Marjorie Gottlieb Wolfe Marjorie Gottlieb Wolfe
Marjorie Gottlieb Wolfe Marjorie Wolfe
by Marjorie Gottlieb Wolfe

Jan Murray was a stand-up comedian. He was considered by many as the top banana of the “borscht belt” circuit. He was multi- talented as an actor, MC, game show host and raconteur. Following the advice of his show-biz idol, Al Jolson, he performed in mosques, wrestling arenas, skating rinks, and high school auditoriums.

Shown below is the Yiddish guide to Murray:

“akhtsn” (18)
Jan Murray began performing on the vaudeville stage at the age of 8.

Chabad “hoyz” (house)
In 1988, Murray hosted a television fundraiser for the Chabad House drug-rehabilitation program. He also co-hosted the annual West Coast Chabad Lubavitch telethon for many years.

“ersht” (first)
Jan Murray received his very first booking in 1933 at the Bronx Opera House, located at 436 E. 149th Street in the Bronx. It seated 1,900 on three levels and in box seats, and was considered the best theatre in the Bronx.

“farrekhn-konte” (charge account)
Murray began a new show, “Charge Account,” which he hosted from 1960-62.

He also was a guest star on such sitcoms as “Car 54, Where Are You?” and “The Lucy Show.”

Murray appeared in about 20 movies. He acted in the 1965 film starring Sal Mineo, Elaine Strich, and Juliet Prowse, “Who Killed Teddy Bear.” He also appeared in “A Man Called Dagger,” “Tarzan and the Great River,” and “The Busy Body.”

“fraynd” (friend)
Murray said, “I’ve found my friends are all here {L.A.]. This is where the action is, where it’s all happening.”

“froy” (wife)
Murray loved to joke about wives and usually made himself the target. One sample joke: “Sorry I’m late. That stupid wife of mine. She didn’t shovel the snow from the driveway this morning. She also forgot to put on the snow tires. And halfway to New York I realized she hadn’t dressed me.”

“geboyrn-tog” (birthday)
Jan Murray was born on Oct. 4, 1917, in the Bronx. His original “nomen” (name) was Murray Janofsky.

“haynt bay nakht” (Tonight)
Murray served as a guest host on The Tonight Show.

“hoyz” (house)
There was much “hilule” (hilarity) at the Murray home. His daughter, Diane Murray, said that the house was filled with comedians like Sid Caesar, Milton Berle, Shecky Greene and Buddy Hackett. They gathered for dinner and poker games.

“khasene” (marriage)
Murray married Pearl Cohen in 1939 and had a child with her. They divorced in 1949.

He married Kathleen (Toni) Mann in 1949 and had three children with her. Toni was a one-time Copacabana girl. He remained married to her until his death.

“komedye nakht” (comedy night)
Murray appeared as a guest on TV variety shows. He did not like the trend toward jokes about drugs and sex; he preferred to put down himself rather than politicians, ethnic groups, and other categories of people. His staple topics, besides himself: wives, airplanes, gambling, and current news events.

“golf” (golf)
Murray was an ardent golfer. He chaired the Comedians’ Golf Classic for several years held both in New York and California.

“meditsin” (medicine)
“farmutshet” (worn out, exhausted) Murray said, “Until I was 80, I wasn’t exhausted. There’s no medicine like being on stage hearing people laugh.”

“mitlshul” (high school)
Murray quit high school. He regretted this action and finally went back and earned his diploma in his forties.

He once joked, “How old am I? How old could I be? I just finished high school in 1962.”

“naket” (naked)
Murray told the story about a man jogging naked in front of the comedian’s house. “I ask him, ‘Why are you jogging naked in front of my house?’ He asks me, “Why did you come home so early?”

“nomen” (name)
Jan Murray changed his name when he began performing. One of his agents told him that Janofsky would not be an easy name for the audiences to remember. (FYI: Jack Benny was born Benjamin Kubelsky, Milton Berle was originally Milton Berlinger, and Joel Grey was born Joel David Katz.)

“oyftretn” (to act)
Murray entertained WWII USO troops. He also performed in Israel to raise funds for Hebrew University.

