As a child, the central figures in his life had been two aged parents and one peculiarly domineering, annoying brother about 20 years older than himself named Joseph. Joseph, a vaudevillian, was peculiarly meddlesome in Ken’s life, always bossing him around, never his pal, constantly forcing him to do his bidding. One night, when Ken was about thirteen years old, he stayed out late and upon his return, Joseph berated him. Now old enough to notice how odd it is for a brother to play such a stentorian role, he finally asked his mother why she and his father let him do it. After all, nobody else’s brothers boss them around like that! The bombshell: Joseph was really Ken’s father, and his “parents” were really his grandparents. His natural mother had also been a show business person, who (like Sophie Tucker) had made the unnatural decision to relinquish her own child in order to stay on the stage.
Notwithstanding the bizarre effect it had on his parents, Ken nonetheless wanted to be in show business. Joseph was only reluctantly helpful, letting Ken come back stage at gigs sometimes, and introducing him to fellow performers. One of these friends, a man named Burt Lartell, taught Ken the buck and wing, the waltz, clog dancing, and the soft shoe. Murray also taught himself to play clarinet, a skill that was to be a mainstay of his act in years to come.
His first professional gig was as straight man with the Pete Curly Trio in 1922. A vacancy in Morey, Senna, and Dean provided him with anew engagement and a new stage name. Born Doncourt, a name right out of the Arthurian legends, he changed his name to Murray to replace the departed “Morey”. Why “Murray” equals “Morey” don’t ask me, but there is something vaudevillian about the half –assed equation.
He married young and appeared in vaudeville with his wife Charlotte but she was soon out of the picture. At age 23, Ken Murray, as a solo, was being billed as the youngest comedian on the Keith Circuit. What value youth has in the arena of humor I’m not sure, but this was vaudeville and at least it was an exploitable superlative of SOME kind. But even while Keith-Albee was stressing his youth, Murray was devising stratagems to make himself seem older. One was the omnipresence of a cigar. Murray was among the first to use one as a comic prop, ironically because he was such a kid. Secondly, he threw risque material into his act.
Charlotte: Do you have a fairy godmother?
Ken: No, but I have an uncle we’re not so sure about.
It was such material that Joe Laurie, Jr. included among his reasons for the demise of vaudeville. That may well be the case, but not for the reason Laurie thought.
The thirties were a busy time for Murray, starring in films for RKO (1929’s Half Marriage and 1930’s Leathernecking), radio The Ken Murray Show (1930) and Broadway and Earl Carrol’s Sketch Book (1935).
By the early 40s Murray reached a low point in his career. With jobs scarce, he conceived of Ken Murray’s Blackouts (1942-49). The revue was a long-running hit in Los Angeles, but when it transferred to New York during its final year, it flopped big time.
Murray then took his act to television, where the Ken Murray Show was seen on CBS from 1950 through 1952. One of the cast members was Darla Hood from The Little Rascals. Murray can also be seen in the John Ford western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1963).
To find out more about the history of vaudeville, including stars like Ken Murray, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.