Murray Hill, International Man of Mystery

There may be a push to a performance-based nightclub scene as more and more clubs explore alternative ways to attract moths to their fading lamps. The Box has certainly led the way for this generation but its shocking, or often described as “disgusting approach,” to performance may not be necessary. There are inklings of a burlesque revival, which has small but tenacious roots in places like Corio and The Slipper Room. Dita Von Teese is the grand dame of this genre. I caught her act over at the now-defunct E. 27th Street haunt Happy Valley, when she performed for Suzanne and Kenny. Her performance in an oversized champagne glass nearly drove me to drink. Murray Hill, however, is a performance artist who I have seen for almost 15 years. His act has evolved from a distraction to a big time “show biz” attraction. Murray will be joining Dita tomorrow night in L.A. and I expect sparks. Catch Murray as soon as you can while you can get it cheap. The world just might be ready for him at exactly the same time he is sober and honed to meet the world.

I’m sitting here with Murray Hill—let’s get spelling the spelling right. S-H-O-W-B-I-Z

Tell me how the name came about… Well, there’s two versions: One of the versions is the Showbiz version–I was born in the backseat of a cab on 23rd Street and Third Avenue and then the cab driver asked my father, “Is it a boy or a girl?” And my father said, “No.” You laugh, that’s good, you get it. But I actually came to N.Y. around 90-something and went to Life for the the first time in 96 or 97. I was at grad school at the School of Visual Arts. And you know Fancy? Him and Penny and that crew, that’s the first club thing I got into at the “999999’s.”

Penny Arcade? Penny Tuesdae, way back. Fancy had this night called the “999999’s,” at Flamingo East and I was still in grad school and I didn’t have a name yet—I was unnamed for like 2 weeks.

So you don’t have a name yet, but you are a performance artist at this point? No, I was a photographer; I was going to grad school for photography and media.

So you were going to begin to perform, and you needed a name? I got to it by getting to my name. So Fancy said I’m starting this big Swing club—you know, I’ve been through all the phases now, Swing, that was the cocktail phase back then. And he’s like I’d love for you to come and be a pinup girl with your camera. I wanted to do the night, the New York nightlife, I wanted to get into it, but we both thought, “no that doesn’t seem right,” so he got me a suit–my first fancy suit–and I went to college with him in Boston. It was this ugly brown thing, a gold tuxedo ruffle shirt, and he says, “Well what about this?” and I said that feels more natural. Now I’d been photographing drag queens in Boston, I have early pics from those first few weeks of me in the bathroom wearing this crazy suit, and you know, I have cheekbones and my name was gonna be BJ.

BJ? I know, real creative. I lived in Murray Hill. My first apartment was on 23rd and Lexington. I had a post office box on 23rd Street, and one day I was walking down the street and every single thing was Murray Hill — Murray Hill Post Office, Murray Hill Cleaners, Murray Hill Cinemas, and it just stuck.

Your Eureka moment, an epiphany! It was really a moment. There’s been a couple of twists, because Murray Hill is actually the name of an old vaudevillian from the 1800s who lived in NY, and I’ve been told that Murray Hill was the name of a politician—because, I ran for mayor. One of the first things I did, was the name of a politician who died who was actually a woman.

The story is, he lived as this hard drinking tough political man, and during the autopsy they discovered that he was a woman. Yeah, and it’s Murray Hill, isn’t that crazy? I had no knowledge of that.

So you don’t call yourself a drag king? No I don’t….

But you are a woman, performing as a man. The audience knows you’re a woman most of the time. Not as much these days. I think New York has changed.

You don’t like to call yourself a drag king, but that’s the only term I have. Explain this to me. There’s not a lot of language. I got into New York nightlife right at the very end, you know what I mean? Life was still kicking the clubs, Jackie Beat was doing every night, it wasn’t dead like it is now for drag. You can’t go out 5 nights a week anymore and see a show in the East Village. It sucks. So I came in at the tail end, Flamingo East was the only place, and at that time I used “drag king,” because there was no other language. Musto first called me that. The press got excited, but at that time there wasn’t a lot of us, there was like 7 of us doing a Sunday night called club Casanova, and I was doing Flamingo East to all the straight hipsters. At Casanova there was the only drag king night in the country, and from there it just spawned all over the place. At that point I was comfortable using the term “drag king,” but not as I got more mainstream. I have those old values of drag etiquette, like you never give your other name ever. But it’s a dying breed, this is it! And no one’s like me on the “drag king,” side.

