It’s the evening of February 22nd, 1983 in New York City.
A cocktail waiter is polishing glasses behind the bar at Sardi’s, a restaurant in Manhattan’s theater district. The waiter glances across the dining room at a group of people in formal evening attire. It’s an unusually big crowd for a Tuesday. But then the waiter spots the bouquets of roses and champagne bottles, then remembers that tonight, Sardi’s is hosting a special event: the afterparty for the opening night of Moose Murders, a new Broadway play.
The waiter scans the room, wondering if he'll recognize any of the actors. But his search is interrupted… when a woman sitting alone at the bar catches his attention. The waiter moves over to take her order, and the woman asks for a double martini - dry.
While preparing her drink, the waiter steals a glance at the woman. She looks exhausted, her thick make-up unable to hide the dark shadows beneath her eyes. As he studies her face, the waiter gets the feeling that he’s seen her someplace before… then it dawns on him.
He stops what he’s doing and exclaims: “June Gable! I saw you in Candideyears ago - you were magnificent!” June smiles sadly. The actress doesn’t appear in the mood to chat.
So the waiter finishes making her martini and slides the drink across the bar. As he does, he gestures toward the Moose Murders afterparty and asks if she’s in the show. June nods. Then she picks up her drink… and throws it back with a grimace.
When the waiter asks June how tonight’s performance went, she taps her watch and says: “We’ll find out in fifteen minutes.” The waiter nods knowingly. It’s almost ten o’clock and that’s when the first critics' review will appear on Channel 5 - the moment the future of any Broadway show is decided. The waiter is about to wish June good luck, but before he can, she’s already halfway across the restaurant, her fur coat draped over her shoulders.
She pushes open the door and vanishes into the night.
Shortly after June’s departure, the reviews forMoose Murderswill start rolling in. On Channel 5, theater critic Stewart Klein will call the show “so titanically bad, you just sit back and laugh to keep from crying.” Elsewhere, critics will even be less generous. In the New York Times, Frank Rich will call the show “the worst play he’s ever seen on a Broadway stage,” while the New Yorker’sBrendan Gill will write that Moose Murders “would insult the intelligence of an audience consisting entirely of amoebas.”
No play could survive this deluge of bad press - and Moose Murders will be no exception. After a run of just oneperformance, the show will be canceled. But even after the title is scrubbed from the entrance of the Eugene O’Neill Theater, the memory of Moose Murders will linger over Broadway like a noxious haze, serving as the new low watermark against which all other shows will be measured - the dubious legacy of Broadway’s most notorious flop, which opened and closed on this day, February 22nd, 1983.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.
Today is February 22nd, 1983: “Moose Murders” Becomes the Biggest Flop in Broadway History
Act One: Auditions
It’s fall 1983 in New York City; about four months before the opening night of Broadway’s biggest flop.
Playwright Arthur Bicknell strolls along Broadway with a spring in his step. Tucked under his arm is a manuscript of the play he’s just written, a mystery farce in two acts called Moose Murders.
At just thirty years old, Arthur has already penned two successful off-Broadway shows, with critics comparing him to a young Arthur Miller - one of Broadway’s most legendary playwrights. But while Arthur Bicknell’s work so far has only consisted of period pieces and slice-of-life dramas, he has always believed that his style lends itself most naturally to comedy. So, Arthur decided to write a satirical murder-mystery, based on his own experiences vacationing with his family at Big Moose Lake in the Adirondacks.
Writing the play was a breeze. Arthur had a vast reserve of hilarious Bicknell family anecdotes to inspire him, and the beauty of writing a farce is that none of the characters have to be believable or sensitively drawn. They just need to be funny. And as Arthur is rapidly discovering, funny is what he does best.
The play centers around a wealthy family who purchases a hunting lodge in upstate New York. But when the family arrives at the lodge, they find it still occupied by its eccentric caretaker and a nightclub double-act who used to perform at the lodge before it was sold. As a thunderstorm rages outside, the characters are murdered one by one, leaving the surviving cast members to work out who the killer is.
Despite the broad humor, Arthur’s play still has plenty of nuance - he is, after all, a serious playwright. There’s a tongue-in-cheek self-awareness behind the slapstick gags and a wry knowingness behind every physical joke. Ultimately, Moose Murders aims to subtly satirize the very genre it’s inhabiting. It is simultaneously high-brow andlow-brow - a perfect distillation of Arthur’s paradoxical artistic impulses.
Still, when writing the play, Arthur wondered if some of its subtlety might be lost on audiences and reviewers. And when his first choice of director passed on the script, Arthur’s confidence begin to wane. But shortly after this initial disappointment, Arthur received a call from John Roach - a director and co-founder of Force Ten Productions.
