Saturday, June 30, 2012

Speakeasy Dollhouse: Solving Murders With Diorama Crime Scenes

Dolls, sets and photographs by Cynthia von Buhler

A lecture and workshop with the creator of the Speakeasy Dollhouse book series and off-Broadway immersive play.
Date: Sunday, July 1st
Time: 8:00
Admission: $15
Presented by Atlas Obscura
Artist and author Cynthia von Buhler’s Italian immigrant grandparents, Frank and Mary Spano, owned two speakeasies in the Bronx during Prohibition. In 1935, shortly after Prohibition ended, Frank Spano was shot and killed on the street in Manhattan. When she began her search two years ago nothing was known about the killer, his motive, or a trial. At the time of Frank Spano’s death, innumerable murders went unsolved because evidence was mishandled or downright ignored. In 1936, as a means to better explore these cases and train investigators of sudden or violent deaths to assess visual evidence, Frances Glessner Lee created the Nutshell Studies. These studies consisted of detailed, 1:12 scale dollhouse models that students could examine from every angle. Taking inspiration from the Nutshell Studies, von Buhler created the scenes from her grandfather’s murder and the events leading up to it using her own handmade sets and dolls. Utilizing evidence gathered from autopsy reports, police records, court documents, and interviews in tandem with the dolls and sets, she has pieced together a probable scenario. In this workshop von Buhler will display dollhouse murder dioramas based on actual crimes (including that of her grandfather) for participants to solve. The best sleuth will receive a copy of von Buhler’s book Speakeasy Dollhouse, The Bloody Beginning, an evidence booklet, and two tickets to see the immersive play based upon her findings.
Von Buhler’s paintings have been displayed in numerous galleries and museums around the world. Her work has been reproduced and featured in books, magazines, and newspapers from TIME to The New Yorker. Her interactive sculptures have appeared on Law & Order, Special Victims Unit, where murders were recreated to mimic her art. Von Buhler has published two children’s books with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, The Cat Who Wouldn’t Come Inside and But Who Will Bell the Cats? Both books feature detailed handmade architectural sets and characters created and photographed by von Buhler. Evelyn Evelyn, A Tragic Tale in Two Tomes (Dark Horse Comics), a graphic novel about conjoined twins, was written by Amanda Palmer and Jason Webley and illustrated by von Buhler. The afterword was written by Neil Gaiman. Von Buhler’s Speakeasy Dollhouse play was filmed for an episode of The Science Channel’s show Oddities. Of Dolls & Murder, directed by Susan Marks and narrated by John Waters, is a documentary about Francis Glessner Lee’s crime scene investigation dollhouse dioramas. Marks is currently working on a Of Dolls & Murder sequel based on Speakeasy Dollhouse. For more information, go or
This is part of the “Atlas Obscura Speakers” series of talks at Observatory.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

The New York Times Feature, Speakeasy Dollhouse

The New York Times
"Using a Dollhouse to Reconstruct a Murder, 77 Years Later"
By James Barron

Photograph, doll and set by Cynthia von Buhler.

Cynthia von Buhler figured the simplest way to make sense of a Depression-era murder that intrigued her was to reconstruct the crime scene.

She wanted to be able to look at it from every angle, to manipulate the lamp post on the corner or the sleek sedan parked at the curb. She hoped that recreating everything in minute detail would help her understand why the trigger had been pulled, not once but twice — and whether the racketeer known as Dutch Schultz was somehow behind the deed.

So, she built a dollhouse. The victim’s bakery is on one level, his bar on another and his blood-spattered body in the street outside. All of it was reduced to the scale of a three-and-a-half-foot-high structure with a little neon sign that says “open.”

The victim, Frank Spano, was shot on March 14, 1935. A newspaper article that misspelled his last name as Stano said there were two witnesses, both teenagers: Mr. Spano’s son, Dominick, and a boy whose father was taken into custody.

