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

Murray's contracts bound movie house exhibitors to his exact terms: "Notice! If you do not want to follow the campaign scheduled and outlined herein, do not book or play the picture." For their compliance, theater owners split the gross box office receipts with Murray 50-50.

Murray chronicler and devotee Rob Craig still marvels at the operation: "Murray was taking the seedy tradesman's tricks of getting in and out of town quickly, which recalls the circus and the carnival and the snake-oil guy, as well as the exploitation/sex filmmaker, and applying and upscaling them to films for small children -- the baby-boomer kids, a very important demographic at that moment. To me that's the genius stroke. And Murray was the one who realized that saturation TV advertising was the key for this demographic."

Ads such as this one for Santa Claus: "Whether you're in a cave, or behind a million mountains, Santa Claus sees you through his Master Eye, and invites you to his Magic Wonderland! See Santa Claus in his magic motion picture! Come past the doors of his towering castle into a fantastic crystal laboratory, filled with weird and wonderful secrets -- into his heavenly workshop, the most marvelous toy factory of all! Watch his battle with the mischievous demon who wants to get children into trouble! You'd better watch out! You're gonna shout about the picture that won the Golden Gate Family Film award! Everyone, everywhere is waiting for the K. Gordon Murray presentation, Santa Claus!"

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

Schermer oversaw the buying of all of the television advertising from the company's Biscayne Boulevard command bunker. "We'd start our TV promotion usually on a Wednesday on a [local] children's show, like Skipper Chuck on Channel 4," he explains. ("Skipper Chuck" would be Charles Zink, host of WTVJ's -- then Channel 4, now Channel 6 -- Skipper Chuck Show, Miami's top kiddie program back then.) "He'd pitch it as: 'The show that must be seen by all children age three and older!' We did very, very well."

Even before the TV campaign went into overdrive, Leonard Simons parachuted into a market as a kind of advance promo man, spending nearly half the year on the road in the Northeast and Midwest beating the bushes for publicity weeks prior to a movie's scheduled opening. He remembers that with both Little Red Riding Hood and Puss N' Boots, he squired an appropriately costumed dwarf -- a man in a cat suit for Puss N' Boots, a woman in a scarlet cloak for Little Red Riding Hood -- to appearances on various children's shows, as well as at newspaper offices and, unbelievably, at schools. "I'd introduce the character," he recounts, "pass out lollipops, and tell them all that on Saturday or Sunday to be sure to have Mom or Dad take them to the theater."

Until Murray initiated his weekend-only policy, studios such as Disney booked their children's films all days, all hours, often playing to paltry crowds. "Major film companies weren't too happy that their [weekend] matinees were being taken away," Schermer points out. "They tried to stop it." But exhibitors loved the arrangement: Murray's saturation TV advertising and heavy-duty promotion consistently filled their theaters on Saturdays and Sundays with candy-chomping, soda-slurping kids. According to Schermer: "Business at the food concession was far more than they would do when they would play a regular movie on a regular run." And as anyone who has worked in the movie exhibition biz will happily tell you, theaters live and die by the refreshment stand.

Additionally, unlike Disney, Murray didn't have to take the considerable time and spend the considerable cash to make his films. So what if his dubbed Little Red Riding Hood and Her Friends lacked the production values of Disney's considerably slicker Sleeping Beauty or Old Yeller? "He took what might be considered poverty-row product or second-string product or B-movie product," Craig notes, "and by applying a very interesting combination of circus ballyhoo techniques -- in and out of town on a weekend -- and some pretty clever marketing techniques, he gave superior competitors -- and I don't mean 'superior' from an aesthetic point of view, but as far as the size of the organization, the size of the resources -- a run for their money, and created a very popular little product for a period of time."

Remarkably, K. Gordon Murray Productions threatened the Disney studio's hegemony. "As scrappy as Murray's product was, he terrified Disney," Craig says. "Between [Disney's] Babes in Toyland [1961] and Mary Poppins [1964], Disney was watching his back."

Frequently several Murray films ping-ponged around the nation simultaneously. "At one time," Schermer recalls, "I was moving close to 1000 prints every weekend from one city to another city."

Occasionally there would be too many theaters and not enough prints for a particular film, resulting in a practice that Schermer terms "bicycling." If two different theaters, blocks apart, were each showing Santa Claus or Puss N' Boots, then one would begin its screening at 1:00 p.m., the other at 2:00 p.m. When the first reel finished at Theater A, it would be ferried -- "bicycled" -- to Theater B.

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