Performer Murray Hill Talks Burlesque, Brooklyn and Too Much Glitter
WILLIAMSBURG — Real New Yorkers know that the most important Murray Hill in the city isn’t a Manhattan neighborhood. It’s the Borscht Belt-style comedian who has for nearly 20 years brought retro charm to New York’s nightlife.
A longtime collaborator with the Pontani Sisters and Dita Von Teese, Hill’s master of ceremonies performances for some of the city's best-known burlesque shows are as entertaining as the cabaret dancers themselves.
Hill’s old-school approach to entertainment has earned him many friends in the industry, which has lead to the creation of The Murray Hill Show, which will take place Saturday at the Gramercy Theater, with special guests Ad-Rock, Peaches, Bridget Everett, Dirty Martini and Champagne Jerry.
Hill spoke with DNAinfo about the upcoming show, 18 years living in Williamsburg and why there is such a thing as too much glitter.
It’s surprising to learn you do not live in the neighborhood that is your namesake (or perhaps we should say, the neighborhood named after you). Did you ever live in Murray Hill, or would that have been too confusing?
Ha! I did live in Murray Hill, as Murray Hill, when I first moved to New York. Oh s--t, that does sound confusing. I'd see my name everywhere and I'd think I was Donald Trump: Murray Hill Cleaners, Murray Hill Cinemas, Murray Hill Post Office. It goes on. Showbiz!
You’ve lived in Williamsburg for 18 years. Given how drastically the neighborhood has changed over the past decade, what do you miss the most?
I miss many places, but mostly people. I truly miss the storytellers. My first landlord in Williamsburg was the sweet, 85-year-old Anna Napolitano. You know how I first got the apartment, I went and had coffee with her. She liked me and I was half-Italian. That was it, no lease, credit check or anything. She used to tell me great stories about the neighborhood. Nuns would pay her a nickel to get beer for them. There were no cars when she was there, [just] horse-drawn cabbies. Her father delivered blocks of ice for a living, and hated when freezers came out. She told me stories about putting warm bricks in the bed for heat. I could go on!
What do you make of the people who are new to the neighborhood?
It's upsetting that many of my creative friends have had to leave because of the insane rents. In the '90s, if you ate at a place in Brooklyn, it meant it was going to be cheaper than Manhattan no matter what. A burger used to be $7 and coffee, a dollar!
My all-time Murray-five-star-dining is at Chez Josephine's on 42nd Street, run by the legendary Jean-Claude Baker. If you haven't eaten there and been swept up in the romance, you haven't really experienced New York.
Where do you like to go for a drink in Williamsburg? Where do you like to dine in the area?
My favorite place for a drink is Oslo Coffee. I love the entire staff and the coffee is amazing. For the best burger in the neighborhood, I hit Five Leaves. I'm watching my weight, so I'm there about once a month. I also hit up St. Anselm's when I need a steak in walking distance.
A big part of your career has involved acting as the master of ceremonies for burlesque performances. What's your least favorite part of the gig?
There's really not too much to complain about working with women, especially backstage. However, something that does challenge my nervous system [is] glitter and makeup. It's always the nights when I just picked up my tux from the dry cleaner when one of the showgirls tassel-twirls all over me. My suits are ingrained with glitter. Well, I guess that's showbiz!
You've performed at so many venues in the city. Which are your favorites?
Most of my favorite venues have closed! My all-time favorite was Fez on Lafayette Street. It felt like a private, underground, showbiz clubhouse. Some of the staff moved over to Joe's Pub and are still there. Joe's Pub is great — any stage where I can see the audience and feel like we're all in it together is the best for me and the kind of comedy I do. I love performing at the swank supper club Duane Park with a full band. I recently started a comedy night at Jazz Room in The General and this room with its red leather banquettes reminds me of Fez.
What inspired you to put together The Murray Hill Show?
You know, I'm always doing everyone else's shows. I thought it was time to do my own show again. Do it big, like, real big! I got my band The Rimshots with me and my favorite performer pals. I recently did a week of shows with Dita Von Teese at The Gramercy and had a blast. Gramercy is all pro and has the best crew and staff, so I just had to do my show there, too!
You've got Ad-Rock, Peaches, Bridget Everett and Champagne Jerry as guests at this show. If you were to put together a variety show featuring only those stars who are no longer alive, who would you have and why?
Yes, it's a show of massive personalities and big talents. We're like the modern day Rat Pack of misfits. The entire cast is a true original in their own right. It's going to be explosive! We'll have to offer meditation afterwards or pass out Xanax to the customers on the way out.
My version of this variety show, but back in the day would be simple: Dean Martin, Rusty Warren, Totie Fields, Sammy Davis Jr., and Judy Garland. Zing!