Miami's B-Movie Mogul

K. Gordon Murray may have invented the weekend kiddie matinee, but don't forget his scowling bikers, howling werewolves, lumbering mummies, brain-sucking monsters, and scheming decapitated heads

And when he wasn't kissing ladies' hands or playing Santa to church kids or fraternizing -- besides the Showman's Club, he belonged to the Knights of Columbus and a local Moose Lodge -- Murray imbibed football, often attending University of Miami Hurricanes games. Hard to imagine, then, this charming man being up to his discreet mustache in snake oil. Of course it was strictly business. In addition to scoring with the aforementioned mucho-mondo fare, Murray hit pay dirt in the mid-1950s by leasing and rereleasing The Prince of Peace, the 1949 film version of a Passion play staged annually by a huge church congregation in Lawton, Oklahoma; the movie originally was made as The Lawton Story by producer Howard "Kroger" Babb.

The esteemed effendi of exploitation, Kroger Babb amassed a fortune with grade-Z "sex hygiene" shakedowns, principally 1945's Mom and Dad, directed by William "One Shot" Beaudine and prominently featuring the birth of triplets. While Babb occasionally provided Murray with product -- before KGM boosted it as Why Girls Leave Home, Babb pushed it as Why Men Leave Home and Secrets of Beauty -- more important, he drew his acolyte a roadmap for how to milk these cheap pictures for maximum moolah.

An astute pupil with an innate knack for salesmanship, Murray made a comfortable living. While Irene attended to bookkeeping chores, he handled promotion. But in 1960 he struck the mother lode with the double bill of Wasted Lives and the bloody, up-close-and-personal footage -- obtained from Cuba -- he touted as The Birth of Twins. Murray's poster for the two pictures adroitly mixed hype with restraint: "Frank! Bold! Daring! Nothing Held Back! Nothing Concealed!" (Wasted Lives), and "Shown for the first time on any screen. Told with delicacy and in reverence" (The Birth of Twins).

Jonathan Postal
K. Gordon "Ken" Murray (above) was unknown to the 
general public, but an icon to the psychotronic 
cognoscenti who treasure radioactive mutants, female 
prison inmates, vampires, and bikers
K. Gordon "Ken" Murray (above) was unknown to the general public, but an icon to the psychotronic cognoscenti who treasure radioactive mutants, female prison inmates, vampires, and bikers

Not delicate and reverent enough for everyone, apparently. As Jonas recalls, the Atlanta Film Board threw a fit about The Birth of Twins, refusing to sanction its screening until the lawyer finally persuaded that city's cinematic moral watchdogs to give their assent.

But across the U.S., the public jammed movie houses and drive-ins to witness the slimy cesarean section and bought countless copies of "The Sexual Life of Woman" and "The Sexual Life of Man" in the process. And in a brilliant cost-saving maneuver, Murray out-Babbed Babb by filming Howard's "hygienist" pitch in a studio, then inserting the segment into Wasted Lives, thereby eliminating the need to hire a live actor for each showing.

Yet despite the overwhelming success of Wasted Lives/The Birth of Twins, Murray, in one of a series of instinctively canny career moves, already was altering course. "Ken decided to get out of the somewhat illegitimate drive-in business," Simons avers, "and get into the real movie business."

"See straw spun into gold! See the mad little man of amazing magic! See the wedding of the king to the miller's daughter! From the magical world of the Brothers Grimm, K. Gordon Murray brings another wonderful fantasy, RUMPELSTILTSKIN!"

While Murray continued to ply adult filmgoers with recycled material -- Call Me Bad, The Turkish Cucumber, The Price of Sin -- through the mid-1960s, including cutting some scenes from Naughty New York, replacing them with more risqué material, and then rereleasing it as Eve or the Apple in 1962, he also began sniffing into two other movie markets: children and young adults. In 1959 he bought the English-language rights to eight Mexican fantasies and twenty-eight Mexican creepfests -- selecting them personally -- and initiated a decade-long enterprise that eventually would make Walt Disney quake, supply TV horror-program hosts with reams of product, and make him a ton of dough.

He struck first in 1960 with Santa Claus, a surreal, otherworldly, luminous Mexican fable that pits St. Nick and his rainbow coalition of child helpers against Pitch, Lucifer's Man in Mexico City, with the successful delivery of gifts to the world's good boys and girls hanging in the balance. Upon its initial release in October 1960, Santa Claus proved to be a box office bonanza, so much so that Murray reissued it in 1964, 1967, 1970, and 1974. Throughout the 1960s and into the 1970s, he fed American kids a steady diet of similar Mexican fare: Little Angel (1961), Little Red Riding Hood (1963), Puss N' Boots (1963), Little Red Riding Hood and the Monsters (1964), and Rumpelstiltskin (1965), among others, followed by fairy-tale films that he bought from West Germany: The Golden Goose (1966), The Shoemaker and the Elves (1968), Mother Holly (1968), and Hansel and Gretel (1970).

"Ninety-nine percent of those kids' shows were phenomenal [financially]," recalls Sheldon Schermer, Murray's top assistant.

The films' successes can be attributed primarily to Murray's genius for promotion and distribution. He devised a streamlined strategy and executed it with military precision: Book a film into one regional market at a time; stipulate to theater owners that the movie show on a Saturday and Sunday for one weekend only; blanket that market's airwaves in advance with TV spots, especially during afternoon kiddie shows, augmented by splashy newspaper ads; move on to the next market.

"Our policy was to play every Saturday and Sunday -- three shows on Saturday, two shows on Sunday," explains Schermer, now 68 and working in real estate in North Miami Beach. "We would pay 100 percent of all advertising for television, and the theater would co-op 50 percent for newspaper ads. We'd go into a market, like, say, Miami, and have as many as 30 or 40 theaters in Dade and Broward counties play a movie on Saturday and Sunday matinees."

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