COVID-19 was hard on many sectors of the economy, but especially so on people who make their livings via live performance. Though we’re not totally out of the woods yet, it’s nice to know that theaters and concert halls are able to seat audiences again this season.
Performers who can do their thing in outdoor venues were able to get back to work somewhat sooner. After 15 months of being restricted to radio theater, including reenactments of Orson Welles’ infamous broadcast of H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, the theatrical road company known as Murder Café returned to live shows in July 2021 at open-air venues such as the Widow Jane Mine in Rosendale. By autumn they were starting to perform indoors again.
This spring saw Murder Café’s return to the Mohonk Mountain House’s annual Mystery Weekend, in which hotel guests get to mingle with the cast of a whodunit, collect clues and try to guess…well, who done it. But Frank Marquette, who founded Murder Café in Las Vegas in 1978 and brought it back to his native New York State in 2009, also gets invited up to Mohonk on a regular basis to give historical lectures to guests who want to know more about the region where they’re vacationing. “I live in two worlds: comedy murder mystery dinner theater and programs featuring local history,” says Marquette. “Sometimes they merge.”
One of his most popular lectures concerns the bootlegging trade during the Roaring Twenties and how the Hudson Valley became a refuge for mobsters trying to keep a low profile – including a couple of big names: Legs Diamond and Dutch Schultz. “They were rockstars, as popular as the movie stars of the day,” Marquette notes. “They chose the Hudson Valley because there wasn’t a lot of scrutiny.”
Marquette is a storehouse of information about these characters’ activities in our area during the Prohibition Era, and that research has made its way, in palatable doses, into an ever-evolving play that he wrote for his company five years ago: Murder at the Speakeasy. “I haven’t done it in close to three years,” says the director of the show that his company will be performing on May 13 and 14 at the Bevier House Museum as a fundraiser for the Ulster County Historical Society. “I’ve updated it.”
A Bevier ancestor has become one of the characters for this venue only: the host of the speakeasy where the action takes place in 1928. The premise is that Dutch Schultz himself has taken over the establishment, wanting to showcase his protégé Lulu as the house singer. The cast of characters also includes Dutch’s jealous girlfriend Rosie, a corrupt cop, a rival gangster and a temperance movement activist. Someone turns up dead, and the audience has to help identify the culprit and the motive.
“The play includes some historical tidbits, but we take some liberties,” Marquette says. For one thing, the script references the mobster’s moonshining operation in Pine Plains in Dutchess County, disguised as a turkey farm, until it was raided by federal agents in 1932. That building is now the home of a modern-day farm distillery called Dutch’s Spirits. “One of this show’s first performances was at Dutchess Spirits, in the actual bunkers where they hid out. A lot of people don’t know that exists.”
Marquette notes that Schultz also had a “base of operations” in a building in Newburgh that is now home to the North Plank Road Tavern. Meanwhile, his rival Legs Diamond operated the Barmann Brewery on South Clinton Avenue, just off Greenkill Avenue in Midtown Kingston, piping his product through rubber hoses that wound their way half a mile through the City’s sewer system to a clandestine bottling plant on Bruyn Avenue. “That building is still there,” Marquette says. “The brewery was where the Little League field is now… It was demolished in 1985.” Diamond’s local headquarters was Friedman’s Hotel on Route 44/55 in Highland, known today as Rocking Horse Ranch.
Another local story associated with Dutch Schultz is his supposed cache of buried treasure, allegedly hidden in the Catskills by a trusted lieutenant so that the mob boss could make a quick and well-funded getaway from New York State if then-prosecutor (later governor and presidential candidate) Thomas E. Dewey got too hot on his trail. Schultz was gunned down in a chop house in Newark, New Jersey in 1935 by fellow mobsters who feared that his plan to assassinate Dewey would bring too much unwanted federal attention to their racketeering.
As Schultz lay on his deathbed, drifting in and out of consciousness for about 24 hours before succumbing, he ranted and rambled incoherently. Police wrote down everything he said, and some of it may have been references to the cache, valued at $5 million in 1935 dollars at least. Certain details seemed to suggest that it was hidden somewhere near Phoenicia; residents in that area are plagued to this day by treasure-hunters digging up their yards.
Marquette put an Easter egg citing the treasure legend in Murder at the Speakeasy. “There is an actual map hand drawn by Dutch’s bodyguard, and we reference it,” he says. “The audience is asked, ‘How would you like to help me find five million dollars in gold and cash? I’ll split it with you!’”
While the show is meant to be a fun romp rather than a strictly accurate documentary, Marquette says, “I want people to walk away with a sense of history that’s both entertaining and educational. I give them just enough actual history to pique their interest.”
Murder at the Speakeasy features the talents of Hudson Valley-based actors Kim Schneeberger, Jim Keenen, Ellen Pavloff, Tom Roberts, Lauren Roberts and David Britton. Each of the two performances will begin at 6:30 p.m. in a tent outside the Museum, accompanied by a wine-tasting and light refreshments, and then move inside the Bevier House. About 20 percent of the performance will be “improvised or interactive, with dialogue between the players and the audience,” Marquette says.
Tickets cost $55 per person, with proceeds benefiting the Ulster County Historical Society, and can be purchased by visiting www.ulstercountyhs.org or by calling (845) 377-1040. The Bevier House Museum is located at 2682 Route 209 in the Town of Kingston, just north of Marbletown and south of Hurley. More information about Murder Café, including how to book a performance or a lecture, is available at www.murdercafe.net.