Murray’s Night Club
Murray’s Night Club in Beak Street, London was opened in late 1913 by Jack Mays, an American and Ernest A. Cordell, an Englishman. It was part of the cabaret boom inspired by the tango craze that had been sweeping Europe and the USA and emerged at the same time as other venues such as the 400 Club the Lotus and slightly later the Cosmopolitan, the Tabarin, Macfarlane’s and The Cave of the Golden Calf.
Not much is known about Jack Mays other than he came from Chicago, was originally Gerald Walter and that he had been involved in the nightclub business there but why he moved to London is anyone’s guess. Although he became an influential figure in London nightlife, he seemingly kept himself to himself. For some he was unpalatable. He was described by one person as ‘a very bad fellow’ and ‘for vice or money or both he induces girls to smoke opium in some foul place. He….. does a good deal of harm.’ To others he was a godsend, a pioneer of night-time entertainment in London, ‘a restless genius’ and ‘a popular and amusing character.’
Murray’s club stood on the site of the old Blanchard’s restaurant, formerly a famous coaching house constructed in the 1860s or early 70s. The entrance on Beak Street described as having a ‘severe frontage reminiscent of a bank or an office’ opened onto a hall out of which was a restaurant and thereafter a stairway led down to the main ballroom and dance floor below. This was a vast impressive room with a high ceiling; large chandeliers and the walls featured wood panels up half the walls. On one side was the dance area and on the other pillars to one side interspersed with tables and chairs. There was a great kitchen that catered for in excess of 400 diners, and behind the stage where the band played were dressing rooms for the entertainers.
At the outset Murray’s like so many of the other ‘nightclubs’ was predominately a members only club where people could meet, mingle, eat, drink and dance. There were always dancing acts as entertainment, and in 1914 for example, Marquis and Miss Clayton were appearing regularly at the Savoy, Murray’s, the 400 and the Lotus where they mostly demonstrated the Tango. By 1915 Arthur Mirador was the featured dancer at Murray’s.
Jack Mays set the tone for the growth of the ‘thé dansant’, which became a very fashionable accompaniment to the vogue of the Tango and staged successfully at Murray’s for a while. But as the novelty began to wear a little thin he introduced the idea of the ‘Super Tango Tea’ in April 1914. It was nothing more than a re-branding exercise but with the added bonus of a mini show. Firstly there were a series of tableaux featuring Chinese ladies in ‘Precious Pearl’ and ‘the Earthly Paradise’ with dances and music, followed by a series of Venetian Furlana dances. Next, an exhibition of the Hesitation, Valse, Maxixe and the Tango and finally a mannequin parade showing the latest Paris fashions. His strategy certainly succeeded and enthralled and re-vitalised London’s jaded seekers of amusement.
Despite the outbreak of war most of the nightclubs carried on, although many closed. Murray’s endured and opened every afternoon for dancing from 4.30-7pm and in the evening, from 11pm. Jack May also opened a summer venue at Maidenhead that became hugely popular.
After the war Murray’s continued to be one of London’s major venues and was regarded as ‘the hub of the English dancing world where new dances and new steps are tested by the best dancers in town…. It is a most pleasing place, artistic decorations, good things to eat and drink, a song or two, pleasing music and good dancing on an excellent floor.’
Not only was it a favoured place for dancing in the evening but also it was always busy in the afternoon for the thé dansant. A new Ozonair system had been installed throughout the building keeping the air fresh and pure and perfect for the dancers especially in the heat of the summer, which enabled summer opening (in the past the venue closed in the summer).
Then in late 1920 Mays imitated New York’s roof garden cabarets and introduced a cabaret show (it was not the first since the American Jack Haskell had staged a cabaret show at Ciro’s in 1917). The show was called Murray’s Frolics, featured the dancers Marjorie Moss and George Fontana and a young Gertrude Lawrence was one of the girls in the chorus.
By the spring of 1921 the show starred the dancers Ivy Collette and Marcel Breton with the Broadway Sextette band. Breton had studied dancing with Mde Astafieva and Collette was making her debut as a professional dancer but had been a prominent member of the Gaiety Company. George Fontana coached both.
