Lee Murray: Taker of Toto

Diminutive dancer Lee Murray (Leterio Rosario Mari, 1905-1969) made an impression in show business, and not always a small one. Originally from Brooklyn, he danced in vaudeville from childhood, transitioning to burlesque and nightclubs as vaudeville dried up in his young adulthood.

Murray made his transition to films as a racetrack judge in A Day at the Races (1937). For eight years he seesawed between extra roles and bit parts and specialty dance numbers that shined the spotlight on his special skills. Movies where he was featured as a dancer included The Chocolate Soldier (1941), Abercrombie Had a Zombie (1941, with Bob Crosby), and Presenting Lily Mars (1943). Because he was so small statured (5’2″ tall) he was often typecast as jockeys, as in Kentucky (1938), I Stole a Million (1939), Ride Kelly Ride (1941), and Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), or as newsboys, as in Newsboys’ Home (1938), Two Girls on Broadway (1940), and Dressed to Kill (1941). Similar parts included a Drummer Boy in Gone With the Wind (1939), Shorty the Bellboy in Step Lively (1944), Page Boy in Incendiary Blonde (1945), and “Little Mexican” in Rio Rita (1942) with Abbott and Costello. Ironically, he was too tall to be a Munchkin in The Wizard of Oz (1939) so he was cast as the Flying Monkey who snatches Toto.

After 1945 Murray returned to performing in nightclubs as a comedian and eccentric dancer, and later worked as a recreational therapist in a psychiatric hospital. Having served two years in the army, he finished out his life in a Florida VA hospital in early 1969.

Come hear much more about The Wizard of Oz in my illustrated talk Vaudeville, Sideshow and The Wizard of Oz at the Coney Island Museum, August 24! 

To learn more about vaudeville, where Lee Murray got his start, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,