In the 1890s it wasn’t easy to travel across America in vaudeville shows but Charlie Murray (Laurel, Indiana, June 22, 1872 – Los Angeles, July 29, 1941) and Ollie Mack (born Oliver Turnbull) not only did it but were one of America’s major comic successes. Although just about completely unknown today even by vaudeville afficianados, they were stars for 21 years. The family moved to Cincinnati while he was little but Murray had very little schooling and was in traveling shows and circuses on his own at age 11 and quickly learned to do bareback riding stunts and acrobatics.
The comedy team traveled the country offering their comedy and gaining a significant reputation but by the time they’d gotten into their forties Ollie Mack had had enough of the hotel life, the constant travel and the endless hustling and settled for a more sedentary career in the advertising business. But Murray who loved people, loved being the life of the party and, like comedian Red Skelton of later times, was always “on”, telling jokes and making an impromptu show before whoever would listen, was just getting warmed up in the entertainment business. In 1906 he had married Nellie Bae Hamilton, a vaudevillian who understood him and his lifestyle, and they stayed married for the rest of his life. They had one daughter.
And so in 1912 the team split up and Murray moved into the nascent moving picture business with Biograph films to help fill the void left by Mack Sennett’s leaving to go on his own. He began with a one-reel comedy called Like a Cat, He Came Back. This led to primarily slapstick comedy roles in more than 80 short films in just two years. Finally, he joined Mack Sennett and his Sennett Keystone Film Company. Murray became one of the famous Keystone Cops in some films or played character roles such as an angry parent or frustrated storekeeper in others (often playing a character named Hogan, a crazy drunken laborer who would destroy rich people’s homes), his trademark being crescent moon chin whiskers and a terrible scowl usually shown in closeup after a frustrating experience. He also began appearing regularly in film with comedienne Louise Fazenda. By the later 1920s he was playing an Irishman in the highly successful Cohan and Kelly Universal Pictures series in which he played again an Irishman and teamed with George Sidney, the films lasting even up to 1933.
He remained a featured player or even star in two-reel comedies of the silent period. He was featured in many landmark films, often working with stars Charley Chaplin and Mabel Normand, including Tillie’s Punctured Romance (1914), Yankee Doodle in Berlin (1919) and the 1925 Wizard of Oz where he played the Wizard. He was in the classic early all-sound musical King of Jazz (1930) and continued his long association with Universal Pictures for many years as a character actor while also appearing in some Paramount-Christie comedy shorts which continued even into the mid 1930s with talking pictures.
For 26 years Murray appeared in short and feature films, doing his last one in 1938 and often appearing in his talking pictures as an Irishman. His total film output may never be known completely but it is in excess of 200 if one includes the one and two-reelers and features and may even have reached 300. The official count is 283! His total career in comedy spanned 55 years! Murray died of pneumonia in 1941.
The School of Anthropology of the University of Arizona is proud to have an original program from the fifth annual national tour of Murray and Mack in 1896 which cites their producer Joe W. Spears and indicates that they had been doing these tours since Murray was only 21 years old! At this time they were billing themselves as “The 20th Century Comedians” and “The Millionaire Mirth Monologists” and they often offered comedy plays with an Irish dialect theme, such as Finnigan’s Courtship. Mack was half a foot shorter and wore a mutton chop beard and a top hat while Murray performed with top hat and cane. The songs were generally comedic in nature but included racist black-themed fare as well as ballads.
The University of Arizona School of Anthropology also holds rare sheet music from the 1907 “new musical gaiety” starring Murray and Mack
entitled THE SUNNY SIDE OF BROADWAY. The book was by Charles Murray and Eugene Walters with lyrics and music by Boyle Woolfolk, pictured also on the cover. Includes photo of MURRAY AND MACK.
In the same collection is sheet music from the 1932 feature film The Cohans and Kellys in Hollywood starring George Sidney and Charlie Murray, a Universal Picture. Also shown on the cover of this music are co-stars Norman Foster and June Clyde. The song was composed by Bing Crosby, Irving Bibo and Paul McVey and was called Where Are You, Girl of My Dreams?
The University of Arizona School of Anthropology has the following items of Murray and Mack:
1892 Pressbook of the Fifth Annual Tour of MURRAY AND MACK, The 20th Century Comedians presenting that comedy FINNIGAN’S COURTSHIP. Published by Will Rossiter in Chicago. Includes sheet music from all of their songs. Management Joe W. Spears. “Millionaire Mirth Monologists”.
Where Are You Girl of My Dreams? 1932 – by Bing Crosby, Irving Bibo, Paul McVey. Sheet music. Featured in the film THE COHENS AND KELLYS IN HOLLYWOOD, starring George Sidney, CHARLIE MURRAY (formerly of Murray and Mack). Universal Pictures.