Holland Taylor
Holland Taylor
You know what today is, don't you? It's Washington's Birthday, of course...but I'm talking theatrically. And every theatrical savant worth his salt can tell you that, 19 years ago today, Moose Murders opened at the Eugene O'Neill. (Today is also, of course, the 19th anniversary of Moose Murders' closing at the Eugene O'Neill).

Moose Murders, by Arthur Bicknell. Directed by John Roach (though somehow I remember Norman René's name originally attached.). Starring Eve Arden--for one preview, anyway, before Holland Taylor took over. Kent Shelton was credited not with providing "stage combat" but "stage violence." The musical supervisor was Ken Lundie, who must have wished that he were Mr. Lundie in Brigadoon so that he wouldn't have to show his face for the next 100 years.

I attended an early preview of the show, weeks before the opening-slash-closing. I opened the program to discover that the characters I'd meet included Snooks and Howie Keene, Joe Buffalo Dance, Nurse Dagmar, Hedda and Stinky Holloway. Who could ask for anything more? Well, I could, as soon as the curtain went up on a rustic lodge in which several moose heads were mounted. "Though the heads may be hunting trophies," Frank Rich of the New York Times would later write, "one cannot rule out the possibility that these particular moose committed suicide shortly after being shown the script that trades on their good name."

The show began with Howie, a blind man, playing an electric piano as his wife Snooks shook her tush at us while she sang "Jeepers, Creepers"--a song which, incidentally, my Catholic school nuns urged us not to sing because it mocked Jesus Christ. (Who knew? Well, my nuns always believed they knew everything.) The next character in was someone who, perhaps, agreed with the nuns, for he pulled the plug on the piano...but not the show. It wasn't long before I pulled the plug--soon after Joe Buffalo Dance, a Native American dressed to look the part, spoke in an Irish brogue, and immediately following a totally bandaged quadriplegic's being rolled on stage in a wheelchair.

So when people ask me if I saw Moose Murders, I have to answer: "Yes and no." For I lasted--I mean this--11 minutes, still the shortest time I've ever spent at a show. Had I known the play would become infamous and not just another quick closer, I might have stayed on. But I'd been on a business trip, had schlepped my luggage to the theater, was sweaty and hungry and not in the mood to have my intelligence insulted any more than it had to be. So I missed the second-act scene that I heard about later, where the quadriplegic magically bolted from his wheelchair and kicked a moose-suited man below the belt.

Moose Murders has now and forever become an idiom for atrociousness. When Chess opened on Broadway, critic Joel Siegel of ABC called it "the Moose Murders of musicals." Michael Musto of The Village Voice compared the dull opening night party of The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle to the show; he was probably reminded of it because Bullwinkle is, after all, a moose. Glenn Loney of the New York Theatre Wire wrote three seasons ago, "The wonderful, admirable Judith Ivey has made a return to Broadway in Moose Murders. Actually, her rickety vehicle is titled Voices in the Dark." Robert Hofler in Variety, who didn't like Ivo Van Hove's revisionist look at A Streetcar Named Desire, said it was "for those who missed Moose Murders and Carrie." And speaking of Carrie: When that legendary disaster opened, Frank Rich said, "Only the absence of antlers separates the pig murders of Carrie from the Moose Murders of Broadway lore."

Frankly, Frank Rich's best observation about the show came in June of 1983, when he did a season wrap-up. It was the same semester that Noises Off triumphantly opened on Broadway, and Rich smartly noted that Nothing On--the very silly play-within-the-play in Noises Off--was pretty much analogous to Moose Murders in its ineptness. Of course, Noises Off was winking at incompetence while Moose Murders was playing it for real.

Still, those who were involved with Moose Murders have a sense of pride in having survived it. Casting agents Stuart Howard and Amy Schecter still list it in their bios. Lisa McMillan, who played Nurse Dagmar, and Mara Hobel, who had a minor role, do the same--adding for extra cachet that they appeared with Eve Arden. Production stage manager Clifford Schwartz refers to the show as "the blockbuster Moose Murders" in his credits.

Eve Arden
Eve Arden
Recently, I interviewed June Gable, who brought up out of the blue that she'd been Snooks in the show. "Eve Arden was a lovely woman," Gable remembered, "but it was very hard for her at the time to memorize lines. You'd be on stage, you'd wait for her to deliver her line, you'd see her eyes widen, and you'd go, 'Oh-oh.' But the whole thing was such a disaster, I've dined out on it for years--especially at Joe Allen's, where the poster has a central place on the Wall of Flops."

I mentioned the quadriplegic who came on totally bandaged. Gable did not remember him. "You know, thank God, I have very little memory of the show," she confessed. "It was an outrageous experience and it was one reason why I left the business shortly afterwards. I actually went to India and spent a year there searching for the meaning of life." (She's done better since; she has made several appearances on Friends as Estelle Leonard, Joey's tough agent. At the moment, Gable is at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick where she's portraying Dr. Gorgeous in The Sisters Rosensweig and is tearing down the house.)

I asked Gable if she knew that Moose Murders stunk by the time she got to page four. "I knew it was very weird," she conceded. "I didn't want to take the job, but my agent at the time said to take the money and run. They offered me so much--a real Broadway salary! Those were the days when I made decisions on a more superficial basis. Money?!" she growled, not unlike the way Lonny Price growled the word in "Franklin Shepard, Inc." "Awright! Okay! I took the job. As I was going through the [rehearsal] process, I did wind up thinking, 'What is this? What can this be?' I even wrote an article on Moose Murders for Esquire magazine." Gable promised to send me a copy but she hasn't yet; if she does, I'll let you know what it says.

Moose Murders may not have had as many lives as a cat, but there have been other productions. Whippany (NJ) Park High School did the show in 1990 and proudly advertised it as "'Broadway's ultimate disaster'--Frank Rich, The New York Times." Youngstown State University revived it, too, as did the Canyon Theatre Guild in Newhall, CA; the Kent Trumbull Theatre at Kent State University; the Ardmore (OK) Little Theatre; and my personal favorite, the Blue Slipper Dinner Theatre in Livingston, Montana.

And every year, in his suburban New Jersey home, Simon Saltzman--drama critic of a newspaper called US-1 that serves people who live near that highway--invites a bunch of friends to his house to read the script of Moose Murders to a number of head-shaking attendees.

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[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at pfilichia@aol.com]