What about on the women’s side? The W-word—is it a bad word? No it’s not a bad word, but here’s the other thing from the old days–in the queer scene, everybody says “transgender.” Justin Bond says “transgender” now. But when I was in high school, college, even in New York—we didn’t’ use those words. So I kind of developed all the stuff before everybody has all these words now.

Before everybody became PC… Well it wasn’t all these labels. If you were a dyke, you were butch or fem—that was it. And if you’re drag, you’re either a queen or a bear. Today, the kids who come to my bingo night, I’m blown out of the water by the identity everyone has, they’re out about it. They’ve been out since they were in high school, they’re having surgery—it’s crazy! Again, I missed all that.

Tell me about the bingo… I do a bingo night, at Bowery Poetry Club, it’s off the hook it’s every Monday from 7 – 10p.m.

I have seen you a number of times recently and I think the show is amazing, I think you have come into your own. It was never about shock value with an old school guy like me. Even though it’s friendly, it’s a little shocking for some people.

You’re going to be performing with Dita Von Teese, tell me about that. She’s been at the Crazy Horse in Paris and really blowing it out over there, she’s the top burlesque performer in the world, she really is.

I talked about her as being the Babe Ruth of modern burlesque in Melody Sweets’ interview. She is the person who is most likely to take this incredible art which struggles under the surface to the mainstream. RuPaul took drag queens out into the mainstream, Milton Berle and many others did it before, but RuPaul did it for this generation. But anyway, I’ve seen your act, and I’ve seen Dita’s act, which is, I mean, I was dragged kicking and screaming to see her at Happy Valley and it was an unbelievable show. She lives up to hype. New Yorkers are jaded and we perform at shit boxes, but I did some shows with her in Seattle and it was the first time we’d met and they were just like whoa—we gotta have this guy in our big L.A. show.

What are you doing with Dita? At Crazy Horse in Paris, she debuted these huge new numbers, but she hasn’t performed in L.A. in about 5 years. So this show is at Avalon and it’s me, a couple of local guests and her, and she’s doing 3 new performances and she goes out and does 10 to 15 minute performances. She’s up there and she’s got Cointreau behind her and all of her stuff is all diamonds. It’s the real deal kids. I think the reason why they like the old school vibe of me is because I bring some class to the night and I’m not–you know, a sexist stand-up comedian. I can be Murray Hill as the character, which you’ve seen, but make everybody feel comfortable, including the performers.

When do you come out of character? Late at night when you come home? Well, remember you and I were in the same sober hipster article, do you remember that?

Tricia Romano, who actually writes for BlackBook now, did a story called sober hipsters, and both Murray and I are sober hipsters now. I don’t drink, never have, I do it out of choice, but many of our friends are alcoholics who have now recovered and live in nightclubs without the benefits of booze. So, explain to me the how you are in character all the time. When I first got to NY nightlife and was out every single night, it all added up. Since I’ve been sober, which is almost 5 years this September, my act is different. People see me now from the old days, and now I’m almost 80 pounds thinner, and the way I am now I credit to being sober and to working downtown every night. When you are in clubs 5 or 6 nights a week on stage, people are loaded, they’re screaming at you, they’re fucking each other while you’re telling jokes. It’s the best training that I’ve ever had, and I always credit downtown New York. I never forget my roots, Avenue A or Avenue B, because that’s where you get the muscle. When I go out of town now, it’s easy! People just sit there and they pay attention. So that’s the difference, the whole act has gotten a lot better, and now, I’m not Murray 24/7.

You now say “Showbiz” as a catch phrase. What does it mean? You know I love the oldies. Like Don Rickles, Shecky Greene, Shelly Berman—all these guys. And they did acts that I thought were very “showbiz”–they dressed well, they were in a lounge, they were classy, and they interacted with the audience. There was such a rapport.

Right, I was watching one of those roasts the other day on YouTube, Dean Martin—and they’re so out of control—they’re just laughing at each other and you’re laughing at them. And that’s showbiz, right? If I’m on stage at Corio and I’m telling a joke and the entire sound system and lights go off—I’m like “Showbiz!”

And it’s just a catch phrase. It covers everything. It covers the drunk, it covers the rude patron, it covers the waitress spilling the tray, it covers the joke that doesn’t go over, it. covers everything. So where can we see you? Bingo on Monday Nights. And I’m going to be in Los Angeles at Avalon next Wednesday with Dita Von Teese. I’m doing off Broadway next year. I’m going to be the first of my kind. And we don’t know what the word for that kind is.

It’ll be the gay, lesbian, transgender and not bi-Murray Hill. That’s the one thing I’m clear about. You won’t see me with a man! The tentative title is, “Murray Hill is Mr. Showbiz,” so I just recorded that live show and we’re going to make it a comedy album. So from that, we’re going to develop a whole other show based on my nightclub acts in the last ten years.

Va Va Voom Burlesque: Exit Strategy, Ear-Hole Entry

One of things I touched on yesterday in my story about actor/doorman Wass Stevens was the concept of exit strategy for nightlife workers. Most people employed in nightlife have other careers that they hope will take them to some promised land. For some, it’s a dream of fame and fortune; for others it’s a law degree and a nice house in Minneapolis. Many have no plans at all and are just trying to get through the week. Sometimes it would bother me if after many years of trying to act or paint, the bartender had not broken out or progressed and they seemed destined to be a gin-slinger for life. I hired creative people. That was my trip. I wanted these kinds of interesting art types to make a decent living and move on. I wanted my patrons to interact with these types. Many of my best friends have and are indeed now facing the realities of being stuck behind the three compartment sink and serving people they no longer relate to. Moving to California is a band-aid often applied. My ex-bartender Scrappy is still in the life but has segued into singing and performing in burlesque shows around town. Catch her act ( and any of the other burlesque shows being offered) if you can. The Box broke this stuff out to a financially viable level, and I think we will see more of it. It keeps getting more interesting. Just ask Scrappy.

Your hair is very feathery. Did you pick out the long feather earrings first, or did you do the hair as a result of the earrings? The hair is permanent for a couple of weeks. It’s my homage to Farrah. It’s called the Margie Bang at Tease Salon.

Scrappy was a bartender for me back in the day, and now she calls herself Melodie Sweets. Do you refer to yourself as a showgirl — a burlesque performer? I call myself a singer. Yes I do burlesque a lot, and I do my own show, Rouge Coquette, but I mainly sing in every show I do.

The first time I saw you was at Corio; you invited me down, and I went. Which was very surprising by the way. The light was kind of hitting you, and I was like, “Is that Steve?”

It was absolutely uncomfortable for me having known you as Scrappy the bartender. You hire bartenders and work with them because they are fabulous and beautiful and cool, but you absolutely disconnect yourself from them in a sexual way. If you’re a pretty good guy in this business, you shouldn’t be hitting on staff, and here you are a number of years later in this incredible feather outfit which had not nearly enough feathers. They were in select spots; very classy with a capital “C,” I might add.

I remember feeling very uncomfortable but anyway your voice was amazing. You’re a great singer. You’re a great showgirl; when I knew you as a bartender, I thought you were very conservative … You did?!

I thought of the entire bar staff, you were the least outgoing, the shyest. I am pretty shy.

But here you are on stage with a fairly sophisticated audience and mixed gay-straight crowd, and you are not shy at all. So on stage, it all comes out. Tell me about this process. How did you start doing it? Well, when my band GoodFinger decided to go into the studio and concentrate on our album that just came out, we stopped playing live shows, and I just really love the stage. A friend of mine was having a burlesque show and was like, “Will you do it?”

Who was that friend? Norman Gosney, who is now in China opening up another club. It was his show, and I loved the performers. Miss Tickle is just genius — everything about her was genius. She is so inspiring, and she’s a really good friend of mine. I saw her do it first. So I said if I’m going to be on stage, I don’t want to just do burlesque, I want to sing. So it was a challenge to myself to write my own songs, perform my own songs, and build it from the ground up. And that is what I loved the most about it. So Melodie Sweets was really born because GoodFinger stopped playing live.

As Melodie Sweets, as a frontwoman of GoodFinger, you are wearing sexy clothes. How do you get almost naked in front of strangers? Oh that’s the easy part, because I don’t care if you’re judging my outsides. That doesn’t bother me. Everyone has nipples — not that you see them.

Some people have three. Yes, some people have three. I bet if they got into the burlesque with three nipples, they would make a killing. I think it’s harder when people judge my singing, because they are judging something that I can’t change. They’re judging my insides. I get more nervous about singing on stage than I do doing burlesque. Because burlesque, when I’m done, I have more clothes on than I do on the beach. Some girls really just go down to the bare minimum.

You’re saying your singing is more naked. Yes, especially when I do covers. I’m even more nervous when I do covers. You know the audience is expecting you to be just as great or even greater than the original performer. So I just get manic backstage. What goes on backstage is just priceless. It’s always a brilliant time — girls just running around.

From what I’ve seen, there is a camaraderie. You guys are like a cult; a lot of the same people at Corio or the The Slipper Room. The Box is more shock burlesque Yeah, I perform there a lot.

How would you act differently at The Box? The Box is actually really great; I love performing there. I’ve met some amazing people there, and it really pushes me to do more modern things. So really The Box has inspired my music, and so I pull from old school.

Which old school? Billie Holiday, all the old jazz and blue greats, Etta James and Ella Fitzgerald, all those wonderful, wonderful women. And Cole Porter … even going back to that style, that genre of music.

Are we in a golden age of burlesque now? I think so. I think it’s really hitting a more mainstream audience. People are opening themselves up to it more. I don’t know how it is in the middle of the country.

Are you performing at Webster Hall now? I have a residency at Webster Hall every second Friday of the month.

I designed this giant iron and glass fan for Webster Hall that would open up so that the burlesque dancers could walk out and be on stage, and then it would close behind them. I haven’t been to Webster Hall in a very long time. Was it supposed to be motorized, Steve?

Yes it was. Because it’s not.

I’m sure they’ll get around to doing it. They’re often late with doing things. Back to the golden age; one of my favorite performers of all time and someone I want to interview very soon is Murray Hill, one of the funniest humans alive. He is so in character, I never think of him as a her. Murray Hill is a drag king — a woman who performs as a man. If you say “she” it just doesn’t register. He’s brilliant to work with. You can come into the theater in the worst of moods, and you just see Murray, and in two seconds you’re laughing. It’s a pleasure to work with him.

I hate to say it, but I think he is carrying the burlesque thing on his back. He is one of the most recognizable and professional characters. Who are the other players in burlesque? It’s a growing community. And I say community because it really is, and we all really help each other. But a few of my favorites, of course, are Miss Tickle and the Pontani Sisters.

How many Pontani sisters are there? There are three, and they are amazing. I’ve worked with them at Corio and with them and Murray for the past year, since the show started. And then you have Amber Ray who is just such a force on stage. You were a bartender with me. You are a singer in a band, and you are a burlesque singing star. Where does this take you in the future? I have about three more songs to finish the album, which is really exciting for me. And I’m forming a band, and I want to incorporate my acts that I do now with some of the girls in my show but really make it more into a music venture. Not a musical. So this way I can take it not only to theaters as a burlesque show, but I can take it to rock n’ roll venue and really focus on the music side of things as well.

Do you believe a club could exist as a burlesque club? Yeah. Slipper Room has existed on burlesque. They do some other things there too; they book bands, but they always try to keep it in the realm of burlesque.

The sight lines aren’t great at the Slipper Room. It’s a very difficult place to see burlesque. They’re reopening. I think they just bought out the upstairs above them and are redesigning.

Is Dita Von Tesse the Babe Ruth of modern burlesque? She definitely has the most notoriety right now. I’ve never seen her perform, nor have I met her. I would like to see her perform.

She performed in a martini glass. It was insane. I love that someone is carrying that torch. And the bigger the community gets, and the more people that get into, it the longer we stay being able to do what we love to do.

Prior to seeing her perform I didn’t see the attraction, but the end of the show I was dying. She was insanely hot. I guess that is the game isn’t it? Finding sexuality in the audience? It’s the art of the tease. You’re not supposed to give it all. It’s about teasing the audience and pulling them into your fantasy.

Are there moments that you connect? Yes, that’s the best feeling ever.

Is it orgasmic? It could be. For me, when I sing, I’m entering inside your ear holes. The best feeling is when you look out and see them singing the songs. You just glow when you’re on stage. It’s such a great feeling.

You’re not shy anymore Scrappy.