“por” (couple)
Murray’s production company was named Jantone Productions, named for the couple.

The most beloved gathering was the annual family seder. Murray’s guests included Sid Caesar, Buddy Hackett, Milton Berle, Jerry Lewis, Jack Carter, George Burns, Jack Benny, and Edward G. Robinson. Howard Murray, his son, said, “Mainly it was just a party that would last hours and hours.”

“shtime” (voice)
Murray had a gravel-toned voice.

“shviger” (mother-in-law)
Murray’s Irish Catholic mother-in-law from Mississippi, Bertie Murphy, once came to the seder. She was upset and pulled her daughter aside, “Kathleen, I’ve forgotten the rolls!” she said, not realizing that on Passover, Jews eat matzo and leavened bread is forbidden (“awser”). (Source: The New York Times, 7/7/2006)

“skandal” (scandal)
Murray was the creator and producer of the popular show, “Treasure Hunt,” which ran from 1956 to 1959. Though it was one of the most highly rated daytime shows, it was canceled in the wake of the scandals that centered on “Twenty One” and “The $64,000 Question.”

Contestants who won on “Treasure Hunt” got to pick among treasure chests which held anything from a head of cabbage (kroyt”) to a check for a large sum of money.

Murray’s integrity was never in question, even after two of his employees had to be fired for misconduct (taking money to let contestants on the show). Once the program was cleared, it was cancelled at Murray’s own request. (Source: “The Jewish Comedy Catalog” by Darryl Lyman)

“tate-mame” (parents)
Murray’s parents were Herman and Celia Janofsky. They were immigrants from Eastern Europe. “We’re not sure if they were from Poland or Russia,” Howard Murray said. “The border changed weekly in those days.” Mr. Janofsky worked in the garment industry.

Murray’s mother, Celia, died at age 42.

“tsuriktsien zikh” (to retire/stop working)
Murray retired from show business at the age of 83. His asthma was affecting his timing. He died on July 2, 2006, at the age of 89.

“tummler” (noisemaker)
Murray honed his craft as a tummler. Sid Caesar talks about tummlers at Kutsher’s Country Club in Monticello. “They were looking for someone like Mel Brooks, a person who was the life of the party, who was less a performer and more of a live wire who jumped around as a catalyst to encourage guests to become involved in activities.” (Source: “Caesar’s Hours - My Life in Comedy, With Love and Laughter” by Sid Caesar)

Jan Murray was a tummler at the Nevele Hotel. He told The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles in 2002, “In the morning, the fat ladies in the exercise room. I’d pass by and do shtick.” The Nevele bragged they had an opera singer, which raised them on a cultural level above the other hotels. Murray would get on the microphone and explain the stories behind the arias, giving the guests a little background on Verdi, Puccini. The people didn’t know who they were. (Source: “It Happened in the Catskills” by Myrna Katz Frommer & Harvey Frommer)

“untersheyd” (difference)
Murray said, “Comedians see life and people a little differently.”

“veyts” (wheat)
Murray tells this joke: “Russia needs our wheat. After all, you can’t expect them to invade a country on an empty stomach.”

“zamlen” (to collect)
Murray had a collection of matchbook covers from the many places where he had visited or entertained. He filed them neatly into albums.

“zeyde” (grandfather)
“elter-zeyde” (great grandfather)
Murray’s four children were Howard, Warren, Diane, and Celia. He had eight grandchildren and 2 great-grandsons.

“zup” (soup) routine
In one routine, Murray asked a customer to order chicken soup and then to change his mind. Murray plays the waiter (“der kelner”), approached the man and announced,
“We have two kinds of soup: chicken and pea.”
“I’ll take the chicken soup,” the customer ordered. “OK,”
Murray confirmed, “one chicken soup coming up.”
“Wait—I’ve changed my mind,” the customer ditifully added. “I’ll have the pea soup.”
Murray, to the offstage cook, shouted, “Hold the chicken—and make it pea!”


Marjorie Wolfe agrees with Sid Caesar that “When someone doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry, your comedy is working.” Jan Murray’s comedy worked beautifully!

Marjorie Wolfe
  Marjorie Gottlieb Wolfe