This Day In History: February 22

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The notorious play "Moose Murders" bombs on Broadway, opening and closing at New York’s Eugene O'Neill Theater on the same night. In doing so, its name becomes synonymous for an abysmal theatrical flop.

An aging movie star, Texas oil money and a man-eating moose failed to save the show, which tied the Broadway record for shortest run. The New York Times later proclaimed: “it is considered the standard of awfulness against which all Broadway flops are judged.”

Young playwright Arthur Bicknell, who had previously penned two off-Broadway productions, said he intended “Moose Murders” to be a farcical, melodramatic murder mystery, and that he was inspired by public-access television personalities who "are being funny and don't know it." The convoluted plot revolved around a wealthy family vacationing in an Adirondack lodge full of hunting trophies. It featured a man-eating moose, a wheelchair-bound quadraplegic bandaged like a mummy and a caretaker wearing Indian war paint but speaking with an Irish accent. The director, John Roach, cast his wife, Lillie Robertson, in one of the leading roles. What she lacked in acting experience, she made up for in cash: As the heiress to a Texas oil fortune, she bankrolled the production.

Eve Arden, an aging star of golden-age Hollywood, was cast as the other leading lady. After reportedly struggling to memorize her lines and follow stage directions during previews, she left the production due to "artistic differences" and was replaced with actress Holland Taylor. Previews for “Moose Murders” were so chaotic and sparsely attended that producers had to haul audience members in off the street, including one man who critics sitting nearby described as covered in vomit. At the close of one performance, the curtain failed to fall on the final scene, leaving the characters absurdly stranded on stage.

On opening night, although the curtain fell on cue, there was no applause. One member of the cast recalled, "I don’t think there ever was a show in the history of Broadway where you took a bow to silence."

The reviews were nothing short of scathing. New York Times theater critic Frank Rich suggested that audience members would "hold periodic reunions, in the noble tradition of survivors of the Titanic." The New Yorker’s Brendan Gill wrote that it “would insult the intelligence of an audience consisting entirely of amoebas.” The New York Post’s Clive Barnes described "Moose Murders” as “so indescribably bad that I do not intend to waste anyone’s time by describing it." One critic simply said, “If your name is Arthur Bicknell, change it."

Bicknell never staged another play. But he did write a memoir entitled Moose Murdered: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love My Broadway Bomb, published in 2013.