Ms. von Buhler, an artist and performer who has written and illustrated several children’s books, has spent thousands of hours researching the shooting and what prompted it. There is a deep-seated reason for her fascination with this case: “Frank Spano was my grandfather.”

Ms. von Buhler maintains that Dutch Schultz — real name Arthur Flegenheimer — figured in the story in several ways. She said he had owned a speakeasy near her grandfather’s bar and had bootlegged liquor during Prohibition, as had her grandfather. She also suspected that the gunman, John Guerrieri, a neighbor of her grandfather’s, was Mr. Flegenheimer’s barber.

Mr. Guerrieri admitted to shooting Mr. Spano, but the charges were dismissed a month later. Ms. von Buhler said Hulon Capshaw, the city magistrate who signed the dismissal papers, also had ties to Mr. Flegenheimer.

The accusation from the Manhattan district attorney, Thomas E. Dewey, in 1938, was that Mr. Capshaw had been “intimidated, influenced or bribed” by the Tammany Hall leader James J. Hines or his aides to further Mr. Flegenheimer’s interests. Mr. Capshaw was later removed from the bench and disbarred. Mr. Hines was convicted in 1940 of providing protection to Mr. Flegenheimer’s gangsters.

All that prompted Ms. von Buhler to dig deep into a chapter of family history that had gone unrecorded and unexplored through the generations: “a complicated tale of bootlegging, Mafia, infidelity and murder,” as she described it.

No one who was still alive could explain the motive for the shooting. An unresolved feud? An unpaid debt? Ms. von Buhler’s grandmother, who died in 1983, “took these secrets to her grave,” Ms. von Buhler wrote in an account of her research. Dominick Spano also said nothing before he died.

Ms. von Buhler dredged up the autopsy report on her grandfather and combed the municipal archives for other clues: police reports, court documents, newspaper articles. But she wanted to bring the case to life in a way that tattered, yellowed files could not. She had read about the dollhouse dioramas of crime scenes assembled in the 1940s by Frances Glessner Lee, an heiress turned amateur criminologist. She decided to follow her lead and build the setting in miniature.

Ms. von Buhler bought “the beginnings of the structure” on eBay. She did some remodeling and did the plaster work — “I’m really good with plaster” — and the painting, the intricate tile work and the installation of the tiny furniture herself. She also made all the dolls with clay and real human hair.

She used the dollhouse as the set for a graphic novel, “Speakeasy Dollhouse,” with photographs of the shooting as she imagined it. She even made a separate diorama of a coroner’s office with a tiny body under a tiny sheet on a tiny gurney, with a toe tag bearing her grandfather’s name in tiny letters.

The graphic novel, in turn, became the basis for a theatrical piece, which Ms. von Buhler calls an “immersive play” because she involves the audience in the action. She is also writing a fuller account of the shooting — “pulp nonfiction,” she called it, “a true story told in a pulp-fiction style.”

Along the way, Ms. von Buhler realized that some elements of the information that had been passed down in the family were wrong. The family story was that Mr. Spano had been shot in an apartment in the Bronx, where his club and bakery were, near Arthur Avenue. But the shooting took place in Manhattan, on East 48th Street.

“I think they all knew each other,” she said. “Maybe Dutch Schultz got Guerrieri to do the murder by telling him his wife was having an affair with my grandfather. And then you find out in the end the magistrate was corrupt — and was connected to Dutch Schultz. That’s the clincher. But my grandfather died before that had been revealed.”

Cynthia von Buhler's images from the graphic novel, Speakeasy Dollhouse, The Bloody Beginning:

For additional press about Speakeasy Dollhouse click HERE.

Murder In A Bar

Photograph by Margee Challa
New York Post, Theater
"All The World's A Stage"
by Elisabeth Vincentelli

Cynthia von Buhler has the kind of family footnote any writer would kill for: In 1935, her grandfather, Frank Spano, was shot dead on a Manhattan street. Intrigued, von Buhler started researching the case, discovering that Grandpa had ran a couple of speakeasies in The Bronx.

