At This Cafe, Dinner Is Invitation To Murder

Posted: June 15, 1989

State Sen. Manville Powell, candidate for mayor of Philadelphia, cordially invites you to a campaign fund-raising dinner, during which he will be murdered.

He probably has it coming - he's a thoroughly disagreeable sort - and David Goldstein is more than happy to oblige.

Goldstein has been killing off politicians at dinner for more than a year. Right now the murders are occurring in Boston; Dallas, and Shrewsbury, Mass., as well as in Philadelphia. And in September, the mayhem will spread to Tampa, Fla., and Sacramento, Calif. Baltimore and Washington will come later.

The idea is called Mystery Cafe, and it is playing to near-sellout crowds every weekend at Cavanaugh's Restaurant, 39th and Sansom Streets.

"I think it is so successful because people want something more than sit- and-watch entertainment," said Goldstein, 27, who lived in Willingboro and Cherry Hill while growing up and whose parents still live in Cherry Hill.

"Sit-and-watch entertainment is television," he said. "Even a live show is sit-and-watch when there's a stage. The actors are removed, and the audience isn't part of the show."

The audience is part of the show at Mystery Cafe. The actors are also the waiters, and the "stage" is the entire dining room.

Customers receive a "Vote for Powell" button on admission, along with a packet containing clues, word games that provide hints about the crime and ''bribe money" they can use to elicit information from members of the cast.

The scene is a campaign dinner (capacity 80), for which customers pay $26. The actors play Powell supporters and prominent Philadelphians Jasper Kipperling and his wife, Traci, who are hosting the dinner. Also on hand are Kaiser, their loud and comically menacing German butler; Manville's wife and mother; a cynical campaign manager; a thieving campaign finance director, and a Philadelphia homicide lieutenant.

Manville is a pompous, posturing lout who says it's time we started calling the homeless "urban campers who prefer the out-of-doors." About halfway through dinner he is poisoned and toted out of the room. The lieutenant shows up, and while the surviving members of the cast continue serving the dinner and clearing the dishes (always in character), the plot moves toward the unmasking of the culprit.

Goldstein got the idea for what is fast becoming a national enterprise while conducting "sleazy-bar tours" in the Boston area.

"You get a bunch of people on a bus and go from one sleazy bar to another," he said. "It's very popular, a sort of movable party."

Goldstein reckons he has taken upward of 5,000 people to sleazy bars in the Boston area. Before that, his diverse accomplishments included helping start the Boston Breakers of the defunct United States Football League, working as a lobbyist in Washington and leading white-water rafting trips.

Then, in January 1988, the owner of one of the sleazy bars told Goldstein he had this empty room downstairs.

"He said if I could think of something to put in there, he would give me the room in exchange for whatever people spent for drinks," Goldstein said. ''I came up with a lot of ideas, some of them silly, before I hit on the idea of murdering somebody during dinner."

A friend, Phil Lebovits, wrote Death and Taxes, Goldstein hired a director and some actors, and Mystery Cafe was born in April 1988. In September Goldstein opened a second cafe in Boston. Dallas and Shrewsbury were next, and the Philadelphia operation began in April.

Death and Taxes, however, is not exactly the same show in every city. In fact, it is not exactly the same show every night.

"Different actors and directors have different ideas," Goldstein said. ''The actors also react to the audience. There is a lot of spontaneity."

In September, he said, there will be a new show at Cavanaugh's. He hasn't decided yet whether it will be The Devil Among Us, which features murder in a tropical setting, or a play now in the works that will introduce murder into a prom-night party.

He's also thinking of doing "something new" in Boston. It will still involve audience participation, and he thinks it will have something to do with magic and something to do with vaudeville.

Until then, he will continue opening Mystery Cafes in various cities. If his magic-vaudeville creation is as successful as his Mystery Cafes, he will branch out with that, too, he said. And, of course, the sleazy-bar tours will continue.

"I'm having a great time," he said. "It is nothing like work. Sometimes I think my life is like summer camp for adults."

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