John phoned Arthur practically in hysterics; he lovedthe script and wanted to take it to Broadway. The only condition was that John’s wife Lillie - who had always wanted to be an actress - would play one of the lead roles, despite her lack of experience. Arthur was in no position to refuse. Lillie was a Texas oil heiress. Her father’s millions are keeping Force Ten Productions afloat and, by extension, paying for his Moose Murders. Arthur knew that for a shot at his big break, he’d have to let Lillie take a shot at hers.
So Now, Arthur whistles cheerfully as he approaches the Minskoff Rehearsal Studios, where auditions for his play are taking place. He strides into the studio and takes a seat alongside John, the director, and Rieka Kanter Fisher, the hard-nosed producer. Arthur still hasn’t gotten used to the thrill of hearing professional actors reading his lines, and he spends all afternoon giggling at his own jokes.
By the end of the day, they’ve almost finished casting. The only part they haven’t yet filled in the lead role: the elderly mother, Hedda Holloway. Arthur doesn’t want any old actress to play Hedda. He wants a big name, a movie star looking to make a spectacular return to the Broadway stage. A few weeks ago, he traveled out to Los Angeles to meet with Eve Arden, an icon from the golden age of Hollywood. But Eve, who is now seventy-five, passed on the role. Arthur flew back to New York disappointed, but confident they’d find a suitable alternative.
Now, though, after seeing dozens of actresses read for the part, Arthur isn’t so sure. None of them were right for the role. So that evening, as they’re preparing to leave the studio, Arthur turns to John and Rieka. He tells them that the success of the play hinges on finding the right Hedda. And if they don’t, the whole enterprise could crash and burn, and their big Broadway break could be a flop.
The three nod in agreement and say their goodbyes and head off in separate directions. As he hails a cab, Arthur’s buoyant mood has deflated. But in the coming days, the writer receives some uplifting news: Eve Arden has changed her mind; she has decided to take the part.
A few days later, the cast and crew will gather for a lavish dinner party at John’s apartment. Arthur will gaze admiringly at Eve. The veteran actress will radiate professionalism and style, still able to light up the room with star quality. And at that moment, Arthur will feel confident that with Eve leading the ensemble, Moose Murders will be a roaring and unmitigated hit.
Act Two: Rehearsals
It’s early February 1983 in the Minskoff Rehearsal Studio in Manhattan; three weeks before Moose Murderswill open.
June Gable stands on stage opposite Eve Arden, the lead actress in the show. June has just delivered Eve’s cue, but the elderly Hollywood star is having trouble recalling her lines. Eve’s eyes dart around the floor as if searching for a prompt. Eventually, she manages to stutter her line, but she fumbles her delivery, getting several words wrong.
The director, John Roach, bounds onto the stage and strides angrily over to June and Eve. He glares at the two actresses and says in a low and quaky voice: “let’s try that again, shall we?” June returns to the wings and awaits her cue, steeling herself for what is shaping up to be another long, and torturous rehearsal.
When June’s agent informed her she’d been offered a role in Arthur Bicknell’s forthcoming Broadway play, the actress didn’t hesitate to take it. She’d read the script and, while it wasn’t great, it hadmade her chuckle once or twice. She was also naturally drawn to the character she’d auditioned for, the failed nightclub singer, Snooks Keene. More to the point, June needed the money. Since winning a Tony Award seven years ago for her performance in Candideon Broadway, June’s career has stalled. So she ignored her misgivings about the script and accepted the offer.
And at first, rehearsals went smoothly. Everyone in the cast was thrilled to be acting alongside the great Eve Arden. And the script seemed funny - at least, it got big laughs from John and Arthur, who spent every rehearsal giggling maniacally. But as the actors began rehearsing without their scripts, it became clear that Eve Arden, the Hollywood talent at the heart of the show, was struggling. In her seventies, Eve didn't have the sharpest power of recall. Making matters worse, Arthur’s script demands that the cast sometimes all speak at once, creating an awful racket on stage, and making it hard for Eve to concentrate on her lines.
So while the actors prepare to run the scene for the fiftieth time today, June glances over at Arthur. The playwright is sitting in the front row, his foppish brown bangs covering his eyes. Over the past few days, Arthur has been growing more and more subdued as it becomes clear that this play is destined for disaster. June would feel sorry for the young writer, except she has her own career to worry about, and it’s beginning to feel like she’s aboard a sinking ship.
