2006_09_mhill.jpgMurray Hill can make even the most uptight New Yorker at least offer up a chuckle, if not an all-out belly laugh, with his well-honed ladies' man-about-town sthick. With his jocular, wink-wink style, he's never at a loss for words, whether working a raucous, drunken bingo crowd, prepping audiences for bands like Le Tigre, or hosting burlesque pagaents. Known for his anything-might-happen style, Murray can regularly be found emceeing his way across the city's stages, calling bingo numbers, and performing cabaret-style at venues like the late Fez, Galapagos, and, most recently, Mo Pitkin's. On the heels of The Murray Hill Show, the self-proclaimed "hardest working man in show business" is back to dazzle downtown with his comic crooning in Murray Hill Live at the Sansabelt Room along with sexy sidekick Dirty Martini and accompanied on piano by Lance Cruce. Here, he tells us where to find New York's best cheeseburger, why he loves stage banter, his dream venue, and why freaky New Yorkers should stick around and reclaim downtown.

Can you give me a basic biographical sketch of Murray Hill? When and where was he born? How did he come into being?
I was born in New York City, in the back of a cab on 23rd Street and 3rd Avenue, hence the nickname. I remember hearing the cabbie ask my father, “Is it a boy or a girl?” and he answered “No.” I think I knew right then and there, I was going to be special . . . if you know what I’m saying.

I was born into speakeasies, showgirls, steakhouses, and showbiz. My old man ran a supper club on 52nd street and my mom was a Zeigfeld girl. If I wasn’t at her Minksy’s burlesque show, I was bussing tables at my dad’s clubs. I met all the greats, and cleared their plates too. You name ‘em, I cleared ‘em⎯Dean Martin, Totie Fields, Judy Garland, Joe DiMaggio, Sinatra, Gleason. It was Gleason who was so bombed one night at Minksy’s that he couldn’t do the show, so my mom threw me into the spotlight, literally. I still have a scar on my knee. I went up there at 6, with a full suit, and sang a rousing “BINGO the Farmer” and killed. The rest is history.

Are you Murray 24/7? Can you remember a time before you were Murray?
I would say I’m a bit more 12/6 kinda guy! They don’t call me the “hardest working middle-aged man in showbusiness” for nothing. I love to work, I love the business, I can’t do anything else. I do have some down time every now and then. I went up to Kate Pierson’s of B52s’ Airstream motel in the Catskills this summer to relax with a lady friend. I also play ping pong and poker, and call bingo numbers every Monday night.

Your last show at Mo Pitkin's, The Murray Hill Show, attracted the likes of Cyndi Lauper, Alan Cumming, Moby, and Nina Hartley. Firstly, how do you draw such famous names?
The celebs like to come to my show to have a good time, have a few drinks, get the Murray Hill treatment, and have a real New York downtown experience. The show is real loose, the vibe is always buzzing, and the crowd is unlike any crowd you’re gonna get uptown.

Do you act differently when there are celebrities in the audience? Does it change the atmosphere in the room?
I love it when kids from the Biz come to the show, it fires me up and the audience feels like they are VIPs too. Back in the old days, all the entertainers would go to each other’s shows all the time after they finished their sets. Alan and Cyndi came after Three Penny Opera to unwind and have a good time. One recent night, I knew Steven Soderbergh was in the audience so I specifically made a George Clooney joke hoping he’d cast me as a leading man in Ocean’s 18. Still waiting for that call by the way. Stephen, if you are out there . . . you’re the greatest, and I’ll move my schedule around to work with you in a heartbeat, speaking of heartbeat, has anyone seen my inhaler?

Your new show is called Murray Hill Live From The Sansabelt Room. Firstly, what's a Sansabelt?
You heard it here first kids⎯Murray Hill is bringing back the Sansabelts! Sansabelts are pants, sans-a-belt, or without a belt for you challenged folks. They were invented in 1956. I bet your gym teacher from elementary school had them. They are 100% polyester, with built-in front seam, they never wrinkle. and the best of all, the waistband stretches as needed, and the pants never fall off! So no matter how many cheeseburgers I’ve had, or how much tap dancing I’m doing, the pants never fall off. It’s a damn miracle. The Rat Pack played the Sands, I’m playing the Sansabelt.

The show's billed as being in "classic Borscht Belt style." Can you elaborate on what that means? Do you feel like you were born in the wrong era?
You are not the first woman to ask me if I’m from another era! What’s a guy supposed to do? Y’know Rachel, I do feel like I’m in the wrong decade as far as showbiz goes. Rock and roll killed the supper club, and I miss those days, a simpler time, when going on stage with your suit and microphone and a sparkle in your eye was all you needed. No bells and whistles, and certainly no smoke machines. This show, like the Borscht days, is me on stage entertaining the audience, singing, dancing, impersonations, jokes, talking to the kids in the room, bussing a few tables, having some drinks. A dinner show with no fourth wall. It’s entertainment, kid. I’m not up there with some great message, or going to talk about how messed up our country is, or work out my demons for an hour, I’m an entertainer, you see. You come to see me to forget about all that stuff and laugh, and hopefully meet a knock-out in the audience.

