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

John Harrison, editor of the zesty Australian zine Reel Wild Cinema!, characterizes the movie thusly: "Reminiscent at times of Russ Meyer during his black-and-white drive-in period, crossed with a smattering of vintage Herschell Gordon Lewis-styled histrionics, Shanty Tramp is one of those films which makes it such a joy to be a fan of Sixties exploitation sleaze. Indeed the film remains a virtual primer of exploitation requirements, and has retained its power to fascinate, repel, and excite."

The X-rated picture was the beneficiary of some unanticipated publicity in the summer of 1967, when itchy members of the State Attorney's Office in Dade County noticed that several local theaters were neglecting to stop minors at the door. A tiny tempest ensued, with three movie houses pulling Shanty Tramp and another enforcing an adults-only policy. Additionally the State Attorney's Office in Broward County fretted that four officers from the Davie Police Department, plus one of its patrol cars, showed up in the movie, although the cops had departed the force by the time Shanty Tramp opened in South Florida. Murray couldn't have invented better promotion.

Sufficiently encouraged, the producer returned the following year with the biker epic Savages From Hell, based on a story idea he conceived with Guberman; they shot the picture in Naples and Monroe Station, out in the central Everglades. With Murray, as always, you didn't need a weatherman to know which way the wind was blowing: At the time, American International Pictures and its West Coast imitators were raking in boatloads of receipts with a series of cheaply produced motorcycle-gang sagas (Hell's This, Angels That). Murray rode the genre's coattails to similar success.

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

When the Savages From Hell title quickly wore out its welcome, Murray rechristened it Big Enough 'N Old Enough, and sent it right back out into circulation. "He always said, 'People don't know what's in a movie, they just go by titles,'" recalls Schermer. "'If we can't make it with one, we'll try another.'"

Mining a second recycling vein, in 1970 Murray reanimated the corpses of several of his moldering Mexican horror shows, leased them to Doug Hobart, a special-effects man who also served as production manager on Savages From Hell, and sent the latter marching through Southern drive-ins with a twelve-movie package called "The Fifth Dimension." Imbued with Murray's rock-'em/sock-'em sensibility, Hobart concocted a histrionic ad and poster campaign for double features such as The Curse of the Doll People/The Vampire, enticing unwary motorists with claims that "The Undead Awaken After 200 Years" and venture "From Beyond the Grave and into the Audience" to serve "Blood Cocktails from the Vampire's Blood Bank." Translated: Hobart, clad as a cloaked, fanged fiend, skulked from vehicle to vehicle proffering -- in the absence of sex manuals -- tomato juice laced with food coloring.

Also in 1970, just before Murray scraped the bottom of the kiddie-fare barrel by trotting out an abomination called Mother Goose's Birthday Party -- shards of stitched-together footage from a handful of his previously released Mexican fables -- representatives of fast-food monolith McDonald's approached him about the possibility of a promotional partnership. For reasons unknown -- maybe the Ray Kroc brain trust glimpsed the threadbare Mother Goose and reconsidered -- McDonald's, like NBC, did not close a deal with Murray.

Other clouds gathered. The blossoming Trans-International soon came to grief because of Murray's use of nonunion personnel, with various locals pestering the producer, despite Florida's status as a right-to-work state. Exasperated, Murray abruptly packed in his moviemaking ambitions, then dusted off his contractor's license from 25 years earlier, when he'd erected theaters in Illinois with his father. He became a builder and, according to attorney Jonas, oversaw the construction of a 100-space storage facility near Miami International Airport. Of course he did not completely exit the entertainment business. His Mexican horror movies continued to circulate on TV, producing steady revenue, and he pocketed a piece of Hobart's drive-in action.

In fact Murray was probably playing possum because in 1972 he rose from the grave to produce The Daredevil, a speedway saga shot in Tampa that sputtered to a stop soon after its release, despite the presence of two bona fide, if long-in-the-tooth, stars -- George Montgomery, a veteran of a herd of horse operas, and Terry Moore, the creature's object of desire in the 1949 big ape picture Mighty Joe Young. Murray, characteristically uncredited, can be heard as the announcer at the track, the same role he filled in Savages From Hell.

Two years later he invoked the psychotronic touchstone of women inmates, while adding menacing mafiosos, for Thunder County; it also tanked spectacularly, even though it boasted Ted Cassidy, best known as Lurch the butler on TV's The Addams Family, and a last-gasp Mickey Rooney. When it stiffed, Murray repeatedly repackaged/retitled it as the more titillating Cell Block Girls, Convict Women, Women's Prison Escape, and, for video, Swamp Fever -- all to no avail.

Also in 1974, he attempted to rally with the kid pic Treasure Island, an eviscerated (84 minutes) version of a nearly six-hour French-German TV miniseries, but it fizzled too. With drive-ins literally vanishing, and with the matinee extinct, Murray quietly retired from active participation in filmmaking/brokering, content to collect commissions from the TV horror movies and the children's fables, which resurfaced on television on weekend afternoons as part of local stations' Fairy Tale Theaters in various markets. Hardly inactive, he continued work as a general contractor while also dabbling in record production, releasing in 1977 six kids' albums (The Wizard of Oz, Tom Thumb, Jack and the Beanstalk, et cetera) made by a troupe assembled by Ivan Kivitt, his old colleague from Miami theater. Issued on the KGM Festival label, they bear the familiar branding device "K. Gordon Murray Presents."

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