First, the award-winning illustrator did a graphic novel about the story, reconstituting key scenes with dollhouse-like dioramas.

“Then I saw ‘Sleep No More,’ ” she says of the hit riff on “Macbeth,” set in a sprawling Chelsea warehouse, “and thought this could be a great immersive play.”

The result — “Speakeasy Dollhouse” — is performed twice a month at a Lower East Side club. Though the show is scripted and features two dozen actors, there’s also a participatory component as the audience helps investigate the mystery. “We have a complete environment with a private alley where we do the shooting, a bar, a living room where we lay the body,” von Buhler explains. “There’s even an abandoned bakery in the basement, and a secret bedroom that you access through a revolving bookshelf!”

The audience takes it to the next level: “You don’t have to dress up in period costumes, but most people do,” von Buhler says. “It’s a play, but it’s also a party.”
Photograph by Margee Challa

When the Dead Speak, You Had Better Listen

Weird Fiction Review Cynthia von Buhler's Speakeasy Dollhouse by Nancy Hightower

Ignore the warnings your parents gave you as children. Be nosy and talk to strangers.

Wander. If you sit in one place all night you will miss everything.

If you have any questions or need assistance come and find me. I will whisper secrets in your ear.

Cynthia von Buhler

Send from the future.”

I received this email the day before participating in Cynthia von Buhler’s immersive play Speakeasy Dollhouse. A few days before this, I was sent emails containing real documentation from the coroner’s office, as well as newspapers clippings about the murder of Frank Spano, von Buhler’s grandfather. You don’t attend this event, you are immersed in the ongoing attempts to solve the mystery about why Spano was killed. Despite that rather dark description, Speakeasy Dollhouse is actually a festive, carnivalesque affair. I arrived at the location, which is staged in a mobster’s former Lower East Side speakeasy. Two policemen greeted me and engaged in some friendly chatter — but what they really wanted was a password to let them know I was an okay dame. I went down a dark flight of stairs, and then opened a doorway into the holodeck of Star Trek.


Almost everyone was dressed up — I could not differentiate the actors from the audience. The set is elaborate and every detail threw me back in time to a 1920’s speakeasy. At the bar I ordered a special cup of coffee, talked to my friends, and drank in the ambience. I couldn’t say when the play started or when it ended. I was given a part to play — that of a hired killer. I talked to mobsters, socialites, burlesque dancers, Frank’s possible lover, his pregnant wife, and his son. I had to ask the mobster Dutch Shultz where the after party was, but not let on that he would soon be murdered as well. It was a time-travel experience where I wandered in between the real and the unreal, the known and unknown. Von Buhler’s grandfather was shot and killed by John Guerrieri, but despite a confession, was let go. Von Buhler wrote about meeting the granddaughter of Guerrieri , who had no idea of this history. The more I heard, read, and relived, the further I fell into the rabbit hole of a weird narrative that invited me to participate even after the event ended. Attendees are asked to go to the Speakeasy blog to speculate on the reasons behind Spano’s killing, and these answers then add evidence to the next production.

Even more deliciously macabre, the play is modeled upon an actual set of dollhouses that von Buhler built to explore the circumstances regarding her grandfather’s murder. We can have all kinds of uncanny fun with that, of course, but understand that even this creepy little detail is part of American history. The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, created in the 1930’s by Frances Glessner Lee, were dollhouses that detectives used to “better assess visual evidence” in the most mysterious and violent of deaths. These studies inspired von Buhler’s own grotesque recreation of events (von Buhler). Such layering of storytelling, reporting, and mythmaking is but one reason to experience this play if you live or are visiting New York City. The other is this: Imagine Edgar Allen Poe has created a speakeasy in the Enterprise’s holodeck, and you get to play in that universe for three hours, attending the most fabulous party while helping to solve a real-life crime. There you go.