LONG BEACH — It was during the conga dance at the Sassland Music Palace that the murder occurred.
About 30 guests at Amy Nichols' 20th birthday party were sashaying around a table when a blood-curdling scream rang out. They found the body sprawled over a desk in a downstairs office, hacked to death with a meat cleaver.
So they put on their thinking caps and by the end of a long evening, one of the guests--Bill Lawson of Long Beach--had solved the crime. Not, however, before journeying to the waterfront in search of clues, eating dinner at a local Chinese restaurant and witnessing another "death" by stabbing.
"I attribute it to my accounting background," Lawson said later of his successful debut as a super-sleuth. And the $100 prize he won for solving the mystery? "I'll probably spend part of it coming to the next show," he said.
Not in Tourist Guide
But don't look for the Sassland Music Palace in any tourist guide. And don't expect an invitation to Amy Nichols' birthday party without paying the price.
"It's the theater of the 1980s," said Errol Mosely, a lawyer who designs theater sets on the side.
Added Baron Mosely, his brother and the playwright: "Husbands stay awake here. They never stay awake in ordinary theater."
"Here" is any production of Murder Mysteries Inc., a theater company with a difference. While traditional theater makes clear distinctions between audience and cast, this one puts both on a single stage that can encompass a city. And while most dramatic mysteries are solved by the script, this one gives customers a chance to figure it out for themselves.
"People are more active today," explained Errol Mosely, 27. "They don't want to just be sitting down."
So Murder Mysteries Inc. stages dramas with actors in the main roles and members of the audience as extras. The job of the cast: to act out the central scenes of the drama and dispense clues. The job of the audience: to follow the trail throughout the city and ultimately solve the crime.
Other companies offer Southern Californians participatory mystery tours of various stripes, the brothers say, but theirs is unusual in that the mysteries last only an evening and transpire mostly in Long Beach.
"We are really showing off the city," said Baron Mosely, 32, who writes most of the scripts from ideas that he says he gets "between 2 and 4 a.m." A Cal State Long Beach theater arts graduate, he formed the company with Errol and five friends earlier this year after the more traditional Genesis Theater Co. in Long Beach, which he had managed for three years, went broke.
Quit His Job
"I thought I was through with theater," he said, "but I remembered doing a mystery party once in college. It was the most fun I had."
Two months ago he quit a job at a car dealership to pursue mystery theater full time. While the company's seven regular members volunteer services from set design to sound engineering, the actors--who are hired independently for each show--are paid modest wages. An average of 60 people have purchased tickets costing $35 to $40 for each performance of the company's six productions to date, Baron Mosely said, but he's not getting rich off the proceeds. "To say I make a living is an exaggeration," he said. "I starve to death."
He Was the Butler
Poverty certainly wasn't evident, however, during a recent lavishly mounted performance of "Murder on the Menu," at which the older Mosley brother, dressed as a butler, mingled with paying guests and members of the cast in order to "keep things on track."
It hardly seemed necessary as members of the mystery entourage, guided by maps, drove their cars on cue from the "Sassland Music Palace" (actually an old church at Cedar Avenue and 7th Street) to a site near the harbor where a character named Beaumont C. Hospice III spouted clues during three performances of the same song.
Later they drove to the Dah Hua Chinese Restaurant on Broadway, where the action continued over dinner, and finally back to the Sassland to solve the mystery.
Queen Mary Locale
Significant sites in previous mystery productions have included the Queen Mary, Shoreline Village, Long Beach Marina and The Works Gallery.
Things don't always go smoothly. Once, according to the brothers, a water taxi overloaded with would-be detectives began to sink. "We quickly unloaded onto the dock," Baron Mosely recalled. "Then the dock began to sink." Another time, a couple of sleuths mistakenly drove their trucks into the ocean in search of clues. "The police never understood how it all happened," the author confided.
Even opening night of "Murder on the Menu"--which is presented at 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays--had its share of mishaps.
"We had to walk all over Long Beach," complained Susie Swenson, 23, whose car, unbeknown to the others, broke down and remained parked near the Sassland Palace after the first act.
Missed Brother's Act