Part of the show is scripted, but you seem to excel at adlibbing and playing to the crowd. You seem to feed off doing crowd work; are you ever stumped, or does the stage banter just roll off your tongue?
It’s true. When you see me, you’ll never see the same show twice. Most of the time, I don’t know what the hell I’m gonna say. I’m not one of those comics that after you’ve seen them twice, you know their whole act. I’m constantly on stage shticking new stuff. After a while, all those ad-libs become my material. But there is nothing more I love (other than a cheeseburger) than working off the audience, it’s a gas. I get excited backstage waiting to see who is in the front row, and it’s always a lot to chew on.

One time, completely random in the middle of a ballad, someone screamed out Phylicia Rashad! That’s the mom from The Cosby Show. That stumped me. In all my years of heckling, that was a first!

What's the craziest unscripted moment you've had onstage?
Oh geesh, this year’s holiday show. It was the late show, the crowd was wild, I was feeling it and was having a blast up there. I was doing a Patrick Swayze impersonation, saying the classic line, “Nobody puts Baby in a corner!” But I said, and I didn’t even realize it until Lance (piano player) and the audience went nuts, “Nobody puts Murray in a baby!!” Once I figured it out, I couldn’t stop laughing. It went on for a good ten minutes. It may have been my jump the shark moment.

You host many burlesque events, but have also appeared onstage with The Gossip and Le Tigre, in a Scissor Sisters video, and in John Cameron Mitchell's new movie Shortbus, among many other media appearances. Why do you think you fit equally well within the retro stylings of burlesque and the more modern queer music and arts scenes?
I think no matter how old you are, every one likes to laugh and everybody likes to be entertained by their favorite uncle. I’m the city’s favorite uncle, that’s my job. And let’s face it, yeah, I wear the polyester suits and my hairstyle has not changed in 40 years, but I’m hip. Back in the club days in the 50s, the scene was open to everything and everybody. The clubs were integrated and true melting pots. Somewhere along the way, folks got conservative, scared, and too right for my taste. I don’t roll that way. So I’m hip to the kids today, I accept them no matter what⎯whether the boys look like the girls, or the girls look like the boys, I’m hip. You come to my show, you’re part of The Breakfast Club. You’ll go in as strangers, but leave as pals and friends with the Ally Sheedys and Anthony Michael Halls of the world. At the end of the day, we’re all the same.

The New York Times called you the "leader of the downtown world," and your shows almost exclusively have taken place in places like the East Village, Lower East Side, and Williamsburg. What about these neighborhoods appeals to you, and is "downtown" a physical location for you or a set of characteristics, a mood, if you will?
I think downtown used to be a physical location and I was part of that scene. Now, it’s more of a way of life for me, something to uphold. To me, downtown is being in the know, not drinking the kool aid, being in the margins and happy about it, an outsider, a rebel, queer, outspoken, a free thinker who accepts everyone and doesn’t marginalize people but celebrates the left of center life. Even if real stiffs come to my show, you know, the ones that live in the new glass tower on Astor Place, I sit them in between the dominatrix, and the gay couples, and by end of the show, we’re all having a ball together.

There's a special at Mo's during your show of a cheeseburger, fries and a Rheingold for $12. Who makes the best cheeseburger in the city, and what's the secret to a perfect cheeseburger?
I love my cheeseburgers, which is why I need Sansabelts! My hands down favorite burger in the city is from Great Jones Café on Bowery and Jones. I have been a regular there for almost 10 years. My other favorite burger when I’m traveling to the West Side is Florent in the meatpacking district. Both of these joints have the best waitstaff, and a cool, downtown vibe. A perfect burger for me is a juicy piece of fresh meat, fries, cool waitstaff, and a great restaurant vibe⎯all of those combined, is burger showbiz!

What are your favorite kinds of crowds to play to? How much do you thrive off of the crowd's energy?
Geesh, I love my audiences, no matter if it’s filled with yahoos, nutjobs, or ex-lady friends, I love it. The moment I step under those hot lights, I can tell if the audience is ready for some Murray magic, and when I feel that vibe, it’s pedal to the medal, a homerun every time.

