THEATER: Meet Downtown's New 'It' Boy
NEW YORK TIMES–MURRAY HILL is a paunchy, 50-year-old Borscht Belt comic from Brooklyn. He's got a terrible singing voice, a cheesy motto ("Show biz!") and an arsenal of jokes that went out with "Dirty Dancing"-style resorts. And yet he is also the current reigning patriarch of the downtown performance community.
Hailing from Carnarsie, he bills himself as "the hardest-working middle-aged man in show business," and indeed, Murray Hill works until dawn six nights a week, schmoozing, performing solo or acting as host for burlesque, comedy and rock shows. Onstage he puts audiences at ease, comes to the rescue of failing acts and somehow makes crowds want to stay up long past their bedtime. You can spot a celebrity at nearly every Murray Hill show -- Alan Cumming, John Waters, Fran Drescher, Boy George. And as the leader of the downtown world, he has become an ambassador to the rest of the city, popping up at parties thrown by the likes of Joan Rivers, Liza Minnelli and Ivana Trump.
But downtown or up, everyone familiar with him knows he hates one thing: being called a "drag king." By day, the Bombshell Girl Lady Ace may be Anna Curtis; Lypsinka! may be John Epperson; and Dame Edna may be Barry Humphries; but Murray Hill is never anyone other than Murray Hill. He is so resolutely dedicated to his persona that he would not give a reporter his birth name, on the grounds that it would be bad for him "personally and professionally."
"All that's over," he says.
Under duress he will describe the proto-Murray: a tomboy from Connecticut who played Schneider in schoolyard re-enactments of the 70's sitcom "One Day at a Time"; a photography student at the School of Visual Arts, whose Master of Fine Arts thesis in the mid-90's -- portraits of herself as a male candidate for mayor of New York -- turned into a write-in-campaign and then a club act.
"It's fascinating to me how Murray keeps up this boozy, B-grade Rat Pack persona 100 percent of the time," says Earl Dax, who produces the "Direct From NYC" performance series in Philadelphia. "One time Murray stayed at my apartment. First thing in the morning, there he was, in boxers and a T-shirt. I said, 'Good morning,' and he said, 'Hey, kid! How ya doin?"'
Murray Hill has been known to lift bits from Joey Adams, Benny Hill, Sammy Davis Jr. and Henny Youngman, and he truly embodies their old-fashioned showman spirit. There is no irony in the adoration he invites; it is not uncommon to see a middle-aged heterosexual woman in a twin set approach him for a post-show kiss. As such, Murray Hill is able to move seamlessly from old time-y clubs like the Plush Room in San Francisco (known for lounge acts like Patti Lupone's) to an East Village spot where nearly naked men dance on the bar. He is also the opening act for big-label bands like the feminist rock outfit Le Tigre, and a frequent cameo performer in music videos, including the Scissor Sisters' latest, directed by John Cameron Mitchell ("Hedwig and the Angry Inch").
"I love Murray Hill," Mr. Mitchell says. "He's a family man, a philanderer, a philanthropist and a philosopher."
He also serves as an offstage booster, mediator and father confessor for a wide array of avant-garde performers. "Murray is the central figure downtown -- he's like the middle of the wheel holding all these different spokes together," says Adrienne Truscott of the Wau Wau Sisters (a daringly acrobatic comedy-burlesque act she and Tanya Gagne perform in absurdly skimpy outfits). "He's jolly and beloved by everyone, and he has the same charm and bumbling grace onstage as off."
At this year's incarnation of his annual Christmas show, a sold-out nine-night gig at Fez (the club under the Time Café on Lafayette Street), Murray Hill performed a segment called "Murray on Ice." The two Murrayettes, dressed as sexy reindeer, strapped rollerblades to his feet. In his suit and Santa hat, he then skated at an insanely fast rate through the club to the theme song from "Flashdance." The sight of the round, bespectacled Murray Hill manically hurtling between tables to the strains of "What a Feeling" brought down the house.
Murray Hill conjured up another film of that era for his two New Year's Eve sets: one at Galapagos in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, that ended at 10:30 p.m., the other at Restaurant Florent in the meatpacking district that began at 11.
"I'm the principal of 'The Breakfast Club'," he said from both stages. As if to prove the point, he then gathered a motley crew from each audience -- a rich girl, a preppie, a nerd, a leather-clad man in the spirit of Judd Hirsch, the burlesque star Dirty Martini, the district's drag-empress Florent dressed as Nancy Reagan -- assembled them into an impromptu kickline and led a rousing bar-wide singalong of that national anthem to the ambitious: "New York, New York."
A "Murray Hill Show" television pilot-- "like a cross between the Muppet Show, "Dean Martin Show" and the early Jackie Gleason shows," Murray Hill says--has been in the works for ages with independent producers. Representatives from Showtime, Comedy Central and other channels have been dropping in on his shows for as long as anyone can remember. But they all tend to say the same thing in the end, summed up by a sighing Ms. Truscott as, "I love you, but I have no idea what to do with you."
Walking to the Wau Wau Sisters' van late one night from Joe's Pub, where Murray Hill had produced a triumphant showcase by the indie-rock singer Joan Wasser, he and the Wau Waus were spotted by some menacing and apparently inebriated young men. After shouting various vague and ineloquent threats, the men got distracted; Murray Hill winked and shrugged it off as kids' not respecting their elders. Suddenly the young starlets in matching majorette outfits and their legendary middle-aged producer-friend, so indomitable on stage, seemed strangely vulnerable.
"There is a hysterical irony to the downtown performance lifestyle," Ms. Truscott says. "We spend so much time looking fabulous with a cocktail in hand," she says, despite what can be a grueling and near-hopeless struggle to gain wider audiences.
But downtown performers embrace the glory in illusion. "It's like how, sure, maybe Santa Claus doesn't really exist," says Mr. Dax about Murray Hill, "but if we all believe in him, then he does. By virtue of our all agreeing that he exists, we're allowed to have that joy in our lives. Murray is our Santa."
By ADA CALHOUN
January 9, 2005