In September 1922 a bigger and more ambitious show with eight numbers was staged at dinner and supper featuring the American actress Josephine Earle, the American dancer Hazel Shelley, Ernest Marini and a chorus of ten. Earle sang several songs and danced with Marini, with specialty dancing from Shelley. The chorus in one scene was dressed in costumes representing powder boxes with abundant fluffy underthings and in another they wore Hawaiian costume. These Hawaiian dresses bear an uncanny resemblance to the dresses designed by Dolly Tree and worn by the chorus accompanying Dorothy Dickson in her Hawaiian ‘Ka-Lu-a’ song from The Cabaret Girl, which was running at the time.
Sheridan Morley in his autobiography of Gertrude Lawrence described how Murray’s club provided ‘its upper-crust customers with the best floorshow in town, a carefully choreographed all-singing, all dancing extravaganza, a miniaturized version of one of the Cochran or Chariot revues. Its overriding attraction was that you could eat and drink, maybe even talk during the entertainment.’ In the autumn of 1922, Murray’s had become the talk of London with its sparkling song and dance show, which The Tatler described as ‘a very excellent revue-cum-cabaret entertainment.’
During the winter of 1922-1923, the club was closed and renovated and re-opened with its old name Blanchard’s. A new floor was installed and placed in the middle of the room not to the side as before. Once again the venue was to be open for tea and theatre dinners but dancing would not commence until 11pm and a new cabaret called The Midnight Revue was staged at midnight. This show, launched in the spring of 1923, featured Edith Baird’s Snapshots in two scenes, the first a gypsy camp with a chorus dressed as gypsies and the second featuring a range of dances including the Tarantelle and Pas de Valse.
In April 1923 it was announced that Harry Day, who controlled the revue productions at the Palladium, would be responsible for all the entertainments to be staged at Murray’s Club for the next 2 years. Seemingly, Day used condensed versions of his Palladium revues such as Rockets, Crystals and Radio’s for the cabaret. His first show titled Harry Day’s Crystal Cabaret was launched in mid April 1923. This was thought to be the first time that a full company of 50 performers had been seen in a dance club. The cast included the Royal North Octette, the Crystal dancing Belles and Douglas Byng. Day’s designer for his revues had been George Criscudo and in all probability he was also engaged to design the costumes at Murray’s. At the time Criscudo had designed the costumes for Pierre Lander’s cabaret show Brighter London Silver Cabaret, which was first staged at the Bedford Music Hall in March 1923, before appearing at leading vaudeville houses on the various circuits.
By May 1923 the show had become Rockets with Hilda Newsome, Levoi and Moran and the rocket dancers and thereafter in the summer a range of exhibition dancers featured. By October Murray’s was featuring the sensational exhibition dancers Quentin Todd and Vera Dent. The latter wore some delicious frocks including a panniered affair of shot gold and orange tinsel in which she did a Spanish dance and a jolly little long waisted, full skirted yellow georgette with flat velvet flowers.
In April 1924 it was announced that Jack May had sold Blanchard’s to London Restaurants Ltd, who already owned the popular Florence and Romano restaurants but retained his interest in Murray’s River Club Maidenhead. The place closed for a short while and was completely re-decorated and new, comfortable, well-padded settees surrounding the tables were added. Concealed lighting in attractive tabular shades of rainbow hues shone out from wide panels set against the walls like pictures in the palest pink with touches of green and yellow. The new cabaret show was called The Midnight Revue and the chorus girls in one number wore abbreviated frocks of silver tissue adorned with diamonds of black velvet with silver wigs. The stars of the show were the British dancing team of Claire Divina and Lawrence Charles who demonstrated their clever slow motion acrobatic dancing.
Murray’s or Blanchard’s continued to be popular and regularly staged new cabaret acts. In October 1924 the dancers Haroun and Yasmin featured and in March 1925 a new show was staged by Albert de Courville called Faites Vos Jeux direct from the Capitol Restaurant, Monte Carlo. In late 1925 acts were seemingly changed weekly, and for example, one week there was the juggler Harry Adams with the acrobatic balancing of Austel and Arthur followed the next week by the dance music of Sissle and Blake and dancers Carr and Parr.
The delightful surroundings were described as congenial with the wide and spacious staircase richly carpeted, the long and elegantly appointed dining and dance hall attractively decorated in brown, silver and grey and charmingly illuminated by scores of lights concealed beneath pink shades of tasteful design and long variegated coloured glass tubes. Mirrored panels were inset into the walls whilst mirrored columns supported the lofty ceiling.
