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Tuesday, Oct 3, 2023

Dial M

By PAT KRAMER Contributing Reporter When Peggy Phillips moved to Los Angeles in 1985, her goal was to produce dinner shows reminiscent of the elegant productions of the ’40s. “I wanted to work with the best talent I could find,” says Phillips. “But I also wanted to give the public the ability to get involved in the show.” After realizing that her choices came down to New York or L.A. for finding the best talent, she moved to Burbank with $10,000 to invest in her business. The result was “Dial M Murder Mysteries,” a show written and produced by Phillips and staged at area restaurants. In the show, actors mingle with the audience between courses and at the end are challenged to solve the “whodunit.” Most of the shows are staged for companies that pay $1,500 to $2,000 a performance, depending on the size of the crowd (usually groups of 25 or more). Individuals pay $65 for the show, which includes dinner, tax and tip. After writing the script and forming her Burbank-based company Dial M Productions, Phillips auditioned 200 hopeful actors to select a cast of 10 to perform in the show. At first, it played every weekend at the Sheraton Universal. Th first show cost Phillips $1,000 to stage, but after only five months Dial M was out of the red and earning a profit, enabling her to hire four additional casts as the show gained in popularity. By the time Dial M came on the scene, interactive theater was no longer completely novel. Locally, people had already experienced the show “Tamara,” which took its audience on a tour of a three-story mansion as its characters acted out their parts. Like Tamara, Dial M requires the audience to follow the characters and watch their every move. The difference, says Phillips, “is that with Tamara, you were like a fly on the wall; the characters pretended that they didn’t see you. So if they were running down a hall, you had to get out of their way. In my show, you go up to the characters and they act like they know you or pose as audience members.” She notes that the audience is encouraged to speak to the cast and to get clues from them to solve a series of murders that takes place during the show. “In other murder mysteries, you know who all the other actors are, but in this thing, you really have to pay attention because there’s a lot of red herrings,” adds Jay Richardson, who has been acting with Dial M for 10 years. In addition, the cast personalizes each show with information it receives about the guests. “Like when we get a profile of the company, we’ll know who’s the big talker who wears the sharpest clothes and thinks they’re a ladies man,” said Mark Felicetti, who plays the first victim in the murder mystery. “It’s fun for the actors and the audiences love it because they’re basically laughing at themselves.” With five casts performing by 1989, business was booming for Dial M, a year that yielded revenues of over $250,000. With the Mirage, Tropicana and other major hotels in Las Vegas interested in hiring the company for long-running shows, Peggy added a second interactive production to the repertoire, “Frankie and Mia Tie the Knot.” But the recession and the L.A. riots began taking their toll in the early ’90s, says Phillips. “The public was not going out as much. If I hadn’t developed the corporate niche market, my company would have gone under like many other performing companies at that time.” In 1992, after giving birth to her son Jesse, Phillips started cutting back on the shows for the general public and focused on corporate and private parties. “Peggy was a real go-getter,” said publicist Diane Carter of Carter Communications, a Studio City entertainment publicity firm that is not connected with Dial M. “Of all the people who were doing murder mysteries, Peggy gave it a very good effort and she was good at finding talented people who could portray the different characters.” Both shows are performed primarily at two places, the Stinking Rose in Hollywood and Spencer’s in Pasadena. “It’s not an original idea,” notes Stinking Rose Events Coordinator P.K. Keller, “but it seems to go over very well with individuals as well as corporate clients. It’s really a good ice-breaker when people don’t know each other.” The company performs six to eight shows a month on average, with the most business coming in December with the holiday party season. Last year, the company had 27 bookings between Dec. 1 and Christmas, Phillips said. One client, Paragon Implant Co., an Encino-based manufacturer of dental implants, hired Dial M for a three-day event in Aruba for its VIPs. “What’s so unique about them is that, if you cooperate and give them information about your audience, they’ll tailor their performance and make it hilarious,” said Ginger Page, the company’s sales support manager. Page has hired Dial M on several other occasions, most notably for a New York trade show. “We called it “Death By Chocolate,’ ” she said. Felicetti, who plays groom Frankie Fettuccini in one of the shows, calls the interactive aspect of the show “challenging” to the actors involved. “You have to really stay on your toes and think while you’re moving because the audience is different every time,” he said. “They’re either talking to or interacting with the characters in the show. And while we have a scripted dialogue, you need to be sharp so if people throw something out at you, you come back with something funny and entertaining to keep things moving.” With October to March the busiest time for Dial M Productions, Phillips and her four casts (two for each show) remain busy, putting the finishing touches on the latest version of the murder mystery – which it constantly revamps.

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