On any given Friday night in most major cities, someone is wearing a snap-brim hat; belting out the sounds of Sinatra.
For many, that is as close as they’ll ever get to seeing a real lounge act.
Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but how do you re-create the magic of a lost era without lip-syncing to Sammy Davis, Jr. or bouncing around a piano, a-la Rusty Warren?
Easy. You scrap the pale imitations and become a true original.
Baltimoreans will have a chance this week to see an exceptional master of the meandering one-liner when gender-bending comic Murray Hill joins Trixie Little for her annual holiday show, Spectac-u-thon, at The Creative Alliance.
Aptly billed as, “The hardest working middle-aged man in show business”, Hill has been entertaining crowds for almost 15 years with a stage persona reminiscent of the great borscht-belt comedians.
Though it has been a while, this isn’t Hill’s first trip to Baltimore. The cherubic comic has appeared as a solo act at the Club Hippo and played master of ceremonies at the Ottobar for The Pontani Sisters and for Trixie Little and The Evil Hate Monkey. But this visit is Hill’s first time back in Charm City since teaming with the biggest star in burlesque – Dita Von Tease.
Hill told the Baltimore Post-Examiner a lot has changed since the days when burlesque was relegated to the red light district. Hill started out playing the fringe clubs in New York City, performing nightly from 1:00 – 4:00 a.m., before gentrification closed most of the edgier places down. But during that time, a distinctive style was honed.
“From the beginning of my career, before I even realized I was building a career, I made a point to work at – and appear in – as many different kinds of clubs as possible. I never wanted to be a drag/gay/queer nightclub act. I just wanted to be funny!”
Not surprisingly, Hill found inspiration in an ever growing collection of polyester ties and suits and in the schtick of comics like Morey Amsterdam and Shecky Greene.
“First and foremost, I love the old-school, Vegas lounge, Catskill comedians. Recently, a showbiz pal picked me up some amazing vinyl records of Totie Fields, Belle Barth and Rusty Warren…timeless comedians!”
“I admire their ability to deliver comedy; talking to and with an audience rather than just delivering lines and never breaking from a script. Listen to the old Dean Martin recordings in Vegas when he’s riffing up there…it seems like he’s your favorite uncle just having a chat with you onstage. I’m greatly influenced by the intimacy these comics were able to generate in a room, no matter what the size. They made showbiz personal, and that’s what I do. And I’ll tell ya what, no matter how many times you’ve seen me, it’s never the same show twice!”
Hill (along with Angie Pontani, Trixie Little and Dita Von Tease) has also led the way in popularizing Neo-Burlesque.
“I’ve pounded the boards for a long time to get more mainstream…and I’m still facing the challenge of being pigeon-holed all the time.”
“I’ll tell you one thing, the crowds today are bigger and way more diverse than when I started! The production value in Dita’s shows are through the roof. I haven’t seen another burlesque show like it. Traveling throughout the country for several years now, I think burlesque is viewed as pure entertainment! People really come out to have a great night, even if they don’t quite know what they are going to see!”
What people see in Neo-Burlesque of course depends on the performers on hand. Most work very hard to develop their own acts while taking a bow for greats of the bygone days, such as Dixie Evans, Jennie Lee, Gypsy Rose Lee and Blaze Starr. Even so, a troop is lucky to have a capable host to juice the crowd. We wondered what advice Hill would give someone starting out in the business?
“My first recommendation is to read, “Young, Fabulous, and Broke”, by Suze Orman. I’m not kidding. Then, study, read, watch..absorb as much as you can. For me, stage time and experience has been key to my career. Joan Rivers says this too, take as many diverse gigs as you can. The best advice is to build experience. Every Gig Counts! And, don’t wait for opportunities, make your own.”
We might add, don’t wait to purchase your tickets to see Murray Hill in Trixie Little’s Spectac-u-thon. Who knows when the effervescent emcee will be back in town?
“It’s been a few years! The last few times I’ve been with the Pontanis and Trixie at the Ottobar. The audiences here are the wackiest and the best…and MIXED! I remember a gal came up to me after a show, she’d had a few beers, and she said, ‘You’re a freak. But that’s good here in Baltimore. You’re one of us. Welcome to our family. We love you.’”
“I can’t say that’s happened in any other city, and I remember that like it was yesterday.”
Murray Hill will be appearing in Trixie and Monkey’s Holiday Spectac-u-thon, Thursday – Saturday, Dec. 19-21. Curtain is at 8:00 p.m. on Thursday; 7:00 and 10:00 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. Tickets are $25 ($20 for members) and may be found online at the Creative Alliance website. The Creative Alliance is located at 3134 Eastern Ave, in beautiful Baltimore, hon!
Anthony C. Hayes is an actor, author, raconteur, rapscallion and bon vivant. A one-time newsboy for the Evening Sun and professional presence at the Washington Herald, Tony’s poetry, photography, humor, and prose have also been featured in Smile, Hon, You’re in Baltimore!, Destination Maryland, Magic Octopus Magazine, Los Angeles Post-Examiner, Voice of Baltimore, SmartCEO, Alvarez Fiction, and Tales of Blood and Roses. If you notice that his work has been purloined, please let him know. As the Good Book says, “Thou shalt not steal.”