April 4, 2002
Being Jan Murray
The last of the old-time greats recalls a life of comedy.
The first time I saw Jan Murray perform was on my TV in 1964. I was in pajamas, with my two sisters in Detroit, and on comes their favorite morning game show, "Treasure Hunt." This tall, suave gentleman is the host, and he has a great wit and raspy New York inflection that glues us to our set for years.
The first time I saw Jan Murray perform live was in the 1990s, at Morey Amsterdam's funeral. Milton Berle, Rose Marie, Steve Allen, Red Buttons and so many others make it the funniest memorial I've ever attended.
When Jan took the bimah, he told the packed University Synagogue sanctuary how Morey was "the most cheerful, optimistic man" he'd ever known. There's a definition of Jewish humor I like: "Laughter with sadness in the eye." And I remember thinking, Jan Murray has that look.
So now I get to meet him, because my friend Irving Brecher is his pal at Hillcrest Country Club. Irving wrote Marx Brothers movies and MGM musicals in the so-called Golden Age, and plays low-stakes gin rummy with the other octogenarians in the Hillcrest card room. But Jan used to play a lot of golf there, so he'd rather talk on the sunny deck facing the fairways. He's not as tall as I recall from TV. I mention this, and how I much he touched me at Morey Amsterdam's memorial.
"When Morey was dying he was the size of a cufflink," Jan says, tugging up the sleeves of his sweater to settle in. "We shrink when we get older, ya know." Right away, funny. And that great voice. Men like Jan Murray and Irving Brecher carry a deep, haimish wonderfulness inside their wit and style. I wonder, do the thousands of Jewish comedy writers and comics in this town appreciate the experience our tribal elders can convey? In a place like New York, you might see a Freddy Roman or Nipsey Russell crossing 57th Street, but it's not like that here. When Irv invites me to the Friars Club or Label's Table on Pico, I feel it is my one shot to sit among the "greatest generation." Of tummlers, anyway.
"Tummler was just a name people gave," Murray corrects me. "Nobody said, 'Here's a tummler.'"
Jan tummeled at dozens of Catskills resorts, starting in the 1930s. He made "top banana" at 19. A tummler, he informs me, is the guy who tries to be funny all day, not just on the stage at night.
"In the morning, the fat ladies in the exercise room," explains Jan. "I'd pass by and do shtick."
I ask him, "Wasn't being this jester-Jew-roving thing 24-7 exhausting?"
"What are you, nuts?" Jan fires back. I get a look like I'm a contestant on his "Dollar a Second" quiz show who just missed the easiest question since 1953. "You get exhausted when you're 80," he schools me. "Until I was 80, I wasn't exhausted. There's no medicine like being on stage hearing people laugh."
Now 85, the charming stand-up spins his gravel-timbred tales while sitting down, going on about everything from what's in the comedian's artistry to what's in a name.
"My first job was at the Bronx Opera House," he recalls. "They were looking for a stooge for a singer. I was 16. When I got there, the agent said, "Awright, what's yer name?" I said, "Murray Janowski." He says, "Murray Janowski? What the hell kinda name is that for an actor?" He says, "Look kid, let me give you advice: Get an easy name. If you're good, they're leaving the theater, have an easy name for them to remember. Otherwise, who the hell's gonna remember Janowski?'"
As a kid in the East Bronx, Jan loved the 25 cent vaudeville shows his mother took him to see at Loew's Boulevard Theater. Then his mother grew too ill to make the matinees.
"I used to come back, stand at the foot of her bed, and describe the whole show," Jan says gently. "The tricks the opening juggler act did, the female performer and what she wore and what she sang. But when it came to the comedian, I knew his whole goddamn act."
Jan likes to say he started off with "an audience of one." By 18, he was playing the Melody Club in Union City, N.J., packing them in for a year straight, seven nights a week. Commuting two hours by subway and train, Murray made $50 a week. Eventually, headlining vaudeville houses and in Las Vegas in the 1940s and 1950s, Jan was tapped by a "CBS somebody" to become the first comic emcee of a TV game show.
He hosted and owned shows in the quiz game for 17 years, but Murray would rather talk about his 18 years as the master of ceremonies for the annual Chabad Telethon.
"They didn't know what a telethon was!" Jan kids the Lubavitchers. "I had to show 'em how to put it on. But anything Jewish, I never turn down."
Still, he was wary at first. "I thought, who's gonna watch this? There will be 10 people from Fairfax Avenue tuned in. We'll take in a dollar thirty. A guy with a beard and a yarmulke? Then the phones started ringing. And they never stopped. It was sensational! And it gets wilder every year."
Tummeling for eight hours, he says, he discovered a "Yiddish pride," and although it wasn't planned as a yearly event, the Chabad Telethon dances the Yiddishkeit fantastic today. "And you should see the building we put up," Murray kvels, referring to the Chabad headquarters in Westwood. "Gorgeous!"
"Of all the comedians I've known," Brecher says, "Jan is the most gentle and sincere. His family is wonderful, and he had a seder that was a hot ticket in this town." Thirty-two people per night, the first night for Jan and Toni, his wife of 52 years, and their family. The second for the funnymen and theirs. Imagine Buddy Hackett repeating the 10 plagues. Sid Caesar, Milton Berle, Shecky Greene and George Burns after four cups of wine. "I led a serious seder," Jan insists. "Then, after dinner we'd tummel 'til 3, 4 in the morning."
"Who shall bring redemption if not the jesters?" is a line I read in the Talmud. OK, I got it from the "Simpsons" episode where Jackie Mason played a rabbi, Krusty the Clown's father. But I like to believe it's true. And Mason did win an Emmy.
When Jan Murray began suffering from asthma, he retired at the age of 82. "For about 20 minutes out there, I was great," he explains. "And then I start gulping for breath, and I didn't feel people should spend money. I started to time my material around my breath, instead of the art. So I hung it up. I did it 66 years. That's long enough, isn't it?" (By way of comparison, Phyllis Diller retired at 84, after doing comedy for 45 years.)
When I ask what's next then, Jan, who still does benefits and roasts, of course, looks at me like what am I, nuts?
"Now?" he replies. "Now I'm a Jew who walks around and kvetches."