I love playing in front of a mixed audience. Y’know, the gays, senior citizens, tourists from Jersey, families, internet daters, and even kids. When I can get all these different folks in one room, laughing together and at each other . . . to me, that’s what it is all about. Michael Musto called me an “equal opportunity offender” once and I loved it.

Last year, you did a stint in London's West End, and have also performed in Montreal, San Francisco, and other cities. Does your sense of humor travel well, or is there a distinctly New York to it?
I recently was in Michigan and was doing some schtick and this group of women in front of me were laughing. Later, I found out they were deaf! So, I’d say I’m accessible. When I was in Montreal, I was up there doing my monologue, and riffing on this guy who was literally staring at me like a deer in headlights. The crowd was laughing. After the show, I realized he didn’t speak English, and the room was French Canadian. I love playing San Francisco. Unlike New York, where no matter how far you’ve come, the audience makes you work for it, in San Francisco they love you for just being in town. Those kids are progressive, I tell ya.

When I’m out of town, people always say I’m a New Yorker. They can tell. A lot of times they say I talk too fast, or stand like a New Yorker. The kids love it. For the folks that don’t live here, I give them a little taste of the Big Apple without the hassle of them having to visit.

After 10 years of working the clubs in New York, and every dump and dive you can imagine, when I work out of town, it’s a cakewalk. New York is the best training ground for anyone in the biz of performing live.

Where would you love to perform that you haven't yet?
Some folks in the biz may say Madison Square Garden, or the Meadowlands, or even Roseland, but for me, hands down, it’s the Carlyle. Now that place is showbiz. Bobby Short performed there forever, Eartha Kitt and Elaine Stritch are up there now. Wouldn’t that be something, Murray at the Carlyle? I’d get a new suit for that gig. Tickets are $300, so I could afford it.

On a more serious note, in an article about the assault on gay recording artist Kevin Aviance, you said that you "never really feel safe in the East Village anymore" and that you get verbally harassed walking on Avenue A, which is where Mo Pitkin's is located. What do you attribute this surge in harassment to and what do you think can be done about it? How does your growing popularity and the general popularity of burlesque and queer arts interact with this potential for violence?
I’ve been around for awhile, kid. I started my fourth comeback on Avenue B and 4th Street in ’98 and back then there were many gay clubs, gay nights, and a real mix of folks⎯the artists, writers, nightlife kids, and occasional cousin visiting from out of town all hung out and it was cool.

I’ve really noticed a shift in the neighborhood the last few years. There are lot more drunk young university kids and other people out at night that have no idea of the history of the neighborhood, and just walk the streets like they own them with their matching polo shirts and khakis harassing anyone who is different. It breaks my heart, it really does. Being different was the backbone of that neighborhood⎯that’s where you went, the East Village⎯to feel like you were on home turf and not get bothered.

These new New Yorkers just honestly don’t know how to behave with class. This is the Big Apple, you don’t heckle a guy walking down Avenue A in a tux with a showgirl, or two guys holding hands . . . you high-five them. If you can’t deal with this basic respect for your brothers and sisters and those in-between, then no matter how gentrified this place becomes, you don’t belong here.

The best thing we can do, that I can do, is not give up, not bolt for Canada or L.A., and just stay here, stake my ground, be out in the streets, under the hotlights and keep the “downtown” torch alive. As long as I’m breathing, I’m not leaving.

When you're not onstage or otherwise working, where do you like to hang out?
I go to Gimme Coffee in Brooklyn every damn day. They got the best coffee in all of the five boroughs. That’s where I “write” my schtick and shows high as a kite on an Americano with an extra shot.

Tell me a secret that you've never revealed before.
I’m flat footed.

What's the number one reason people should check out Murray Hill Live From the Sansabelt Room?
Let me entertain you, get your mind off your troubles and the fact that it seems like every day could be the end of the world. No matter who you are, you will get the VIP treatment from me, a can of beer, and a good hearty laugh. Oh, and did I mention I’ll be debuting a new Lionel Richie cover? I’m premiering a new song on my triangle. Okay, how about this . . . you should come to see my new suit that I’m getting hand made from J.C. Penney himself. That should be enough, right? Showbiz!

Murray Hill Live at the Sansabelt Room debuts Saturday, September 23rd at Mo Pitkin's House of Satisfaction, 34 Avenue A, and runs every Friday and Saturday through November 25, at 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. ($18). (Please note that the September 22nd performance has been cancelled.) The Miss Galapagozango Burlesque Contest takes place October 2 at 10 p.m. at Galapagos Art Space, 70 North 6th Street, Williamsburg, Brooklyn ($5). You can also find Murray every Monday at Mo Pitkin's from 9 p.m. to midnight hosting Monday Nite Bingo (no cover). Find out more about Murray at www.mrmurrayhill.com"> and Murray's MySpace page.