While working as an electrician for the TV series "Nurse," David Landau got a brainstorm. One day, during a heavy filming schedule, a group of businessmen followed the cameras around, fascinated by every aspect of the production. Landau wondered, "Wouldn't it be fun to get rid of the cameras and have an audience follow the action around?"
Landau took his idea further, writing and directing what he calls the first interactive mystery play. Based in his home office in Florham Park, New Jersey, his 14-year-old interactive mystery company, Murder To Go--founded for under $10,000--grossed half a million dollars last year.
Landau planned his first big event aboard an overnight train ride in 1983, a trip that would take participants between Hoboken, New Jersey, and Syracuse, New York. What he didn't count on was a blizzard--or a broken-down freight train that made his own "murder express" come to an abrupt halt. "We lost $30,000 in that `learning experience,' " Landau admits.
But Landau was undeterred. The following weekend's mystery train ride went by without a hitch. More murder-mystery weekends followed, often hosted at bed-and-breakfasts, where a "killer" would "murder" a "victim" (both actors), with clues left for the amateur sleuths--the customers--to decipher. Later he expanded to hotels, private parties and corporate functions, attracting mystery buffs in such corporations as Revlon, AT&T and Princess Hotels.
"Hotels are eager to hold these types of events because they want the guests to stay overnight. During our mystery weekend in Bermuda, we took advantage of the great locale. We orchestrated a boat chase scene in the Bermuda harbor with gun battles," says Landau, "and we had the cooperation of Bermuda police to `inspect' the bodies and even a real ambulance to take the `corpses' away."
Landau uses about seven actors (and one stage manager) per play, culled from his troupe of 30 thespians. The production cost per night at a restaurant venue, including food, is $2,500. A typical audience will consist of about 100 people paying $42 each; Landau clears $1,800 per play after costs.
Another location where Murder To Go performs is restaurant banquet rooms. The play and the "murder" occur during a four-course meal, while the characters visit each table between the scenes, dropping hints and clues about the mystery. By dessert, the "sleuths" hand in their guess for the murderer. The winner receives a bottle of wine.
"If you want to start up a business like this, I suggest not to expand too fast," he adds. "Start with one play at a time, one location at a time, then build from there after you're comfortable. It's not a part-time job; it's a six-day-a-week job. You spend all week worrying about and ironing out the problems, organizing everything, the actors, understudies, props, advertising. And you learn as you go along."
"The exciting part of this business," says Landau, "is giving people the chance to live a murder mystery."
Amy Carroll Kierce covers small-business topics from her home office in Manhattan. How she finds time to write her own detective fiction is a mystery to us.