Jan Murray: A Tummler on Television

A brief nod to Borscht Belt comedian Jan Murray (Murray Janofsky, 1916-2006), whose birthday is today. Murray was a frequent television presence when I was a kid — the kind of entertainer you saw constantly, although for the life of me I can’t call to mind a single comedy routine or joke associated with him. This doesn’t mean he wasn’t funny. His strong background as a tummler at Catskills mountain resorts made him a shoe-in during later decades as a radio and TV game show emcee and panelist, which is the context one usually saw him in. The tummler was both master of ceremonies and entertainment director, a guy who organized games and activities in addition to being likable and funny in the moment. So, while Murray was a stand-up, and told funny stories, this context adds something, I think.

Murray was the son of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. He grew up in the Bronx, and attended neighborhood vaudeville and burlesque shows as a child (burlesque was very different back then). When his mother grew sick and bedridden he would come home and re-enact the shows he had seen, his first experience as a performer. He was 18 when he began performing in vaudeville and local nightclubs. This expanded to the seasonal Catskills business where he flourished through the 1930s. In the ’40s he became one of the earliest popular performers in the then-new resort of Las Vegas.

Then came television. He did stand-up on The Ed Sullivan Show, The Tonight Show, The Joey Bishop Show, The Steve Allen Show, and others. And he hosted game shows, initially just as emcee: Blind Date (1953) and Dollar A Second (1953-57). But then there were ones where he had a greater hand in the production end. For example, he created Treasure Hunt (1956-59), which had a party atmosphere that really did hearken back to his Catskills days. In 1973 Chuck Barris purchased the rights to the show and revived it as The New Treasure Hunt, which ran through 1977 and again (1981-82) and this was my first exposure to it. He also helmed Charge Account a.k.a. The Jan Murray Show (1960-62). And then…for decades he also appeared as a panelist or guest on many other game shows, like Hollywood Squares (where he made 250 appearances).

In the 60s, he began to dabble in acting in film and television. Comedy fans will associate him with William Castle’s The Busy Body (1967) with Sid Caesar; Which Way to the Front? (1970) with Jerry Lewis; and Mel Brooks’ History of the World, Part One (1981). But he also took dramatic roles. He played a cop in the thriller Who Killed Teddy Bear? (1965), fourth billed behind Sal Mineo, Juliet Prowse and Elaine Stritch. He’s a riverboat pilot in Tarzan and the Great River (1967). And he took guest shots on shows like Love American Style, Kolchak:The Night Stalker, and Fantasy Island. His last acting role was in an 1989 episode of My Two Dads.

To find out more about vaudeville and performers who got their start there like Jan Murrayconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous