My life so far
By Larry Murray
Raised in Freeport, NY, 45 minutes from Broadway by train, I will never forget the look on my poor dad’s face when I told him I didn’t want to toss that baseball around anymore. I was trying to create a puppet show on a tiny stage I had cobbled together in the garage. I was all of 6, and decided I could get the kids on the block to come see my show and they would pay me a nickel. That was my first exposure to marketing and audience development, a shocker when I discovered they wouldn’t even pay me 2 cents. So my first show was free. And of course, it was awful. I was convinced I could ad lib the plot and action.
So I did what any good critic does, gave it a bad review and went on to something else.
Nevertheless it was clear I had the bug.
Unfortunately, I was on my way to parochial school where – between the nuns and stern parents – they tried their best to stomp out every creative impulse I had, without success. In eight years of Holy Redeemer School, I attended more than 2,000 masses, novenas, and stations of the cross and not one play, concert or performance. When television arrived, my family did not buy a set.
Every dark cloud has a silver lining. There were daily newspapers in the house every day, and the family would sit down and read them together before and after supper. And there was an encyclopedia on hand so when I asked a childish question, I was told to “Look it up!”
Freeport High School was my salvation. It introduced me to the arts since the school had a band, orchestra, dramatic club, chorus and so much more.
I took up the violin and piano and and learned to read and notate music. Although most of this was self taught, it was passable enough to enable me to play in the orchestra, sing in the chorus and act in school plays.
My first exposure to Broadway was the drama Anastasia and the musical Pajama Game. My love of opera began with Carmen and Lohengrin at the Metropolitan Opera. All this exposure was made possible through low cost tickets and school field trips. It wasn’t long before I figured out how to take the LIRR into Manhattan to see a different show, sometimes two, every Saturday using discount ticket programs.
The drama teacher, Henry Burnett, took me under his wing. I learned a lot about the technical side of theatre working with the local community theatre, and soon was part of the Long Island Community Theatre where I painted sets, sold tickets and acted as house manager. Acting students love when I do a master class on this and the wonderful people I met along the way.
Early Journalism and PR
During these teen years I also delivered newspapers, mowed lawns and eventually was offered a job as a teen reporter for the Long Island Kernel, “All the news that fits,” was my motto, about 7-800 words a week.
At the same time, I also did the publicity for our high school plays. The Matchmaker and The Man Who Came to Dinner are two that I recall. In those days the plays came with publicity kits with sample news releases and promotional ideas which is how I learned the basics.
All this time I was taking lessons in acting, ballet and writing, even as I ended up being the president of the Science Club in school, learned basic design and drafting and a hundred other things that have served me well all through life.
The Film Industry
My first job out of high school was in the Warner Brothers Motion Pictures publicity office under Bob Taplinger, before I was lured over to the booking department of Universal International. Both were situated in the Film Trade Building on Ninth Avenue, a stone’s throw from the Broadway theatres I came to love with a passion. By then I knew I was not cut out to be an actor. Alas, it seems that not being able to memorize lines was my downfall.
After a stint in the Navy where I helped establish KEAR, the ship’s radio station on the aircraft carrier USS Kearsarge, and took my turn editing the daily newspaper at sea. I worked with the CIC guys intercepting the AP news transmissions and rehashed them into a crude stapled newsletter which got distributed on board and passed around. But I was so prolific that in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, the news came that I had used up all the paper on board the ship which was supposed to have lasted for three more months.
I also got hit on the back of my head by the wing of a landing plane and lived to tell about it. Once the stitches went in of course. I was on the flight deck with my back to the air ops going on behind me.
The Navy saw me as officer material and had begun the process of sending me to Officer Candidate School – Purdue, no less – when they found a letter from a very dear friend in my locker and I was quickly kicked out. This was before Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. In those days being discharged for being gay could make someone unemployable.
The silent treatment from everyone on the Kearsarge before I was finally flown off the carrier a week later was pretty awful. Even with sealed orders it seemed that everyone on the convoluted trip back to the USA was privy to the reason for my discharge. For a month I took some minor torment, but deep down there was always a feeling that things would get better. They did. And I still love a man in uniform.
On My Own
At the beginning of the 60’s you either conformed or you were doomed. By the end of that decade, it was a new world, especially for young people. Feminism, gay rights, even free thinking and individuality came into being, and the world has not been the same since. Roles to which men and women were relegated became malleable, and the world changed course.
