Speakeasy Dollhouse: The Brothers Booth Explores Ghosts of the Past in Historic Players Club

Speakeasy Dollhouse creator Cynthia von Buhler talks with Playbill.com about her new production, The Brothers Booth, opening March 1 at the Players Club.

Cynthia von Buhler
Cynthia von Buhler (Photo by Maxine Nienow)

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"I'm a ghosthunter," Cynthia von Buhler said while ducking around a corner to peer inside a dark room.

Walking through the Players Club with Buhler, who created the immersive theatre production Speakeasy Dollhouse: The Bloody Beginning, a real-life murder mystery that plays in the Back Room on the Lower East Side, one observes how true the statement is. Buhler's next theatre project, The Brothers Booth, also focuses on mysteries of the past — and her determination to explore, and possibly solve them, in the present day.

Speakeasy Dollhouse was inspired by the murder of von Buhler's grandfather, Frank Spano, and Buhler's research of the crime resulted in a real-life dollhouse, a graphic novel and the popular downtown theatre event, where guests dress in period attire, sip cocktails out of teacups and interact with performers portraying the actual people Spano knew just before his death.

While the creation of The Bloody Beginning was inspired by von Buhler's own family, the idea for The Brothers Booth, which begins performances March 1, came from the location: The Players Club. Founded in 1888 by Edwin Booth and 15 other incorporators, including Mark Twain and General William Tecumseh Sherman, the organization was located in the Greek Revival townhouse, which faces Gramercy Park, for the purpose of "the promotion of social intercourse between members of the dramatic profession and the kindred professions of literature, painting, architecture, sculpture and music, law and medicine, and the patrons of the arts." Present-day members of arts, business and commerce gather in the historical building to work and socialize, and after attending a performance of The Bloody Beginning, Michael Barra,  president of Stageworks Media, invited von Buhler to the Players Club with the suggestion that she put on a show there. But rather than relocate The Bloody Beginning, von Buhler decided to create something new.

While delving into the history of the Players Club, von Buhler began researching the life and death of John Wilkes Booth, brother to the Club's founder, Edwin Booth, and the actor who assassinated President Abraham Lincoln at Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C. She began questioning much of what she read, including the question of whether or not Booth actually died 12 days after he shot Lincoln, which has been reported. 

"The story is crazy," von Buhler said. "Supposedly when John Wilkes Booth killed himself, he wasn't killed. It was somebody else with red hair. Many other people, who are still surviving members of the Booth family, believe that John Wilkes Booth did not die then. There's a lot of evidence out there."

John Wilkes Booth

Some of the evidence that von Buhler discovered in her research was the Booth mummy, a story of a mummified Wilkes Booth that traveled with touring circus acts prior to disappearing in 1919. One of the stories about Booth alleges that while living in the South under false names, he met a lawyer named Finis Bates — grandfather to actress Kathy Bates — and confessed his story, asking Bates to contact his brother Edwin upon his death. But the only way to prove the theories von Buhler has discovered is to conduct DNA testing — an impossible goal, because John Wilkes' body was placed in an unmarked grave in the family plot and cannot be located. 

"The person they thought was John Wilkes Booth that they buried — the body is missing," von Buhler said. "The family wanted to exhume Edwin and test his DNA against the mummy, but the mummy disappeared in 1970."

Always on the lookout for coincidences, von Buhler noticed in her research that the same time Booth's mummy disappeared, following a train accident, the Volstead Act was passed, and Edwin's birthday was celebrated. Many credited the train crash and the mummy's disappearance to it being cursed, but von Buhler stated the mummy was stolen by one of the circus people. Following the mummy's disappearance, a tattooed man kidnapped it and returned it to Bill Evans, the Carnival King, for $500. The mummy was on loan to the Carnival King by Finis Bates for $1,000 a month. Finis died and his wife sold the mummy for $1,000, and it eventually disappeared in 1970.

"That's where my story's starting," von Buhler said. "The night is 1919 in the fall, when all of these things are happening. We have the circus people and we have Edwin and we have the tattooed man who stole the mummy and they all come together. That's what you're going to see."

Both John Wilkes and Edwin Booth had died by 1919, and Edwin Booth's daughter, Edwina, was alive. But the brothers' ghosts will be in attendance at The Brothers Booth, as well as the ghost of their father. Seances, which were a passion of Edwin's, will also be featured in the experience — which is held in the same house that Edwin lived in, and where his bedroom remains intact, on the fourth floor, with a picture of John Wilkes Booth hanging on the wall, next to the bed.

Following John's supposed death, Edwin refused to hear his brother's name spoken. The fact that he kept a picture of him in his bedroom fascinated von Buhler, who uses The Brothers Booth to explore the relationship between the two men.

"The brothers were very competitive, and the parents actually pitted the brothers against each other," von Buhler said. "They always said John Wilkes was their favorite. He was sort of the spoiled son. I believe it was the sibling rivalry between the two brothers that caused him to kill Abraham Lincoln."

"We want to show both sides of the story — both brother's sides," she added. "We don't want to say that one was wrong or right. Of course, it's totally wrong to kill the president. But why did he do it? What led him to that? What pushed him?"

While The Brothers Booth is in production, three of the six floors of The Players Club will be designed to look like 1919, with photographs of actors born after that time removed from the walls. Von Buhler shared her love for creating the physical atmosphere of the production saying, "When I walk into a room, I wander around, and as I wander through the rooms, they sort of speak to me and tell me what should happen in there. Certain rooms are screaming out, 'This is where the séance will happen.' 'This is where the speakeasy is.'"

Throughout the performance, some guests will be invited to visit Edwin's bedroom on the fourth floor, and others will be escorted to an undisclosed location for an interrogation. Burlesque performances, as well as puppetry and performances by a house band will be featured, as well as appearances by silent film stars and ghosts.

Von Buhler shared her thoughts on interactive and immersive theatre, saying, "I love traditional theatre. That's amazing. This is just a different way of looking at it. Things always change. I do things that are getting a little bit more immersive, because of our connectivity. I've always been interested in interactive art. I feel like I make these sculptures that you have to relate to and interact with, and by doing so, you become part of the art and you really understand the art.  "This place is a mansion about theatrics, and it's for people who are in theatre, and there are so many different ways of telling stories," von Buhler added. "There's puppetry, burlesque, theatre, immersive theatre, and we're trying to incorporate many of those."

The Brothers Booth begins performances March 1 at the Players Club. Visit SpeakeasyDollhouse.com for tickets and more information. 

(Carey Purcell is the Features Editor of Playbill.com. Her work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com. Follow her on Twitter @PlaybillCarey.)

Cynthia von Buhler
Cynthia von Buhler (Photo by Maxine Nienow)