Marc Lessman on Creating Jewish Virtual Detective Show ‘Oy, Gevalt!’

January 14, 2021

Brothers Marc and Benjamin Goldenblatt are detectives working on an undercover mission when Benjamin is kidnapped by the Mafia. It’s now up to a team of trained Zoom-savvy detectives to find the nice Jewish detective before it’s too late. Sort of.

In reality, Ben and Marc Goldenblatt are not in danger, rather characters in a Jewish escape room script written by Marc Lessman, co-executive producer of The Dinner Detective in Los Angeles. Since 2005, Lessman has been producing live murder mystery shows in more than 75 locations around the country. When the pandemic hit, he and his colleagues turned to virtual escape rooms, scavenger hunts and other scripted detective shows so people could find joy and escapism during the pandemic.

He also created “Oy, Gevalt!” a new Jewish-themed detective escape room experience —starring the Goldenblatt Brothers— where Jewish and non-Jewish attendees use Jewish clues to solve the mystery.

The Journal spoke with Lessman, who is quarantining in Los Angeles, about the show, how Dinner Detective pivoted from live shows to virtual experiences and what it means to bring joy to families during COVID-19. This interview has been edited for clarity.

JJ: You have multiple locations, including in L.A. How did the pandemic change your live show format?

Marc Lessman: We have shows in downtown Burbank, Thousand Oaks, Anaheim, and we have a show in Long Beach that is aboard the Queen Mary, which is this amazing historic docked ship. We do two to three shows there every week, and it’s probably our biggest seller in the country because it’s a really cool experience. We haven’t been able to start up shows since last March, but we were doing hundreds and hundreds of shows every month, and everything came to a screeching halt last March.

JJ: You then thought ‘let’s turn it virtual.’ Were you experienced with virtual experiences?

ML: I had never done any kind of virtual show at all. It was very new to us. We just started brainstorming. Scott [O’Brien, Dinner Detective owner and co-executive producer] and I just started brainstorming.

When we first started we formed this [virtual] escape room. Scott wrote the first script for a detective themed escape room and sent it to all of us and said, “What do you guys think about this?” It grew from there. Now we’re doing virtual escape rooms and we have all these different themed escape rooms, and we have two different virtual murder mystery shows, and we have a virtual scavenger hunt which is really fun. That one you can play with up to 200, 300 people.

JJ: How does it work if you can’t all be in the same room?

ML: We have hidden clues all over the internet… [on websites and through emails.] Everything is done in a way where you can play these games at home sitting at your computer. [For the] scavenger hunt, that was really fun to put together because we were trying to think of fun things to do while you’re at home. You have to take a picture of a self-made crime scene in your house and get creative, like use toilet paper for police tape and reenact a scene from your favorite detective movie, make a video and send it in. All of these games have live moderators as well. It’s very new to us, so we’re still changing things as we go along.

JJ: Murder mysteries are a very specific genre, and now you’re mixing in Jewish heritage. How did ‘Oy Gevalt!’ come to be?

ML: I am the lone Jewish person in the company. When we started coming up with the ideas for different themed escape rooms, we created an escape room for Halloween [and] Christmas. I was thinking it would be really cool to have one that’s Jewish themed and has all Jewish clues. I wanted it to be more open so that it could be played at all times of the year. I tried to add as many different clues about all Jewish holidays, Hebrew references and there’s a lot of Yiddish references in it that I took from my grandparents teaching me.

I wanted to have it be something that was a little bit more educational, so I tried to find some details and facts about Jewish history or Jewish events that a lot of people don’t know already.

JJ: So similar to other detective storylines, the Jewish clues indicate different parts of Goldenblatt’s life that help users rescue him?

ML: Yeah, exactly. It still has a detective theme. I tried to make it not so hard that you have to have an extensive knowledge of Jewish history to play this game or to win the game. That’s another thing: you can use anything at your disposal while you’re playing the game. You can look things up on the internet if you’re not sure what it is. That’s another way we found to make things a little more difficult because we tell people if you don’t know the answer to something, you can go ahead and use Google, and that’s helped us out.

JJ: What do you hope virtual Dinner Detective gives people during this time?

ML: One thing I really enjoy about [virtual Dinner Detective] is that we are connecting people. A family in California bought this game to play with their cousins in New York, so they all got onto the same Zoom call. I didn’t even want to start the game. I held off for 15 minutes because they were all catching up and having fun and talking to each other over Zoom. I think that’s one of the best things about this game is watching people enjoy it with other loved ones of theirs and playing it together. You find out certain things about your family and friends that you didn’t know before when you play this game, and that’s another fun thing.

JJ: This pandemic has impacted everybody in so many different ways. As a business owner, what has this experience taught you? 

ML: I was really scared when this happened because obviously, I work for a company that does live shows, and I was very scared that I was going to be out of a job. I didn’t know what was going to happen. So it’s taught me a lot about being creative, and [pivoting] to make things happen. Sometimes you’ve got to take life into your own hands and really search within yourself to find an answer that is going to help you out and help you survive. I’m very thankful that I work for a company that was able to let me go forward with creating a Jewish game and really giving me the freedom to dive into creating something like this and providing it for other Jewish people around the world.

Each game costs $20 per screen. Prices for private shows vary. To learn more about Dinner Detective or “Oy Gevalt!” visit the website.

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