By Michael E. Miller
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By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
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Not long after he graduated from high school, Murray married Irene Van De Warker. He also debuted as an entertainment entrepreneur, borrowing one of his dad's cemetery funeral tents to house a bingo parlor -- a "corn game" in sideshow parlance -- in nearby Normal, then running it as part of the roving West's World Wonder Shows, a Midwestern carnival. Gradually he added attractions -- a ride called "The Chair Plane," an ice cream concession -- before buying out West's and renaming it United Liberty Shows, declaring himself, at age 22, "The Youngest Owner in Show Business." Headquartered in Randolph, just south of Bloomington, United Liberty schlepped from town to town across the Midwest via fifteen decrepit flatbed railroad cars. When the carnival ceased operations during the winter, Murray, always wise to the main chance, used the downtime to establish a small slot-machine empire in Bloomington.
In the mid-1940s, he joined his father in a movie-theater construction venture. But eager for a larger canvas, he eventually abandoned the midways of the Midwest for the allure of Hollywood, where once again he put his circus knowledge to work, signing on for a gig as a promoter for 1952's epic (153 minutes), Oscar-winning (Best Motion Picture) The Greatest Show on Earth, directed by yet another Barnum of film, Cecil B. DeMille.
Lessons learned and apprenticeship served, Murray figured he was ready to solo as a movie impresario, and where better to set up shop than the wide-open, freewheeling, ground zero of 1950s American hucksterism -- South Florida? He and Irene plopped down in a building called the Parkleigh House in the 500 block of Biscayne Boulevard, renting its entire second floor as offices while living in the penthouse; together they entered the exploitation universe with K. Gordon Murray Productions. He kick-started the business by leasing and rereleasing low-budget "sex hygiene" melodramas, sometimes changing the film's title to give the impression that it was new.
"When the drive-ins were very popular, once or twice during the season they would play Naughty New York or Why Girls Leave Home," recalls long-time Miamian Leonard Simons, who knew Murray from the 1940s, when both worked as Midwestern carnies, and who eventually would do time as Murray's national advance man, promoting a slew of movies in the 1960s. "This wasn't porno. It was an excuse to sell books."
Now 83 and retired, Simons remembers that back in the 1950s drive-in owners would advertise that a "hygienist" would be on hand for a "lecture" as part of the screening of one of these overheated exploitation wonders. "They'd have an actor who was dressed up with the white coat and the stethoscope hung around his neck," Simons explains in his still-rich native New England accent (he says he settled in "My-am-a" after World War II). Halfway through the movie, he continues, the show would stop, and the "hygienist" would make a ten-minute presentation about, as Carlton Howard so gingerly put it during the break in Wasted Lives, "the sexual side of marriage," after which "the books" -- one for men, one for women -- were sold by peripatetic factotums.
According to Simons, Murray leased "exploitation films with catchy titles" -- in addition to Why Girls Leave Home and Naughty New York, he corralled the 1953 French soaper Les Enfants d'Amour, then released it as the straightforwardly translated Children of Love -- to draw an audience, bought the sex booklets in bulk, hired an actor hygienist, and toured the whole shebang on a national drive-in circuit. "Come spring," Simons remembers, "Ken would work his way north with the films" from his Miami base. Drive-in owners paid a royalty on each booklet sold, and Murray, in an effort to pack the house, trumpeted his productions with sensationalized promotion.
"Startling! Shocking!" shrieks a lobby card for Children of Love. "Rips the veil of secrecy from love's most shameful sin! An unwed mother dares to reveal her intimate true story!!"
Like Simons, Murray belonged to the Miami Showman's Club, a sort of fraternal organization for what Simons terms "circus people, carnival people, medicine-show people, amusement people," many of whom had relocated to South Florida. (Now based in Dania, the club continues to hold meetings.) At around six feet tall and nearly 200 pounds -- "tailor-made suits, good shoes, fingernails done, very natty," notes Simons -- Ken Murray stood out even in that brash and colorful crew. "He was a very warm person, sharp as a whistle."
Royal Jonas, who at 81 remains active as an attorney while splitting each year between Aventura and the western Massachusetts town of Dalton, concurs, characterizing Murray as "hail-fellow-well-met."
Sheldon Schermer, Murray's chief business associate from 1962 to 1972, recalls him being "a very religious man, went to church every Sunday, very active in his church. As a matter of fact, every year he rented a bus and took the kids from the church down to Key West. Gave them a day's treat there."
Never is heard a discouraging word. "He was extremely courtly, a very nice man," says Paul Nagel, Marge's husband, now age 78, who as "director" supervised the English-language dubbing of many of Murray's imports. "If a woman walked into the room, Ken was the first man on his feet, pulled out her chair, 'Yes, ma'am' -- a very polite man."