Rehearsals continue over the next two weeks, but the situation only gets worse. Eve Arden’s memory issues aren’t improving, and as the first preview draws ever closer, relations between cast members become fractious and tense. Arguments break out on stage, and John is too inexperienced a director to control his actors. When June suggests some minor re-writes to Arthur, intended to make certain scenes more comprehensible, the playwright loses his top. He says that he’s a serious artist and he won’t allow any changes to be made to his script.
One afternoon, following an especially disastrous run-through, June approaches the producer, Rieka. She begs her to postpone the first preview, insisting that they need more time. But Rieka just glares, hatchet-jawed, barking: “June… you are not producing this show, we are.”
So when the night of the first preview does come, just as June predicted, the show is a trainwreck. The director wanted real water to rain down on set to create the effect of a stormy night in the Adirondacks, but the noise drowns out the cast’s voices. None of the jokes land, and the actors’ timing is all off. When they arrive at the final big twist, the point in the play when the murderer is revealed, Eve makes a mess of her delivery, rendering the plot nonsensical. During the curtain call, the audience is silent.
When June turns up to rehearsals the next day, she walks into the theater to find everybody sitting in solemn silence. Apparently, following last night’s preview, Eve Arden decided to quit the show, citing “irreconcilable artistic differences.” For June, the news comes as a relief. Eve clearly wasn’t the right person for the job.
The remaining previews are delayed while John, Rieka, and Arthur look for a replacement to play the lead. Soon, they settle on casting Holland Taylor, an actress who had originally auditioned unsuccessfully for a different role. Holland’s arrival at rehearsals gives the production a new lease on life. She learns her lines overnight and is immediately off-book. Holland isn’t a household name like Eve Arden was, but she’s a no-nonsense professional and she whips the rest of the cast into shape - something Director John could never do. They muddle through the remaining previews, and soon it’s February 22nd - opening night.
Waiting backstage for the lights to go down, June will wonder if they’ve done enough to save the show, if tonight’s audience will laugh - or hiss. And as the music swells and the final latecomers take their seats, June will experience a surge of optimism, feeling that perhaps maybe, just maybe, everything will be okay.
Act Three: It’s All Over
It’s February 23rd, 1983; the morning after the opening night of Moose Murders.
June Gable wakes to the sound of her telephone ringing. Groaning in protest, the actress rolls out of bed and stumbles across her messy New York City apartment. She yanks the rattling phone off the hook and croaks out a hello.
June’s head is pounding. Just moments earlier, she was tossing and turning, lost in a bad dream. But now, in the cold light of morning, June remembers everything that happened last night. As she recalls the disastrous performance, the afterparty at Sardi’s, and the brutal reviews on Channel 5, she realizes that she’s been thrust back into the middle of a waking nightmare.
Last night’s show was a humiliating failure. Because of the terrible previews, they struggled to sell tickets, so the balconies were completely empty. There were pockets of laughter coming from the seats which John and Arthur had managed to fill with their friends and relatives. But on the whole, the actors delivered their lines to silence.
Following the show, the cast and crew went to Sardi’s for the afterparty. They received roses and drank champagne, but the whole thing felt more like a funeral than a celebration. And then when the critics' responses started hitting the evening news, everyone left - and June was the first out the door.
But now, as the horror of the past four weeks plays on repeat in her mind, June tries to concentrate on the voice on the other end of the phone line. It’s Rieka Kanter Fisher - producer of the play. In a defeated tone, she tells June that, after long deliberations, they have decided to close the show. June feels both relieved and saddened by the news.
Later that day, the actress heads to the Eugene O’Neill Theater to collect her belongings. In her dressing room, she notices the yellow rose which Rieka gave to her previous night. Taped to the flower is a note, saying: “Here’s to a long run at the Wild Moose Lodge!” June just stares at it then crumples up the message and throws it in the trash.
Following its disastrous one-night run, Moose Murders will be canceled. Though it won’t be the only show in Broadway history to close after just one performance, Moose Murders will resonate through the years as the archetypal Broadway flop, the lowest possible benchmark against which any other new plays are measured. In 2019, a cocktail will even be introduced at a bar in Manhattan’s theater district. The so-called “Murdered Moose” will consist of sambuca and lime juice, garnished by a pearl onion - a disgusting concoction invented in honor of a play that was doomed to failure after its opening and closing night on February 22nd, 1983.
Next onHistory Daily. February 23rd, 1820. An agent provocateur helps British police foil a plot to assassinate the Prime Minister and his entire cabinet.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing by Lindsay Graham.
Sound design by Mischa Stanton.
Music by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by Joe Viner.
Produced by Alexandra Currie-Buckner.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.