A note to ticket holders for Chicago Takes Off, TPAN’s fifth annual striptease fund-raiser that undresses Saturday 5 at Park West: Prepare to get zinged. At last year’s show, host Murray Hill took playful aim at the preppy, mostly male crowd. “I can’t figure out if I’m in a room full of gay men or a room full of Republicans,” he quipped. It’s all good fun for the audience and all in a day’s work for Hill, a gender-bending showman whose polyester suits, Layrite-slicked hair and ad-libbed one-liners recall a Borscht Belt entertainer working a room in a Catskills nightclub circa 1954.
Taking his stage name from the Manhattan neighborhood of the same name, Hill likes to call himself “the Hardest Working Middle-Aged Man in Show Business,” a label the gender-bending performer (who isn’t fond of the term drag king) likes. Indeed, when I call Hill at his Brooklyn home one morning (actually, it’s 3pm but according to Hill, “Anything that’s before sundown is morning when you’re in showbiz, kid.”), he’s working on segment ideas for a TV pilot, prepping for a local gig and gearing up for this weekend’s Chicago shows.
Hill was tapped for last year’s Chicago Takes Off by local burlesque dancer Hot Toddy, who thought his retro style would fit the event’s “Classic TV” theme like a glove. Murray worked the room much like Dean Martin, Shecky Greene or Don Rickles. As he delivered rapid-fire one-liners and traded barbs with the crowd, the Park West in Lincoln Park morphed, if momentarily, into the Tropicana in Atlantic City.
Recent cameos in Showtime’s noir comedy Bored to Death and Taxicab Confessions are a long way from Hill’s nontheatrical beginnings. “I didn’t really do showbiz growing up,” the East Coast native says. “There’s none in my family, which is bizarre.” Instead, Hill moved to New York, where he worked as a photographer and shot heaps of drag shows. This neatly intersected with his grad school studies, which included assisting a filmmaker on a doc about the big band era called Swing. “If I had to place it, I would say it was that fusion,” Hill says, of “seeing the drag shows and learning about all these old-school entertainers.” Hill made his debut as an entertainer in 1995.
Through the years, gay, straight and trans crowds have discovered Hill’s smarmy charms, but he says he fits in with neither stand-up comedy’s boys-club mentality nor the gender-bending world dominated by drag queens and female impersonators. “A lot of drag doesn’t seem like it’s evolved all that much,” he laments. “There hasn’t really been any change in visibility from then to now, which kind of blows my mind. RuPaul’s back and he’s from the ’80s, for Christ’s sake.”
Since the mainstream doesn’t always “get” him, Hill says he circumvents the traditional routes by creating his own opportunities. He cohosts a Monday night bingo game, for example, at the Bowery Poetry Club, founded and hosts the Annual Miss LEZ Pageant and frequently gets booked for nightclub or burlesque-type shows, like Chicago Takes Off. “I never sit around waiting for a phone call,” Murray says. “I’m always creating opportunities and going out and doing shows and getting booked. In some ways I’m more successful than other comedians, but in other ways I am so original that the mainstream is like, ‘I don’t know what to do with this guy.’ ”
In Chicago, Hill will have his second go-around as master of ceremonies for the LGBT community’s sexiest night out. If last year’s performance is any indication, expect to be impressed. Hill says the feeling is mutual. “I was blown away,” he says. “It was like Broadway in a damn nightclub. Chicago’s supposed to be a cold, mean place, but you have very warm homosexuals over there.”
Hill hosts Chicago Takes Off at the Park West Saturday 5.