During that period I was able to cross both class and career lines to work and play in fields that were new to me. With excellent hearing I became a guinea pig for some MIT scientists working on acoustics and sound synthesizers to create some new electronic musical instruments, which led to the breakthrough of a Moog recording made by Wendy Carlos in the 1968 record Switched-On Bach. My hearing was near legendary, able to discern the tiniest variations. Half a century later, that gift is gone, the ravages of aging. I pray for actors who know how to project their voices, and have trouble hearing certain frequencies. Quite a comedown.
But back in the 60’s and 70’s I explored every type of music and theatre, visiting a wide variety of Rock, Jazz and Theatre Festivals. This led to my first review as an arts critic, of the 1970 Strawberry Fields Festival in the Boston Phoenix.
But more of my time was spent on the other side of the equation, as a marketing and publicity person sending out releases, arranging interviews and suggesting promotional ideas.
Many readers of Berkshire on Stage are fans of the site since they worked with me in the 60’s at the Opera Company of Boston, the 70’s at the Pocket Mime Theatre, Boston League of Local Theatres, Boston Ballet or Boston Symphony Orchestra and Tanglewood.
By the 80’s I became head of Arts Boston, an organization I helped begin with Louise Tate and Jane Doerfer in the earliest days of the Mass Council on the Arts (now the Mass Cultural Council). Once there I used the bully pulpit to help make the Arts Lottery a reality. I helped write the first guidelines. The Megabucks Game was created to fund the arts, then taken away by greedy legislators.
My affinity for the local performing arts expressed itself in the creation of Boston’s Midtown Cultural District and its Task Force, which I headed for several years in the 80’s. Through that collaborative group of more than a hundred folks from all segments of the downtown community we were able to save the Majestic and Savoy Theatres that later became the Emerson Majestic and the Opera House. We were able to wrest the Metropolitan Theatre from the Sack Theatre chain and help create the Citi Performing Arts Center and Wang Theatre. Also made possible was the Lyric Stage space at the YWCA which was privately developed.
The MCD Task Force also spearheaded new zoning for the former combat zone in Boston, requiring certain theatres to either be saved or refurbished. From that, in the last decade, has emerged the Emerson Paramount Center and the Suffolk University Modern Theatre complex. While we worked closely with the Chinatown community, those theatres on the east side of Tremont Street were either too big, too run down or already taken over for other uses. We lost the Gaiety, the Cinerama and several other historic theatres. But we could have lost all of them had we not helped create new zoning for the City of Boston that is still in force. In those years working with Mayor Ray Flynn and Boston Redevelopment Authority head Steve Coyle the arts had a crash lesson in the power of working with economic development to create mixed use developments that use arts and culture as one of its components.
Heading Towards Retirement
As the decade at Arts Boston drew to a close, I was invited to write a guest op ed piece for the Boston Globe, and was named Entertainer of the Year by New England Entertainment Digest. Also involved in politics, the 90’s were spent on environmental issues, including the Bottle Bill and trying to raise awareness of conserving resources which resulted in a small chain of stores, Blue Planet.
In retrospect, it seems the whole idea of environmental products was to get people to consume less, not more, so the idea of an environmentally themed retail empire was doomed from the start.
Cliffhanger: The Career Path Ends
By 2000 I decided to retire, so in 2003 I moved to the Berkshires to finally read all those books I had put off for years. But that was not to be.
I chose North Adams because of the presence of Mass MoCA. Back in the late 80’s and early 90’s I had defended the concept and argued with my Boston colleagues that it would work. It is still one of the best ideas the Berkshires ever had, up there with Tanglewood and Jacob’s Pillow.
Once here, I discovered a familiar name, Charles Giuliano who I had met briefly in Boston in the 70’s and whose byline was a familiar one – he had invented Gonzo journalism long before Hunter S. Thompson and Rolling Stone, back in the days he was at the Boston Herald. So I made contact and eventually he offered me an opportunity to write for Berkshire Fine Arts. So for several years we worked together, and his site grew. It is one of the most fascinating online sites out there, due largely to his skills at writing in many styles, and his fearlessness in asking the tough questions when so many arts reporters just lob softballs.
In April of 2009 I began Berkshire on Stage which you are reading now, and haven’t stopped since.
Auntie Mame said that “life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death.” I hear locals often remark that there is “nothing” to do. I hear it from visitors too. They are mistaken. Berkshire on Stage exists to help them find interesting things to do and see.
When you hear someone say that, suggest that they take a look at what’s happening in Berkshire on Stage.
If people don’t find something new to catch their interest, then maybe it is time for me to really store away my mouse and retire..
About Berkshire on Stage
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