By early 1926 the management of Murray’s appear to have expanded their activities and controlled the Cabaret Club and all cabaret artists appeared at both venues. In March the show was called the Midnight Merriments and included the dancers Renee and Godfrey, Iris Whyte, the juggler Eddie Gray and the singing and dancing of Edwin Henderson. By June the management also opened the Palermo Club with a show starring the hugely popular black singers Layton and Johnston and at some point they also took on the Cosmo Club. The cabaret at Murray’s was described as ‘…one of the best often reminiscent of a good music hall bill’ with acrobats, jugglers, ventriloquists, whistlers, mimics and dancers. Since at the time Jack May was described as Managing Director of the Cosmo Club, one wonders if he had bought back his interest in Murray’s.
Through 1927 and 1928, the short-lived cabaret scene was dipping through a slump, perhaps because after five years of fun and frolics the novelty value was fading. Some cabarets closed like the famous Midnight Follies at the Hotel Metropole, while others removed the ornate productions and chorus girls and simply staged one or two acts.
Murray’s continued its activities with a simpler format and in late 1927 the dancing duo of Graham and Barbara drew crowds, as did Deslys and Clark in April 1928. By early 1928 the entertainment was ‘very near variety as can be found and almost a high class modern twice nightly music hall bill’ and featured the Mizuni Trio of jugglers and equilibrists, the Roy Sisters in song and dance and the trio of speciality dancers Tom Fagen, Metrini and Leslie.
By March 1928 Murray’s was featuring Vladimir Zaaloff’s Russian Strolling Players in Balagantschina which was a sort of miniature Chauve Souris but without the announcer. Strikingly original, there were various musical numbers such as Outside a Russian Tavern, Nightingale and In Old Russia, along with the Roxana sisters in a comic polka and marionette dance.
Then in late 1928, Murray’s decided to return to full production with other venues promising to follow suit. At first Douglas Lyle and Ernest Cordell staged a mini-revue for the motor show week at midnight with Les Germains, Rallis Duo, Mai and Dorina, Faun and Fell and Whispering Band playing dance music until 2am. Then in early November Martin Adeson Junior launched Murray’s Frolics, a new show to be staged twice nightly at 10 and midnight with no American or Contintental stars and no-one with a big name. It did have the eight Duncan girls, Adeson, Cecily Compton, Quennie Pickford and Bruce Carfax in half a dozen musical numbers including a big number which was a revival of old time songs. The programme of acts changed weekly and the Frolics continued through the early part of 1929.
Al Tabor and his band (following a season of over 3 years at the Hammersmith Palais de Danse) with a supporting cabaret of the Honolulu Trio, Zelda and John Juan (Australian dancers) and the dancer Alma Mackie opened for a season in March 1928.
However, the cabaret scene was still not good and by the spring of 1929 there were only six nightclubs and three ‘bohemian’ clubs left in the whole of London. Despite this Murray’s kept going. In February 1930 it was reported that Jack May (one of the oldest nightclub operators in London) was being deported by the home office to America. Seemingly, May described as ‘suave, debonair and flashily dressed’ and ‘notorious French-Canadian’ had been under suspicion for many years of running his nightclub empire as a front for drug trafficking by a gang of Chinese, but had eluded suppression by the authorities.
Where Mays ended up and what happened to him is not known. By October 1932, ownership of Murray’s had passed to Beaumont Alexander, who had previous run the New Princes Hotel and Cabaret.
Later in the early 1930s, Percival Murray and his son David revived the name and created Murray’s Cabaret Club but in a different location at 16-18 Beak Street. The club flourished through the 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s, finally closing its doors in 1975.
All images and text © copyright Gary Chapman / Jazz Age Club and must not be re-used without prior consent
The Stage, the Era, Variety, Looker-on, the Encore, the New York Times, the Referee, Dancing Times, Brighter London, the Tatler, the Sketch, the Times, Dancing World
London and its Environs : Handbook for Travellers
Wilde’s last Stand by Philip Hoare
Wonderful London Edited by St John Adcock
Murray’s Nightclub was variously described as being at 1-7 Beak Street or 9 Beak Street.