion about how to achieve happiness with the in-laws in advice columns and magazines, rarely does this advice come from a judge. In 1914, after a young couple was married, they quickly ran into issues. “The wife said she was driven from the house by her mother-in-law,” a newspaper reported, “and the husband said he was afraid to live with his wife’s people because of the threatening attitude of her father on the day of the wedding.” It got so bad that the husband was brought up on charges of desertion. But Judge Strauss gave the couple some advice:

“[Your parents] must exercise no influence over you now except a peaceful influence. You must establish a home of your own. Even two rooms will be a start and lay up a store of happiness for you.”

According to the paper, they agreed to go off and rent a few rooms.

Dix agreed that living with in-laws was asking for trouble. In 1919, she wrote that, “In all good truth there is no other danger to a home greater than having a mother-in-law in it.”

7. COURT YOUR MOTHER-IN-LAW.

The year 1914 wasn’t the first time a judge handed down advice regarding a mother-in-law from the bench. According to The New York Times, in 1899 Magistrate Olmsted suggested to a husband that “you should have courted your mother-in-law and then you would not have any trouble ... I courted my mother-in-law and my home life is very, very happy.”

8. THINK OF YOUR IN-LAWS AS YOUR "IN LOVES."

Don't think of your in-laws as in-laws; think of them as your family. In 1894, an article in The Ladies’ Home Journal proclaimed, “I will not call her your mother-in-law. I like to think that she is your mother in love. She is your husband’s mother, and therefore yours, for his people have become your people.”

Helen Marshall North, writing in The Home-Maker: An Illustrated Monthly Magazine four years earlier, agreed: “No man, young or old, who smartly and in public, jests about his mother-in-law, can lay the slightest claim to good breeding. In the first place, if he has proper affection for his wife, that affection includes, to some extent at least, the mother who gave her birth ... the man of fine thought and gentle breeding sees his own mother in the new mother, and treats her with the same deference, and, if necessary, with the same forbearance which he gladly yields his own.”

9. BE THANKFUL YOU HAVE A MOTHER-IN-LAW ... OR DON'T.

Historical advice columns had two very different views on this: A 1901 Raleigh newspaper proclaimed, “Adam’s [of Adam and Eve] troubles may have been due to the fact that he had no mother-in-law to give advice,” while an earlier Yuma paper declared, “Our own Washington had no mother-in-law, hence America is a free nation.”

10. DON'T BE PICKY WHEN IT COMES TO CHOOSING A WIFE; CHOOSE A MOTHER-IN-LAW INSTEAD.

By today's standards, the advice from an 1868 article in The Round Table is incredibly sexist and offensive. Claiming that "one wife is, after all, pretty much the same as another," and that "the majority of women are married at an age when their characters are still mobile and plastic, and can be shaped in the mould of their husband's will," the magazine advised, “Don’t waste any time in the selection of the particular victim who is to be shackled to you in your desolate march from the pleasant places of bachelorhood into the hopeless Siberia of matrimony ... In other words ... never mind about choosing a wife; the main thing is to choose a proper mother-in-law,” because "who ever dreamt of moulding a mother-in-law? That terrible, mysterious power behind the throne, the domestic Sphynx, the Gorgon of the household, the awful presence which every husband shudders when he names?"

11. KEEP THINGS IN PERSPECTIVE.

As an 1894 Good Housekeeping article reminded readers:

“Young man! your wife’s mother, your redoubtable mother-in-law, is as good as your wife is and as good as your mother is; and who is your precious wife's mother-in-law? And you, venerable mother-in-law, may perhaps profitably bear in mind that the husband your daughter has chosen with your sanction is not a worse man naturally than your husband who used to dislike your mother as much as your daughter’s husband dislikes you, or as much as you once disliked your husband’s mother.”

12. IF ALL ELSE FAILS, MARRY AN ORPHAN.

If all else fails, The Round Table noted that “there is one rule which will be found in all cases absolutely certain and satisfactory, and that is to marry an orphan; though even then a grandmother-in-law might turn up sufficiently vigorous to make a formidable substitute.”

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A Secret Room Full of Michelangelo's Sketches Will Soon Open in Florence
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Claudio Giovannini/AFP/Getty Images

Parents all over the world have chastised their children for drawing on the walls. But when you're Michelangelo, you've got some leeway. According to The Local, the Medici Chapels, part of the Bargello museum in Florence, Italy, has announced that it plans to open a largely unseen room full of the artist's sketches to the public by 2020.

Roughly 40 years ago, curators of the chapels at the Basilica di San Lorenzo had a very Dan Brown moment when they discovered a trap door in a wardrobe leading to an underground room that appeared to have works from Michelangelo covering its walls. The tiny retreat is thought to be a place where the artist hid out in 1530 after upsetting the Medicis—his patrons—by joining a revolt against their control of Florence. While in self-imposed exile for several months, he apparently spent his time drawing on whatever surfaces were available.

A drawing by Michelangelo under the Medici Chapels in Florence
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Museum officials previously believed the room and the charcoal drawings were too fragile to risk visitors, but have since had a change of heart, leading to their plan to renovate the building and create new attractions. While not all of the work is thought to be attributable to the famed artist, there's enough of it in the subterranean chamber—including drawings of Jesus and even recreations of portions of the Sistine Chapel—to make a trip worthwhile.

[h/t The Local]

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