There's no business in show business quite like the one Bruce Jordan and Marilyn Abrams have started. Jordan (single and 40 years old) and Abrams (married, mother of four, and "somewhere between 40 and death") are veteran actors. In 1980, they turned their pockets inside out to launch a little-known mystery that had fared well when they performed it in summer stock in Lake George, N.Y. For $50,000, Jordan and Abrams bought the world rights to the play, which they adapted and retitled Shear Madness. For another $60,000, they got it staged in Boston's Charles Playhouse, a 196-seat, cabaret-style theater.
And that is the sum total of what the pair had to go on. No big-name stars. Minuscule advertising budget. Mixed-to-lukewarm reviews. At the time, the corporate name chosen by the producers, Cranberry Productions Inc. -- as in "What do you put on a turkey?" -- seemed grimly apt. But, since no skittish backers were looking over their shoulders, Jordan and Abrams, along with a third partner whom they have since bought out, had total control over whether or not to shut down the low-budget production. And the partners were convinced, as actors, that their audiences, however small, loved the performances.
In the hot Boston summer, when all the other theater marquees were dark, Jordan and Abrams went door-to-door passing out complimentary tickets to nearby merchants and hotel employees -- anybody who might help spread the word. At the bustling Quincy Market, they distributed "mad" money ("In Entertainment We Trust"), offering $2 discounts on their already low ticket prices. (Seats now cost $14 and $17.) Jordan directed, Abrams chased group sales, both oversaw publicity, and both acted nightly as part of the six-member cast. Slowly, they began to build a following, and after another year and another $40,000, Shear Madness edged into the black. It is now Boston's longest-running play.
Director Mike Nichols, after he saw the show, said to Jordan and Abrams, "You pick up that little theater you have in Boston and put it every place you can." They began to do just that. Although they stumbled in St. Louis, they have duplicated their Boston success in Philadelphia and Chicago, and revenues from all three productions exceed $2.2 million a year. In start-ups in both Philadelphia and Chicago, Jordan and Abrams acted in the play, and, as Abrams says, "hot-footed it all over town." The format of the play is the same in each city: a small theater; the set a unisex hair salon; many localized jokes; drinks served before the show and during intermission, when the actors welcome any theories the audience may have on the murder that has taken place offstage. During the second act, the audience questions the suspects directly, a device that has encouraged repeat ticket buyers.
Each week, at corporate headquarters in Albany, N.Y., a computer compiles data about all three productions -- how many full-price, half-price, and group-rate tickets were sold on a given night, for instance -- data that helps transfer one city's experience, marketing and otherwise, to another. (Even the gigantic Shubert and Nederlander theater powers only recently began using such sophisticated methods.) Shear Madness has been playing in Chicago for three years now, four in Philadelphia. When their lease ran out in Philadelphia, Jordan and Abrams simply built their own 300-seat theater just off Rittenhouse Square.
Along with success, say the founders, have come some attractive offers. A cable television network dangled before them $100,000 per major city for broadcast rights. They have also turned down a $6-million offer to sell out, because they feel they have only begun to tap their market. Jordan would love to live in London for a while. That may be next. Or possibly Houston, San Francisco, Los Angeles, or Washington, D.C. As they like to say these days, "We are two actors who always have a job."