Play Dead, A Throwback to the 1930s, is Theater that is Very Much Alive
Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News.
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In Play Dead, the enchanting and very scary ‘spook show’ play now running at the Players Theater, the woman in my row met the spirit of her college friend, deceased more than thirty years. The woman in the row behind me met the spirit of her mother, who died exactly three years ago.
The spirits were just part of a delightful combination of magic and horror in this play, a recreation of the live ‘spook shows’ that started at the stroke of midnight in hundreds of movie theaters all over America from the late 1930s to the early 1970s. This show at the Players Theater started with the emcee, the frightening but lovable Todd Robbins, eating a light bulb with gusto. Robbins, his flashy white suit drenched in blood, then took the audience, shouting and screaming, through an evening of mayhem and madness, hysteria and horror, unseen in quite awhile.
There are no million dollar special effects, as there are in the television specials of David Copperfield, no dazzling light shows, no enormous casts or extravagantly designed costumes. It is simple magic, but great magic, all done in a theater full of suspense and sensational and gooey special effects.
The show succeeds because of Robbins. He starts out slowly, digesting his light bulb, and then moves around the stage, releasing spirits of the dead from numerous boxes and crates. As he does so, he brings the audience into the show with powerful, mesmerizing storytelling. We learn all about the ghosts of people such as Albert Fish, a mass killer, and then meet the cheery spirit of good old Albert himself. Robbins does this box by box, spirit by spirit, trick by trick, stunt by stunt. After twenty minutes, he has become the center of the action. You like him and his grisly yet bearable manner, and so you like the show.
There is also a sense of the macabre. As Robbins starts the show, he orders the ushers to lock everybody into the theater. Then you hear the loud sounds of chains being dragged along the floors and used to lock the doors. The lights go out and the audience is stunned by the first special effect, that is chilling. At that point, each person in the theater starts to scream and the people scream with and at each other. It is a rollercoaster from then until the dazzling, and utterly nerve wracking, end of the show.
PlayDead is both a revival of and a tribute to the spook shows that were so popular in American movie theaters. Entrepreneurs rented a theater, hired magicians and monsters, built a cheap and scary set and added spine-tingling special effects and creepy music. They ran promotional trailers at the theater for two or three weeks before the show and decorated the theater lobby, and nearby stores and telephone poles, with colorful and frightening posters advertising the show. Local radio stations were used for advertising and promised a harrowing night in the theater at the stroke of midnight. People were challenged to show their nerve and buy a ticket, or get their friends to be brave and buy tickets with them.
The midnight spook shows became quite popular. After World War II, in the late 1940s, spook show impresarios paid actors famed for their roles in horror movies, such as Bela Lugosi, to star in them as characters. They were given wonderful titles—Zombie Jamboree, Dr. Dracula’s Living Nightmare and Ray-Mond’s Voodoo Show.
The shows have been captured on DVDs, such as Monsters Crash the Pajama Party and Spooks A Pop’n. Old spook show posters have become pure gold in the collectors’ world, with many selling for over $600.
The spook shows died out, accompanying the death of drive-in movie theaters, which played thousands of horror movies. The theaters saw the value of the midnight show, though, and throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s many allowed local horror movie followers rent them to stage their own versions of the cult hit Rocky Horror Picture Show.
PlayDead is a fine historical tribute and bone chilling experience for contemporary theater goers. A tip—hang on to the person next to you!
PRODUCTION: Producers: Alan Schuster, Cheryl Wiesenfeld, Pat Blake, Frank and Jono Gero, Ethan Silverman.
CAST: Emcee (Todd Robbins), Margery (Charlotte Pines), Eusapia (Geri Berman), Albert Fish (Don Meehan), Girl (Drea Lorraine).
Bruce Chadwick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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