Blackpool Museum Project is thrilled to introduce local award-winning writer, speaker and broadcaster, Barry McCann who has written this week’s blog post. He has chosen to investigate the illustrious Murray.
Magic in Blackpool
Blackpool’s history boasts a number of iconic shops and their memorable owners, such as “Uncle Bill” of Bill’s House of Jokes and Smokey Joe’s Record Emporium on Church Street. But there was one that remained magical for generations of children and would be magicians alike. It was run by a retired Australian magician and escapologist who lent his name to the outlet, Murray’s Magic Mart.
Leo Norman Maurien Murray Stuart Carrington Walters (1901-1988) was originally from Melbourne, Australia and became known as the suave looking Magician, Murray, who also specialised in daring escapes.
The Escapologist Emerges
He began his career at age 14, and for a time worked in the Sloggetts show before launching a successful series of worldwide tours spanning nearly 40 years. With “Murray the Escapologist” being a major part of his act, he became especially popular after the death of Harry Houdini in 1926. While he popularised the term Escapologist, it is likely he got it from a quote by Houdini during a visit to Melbourne in 1910 when he said “If I might be allowed to coin a word, I would call myself an escapologist.”
Murray toured the world during the 1930s and 1940s with a full evening magic and illusion show. His own working philosophy on stage magic was “The two most essential things for a conjurer to possess is audacity and bluff”. And he certainly had both in abundance.
He appeared in London during 1933, the show including Shooting Through a Women, The Pin Cushion Girl, Selected Cards on a Sword, The Girl Without a Middle, Siberian Handcuff Escape and climaxed with Escape from a Slotted Box while Immersed in a Tank of Water.
The Great Escape
He played a season in Germany during 1939 and was even visited backstage by Hitler and Goring. However, he had to escape the county on a bicycle when World War Two broke out to avoid arrest and interment as an alien. There was no choice but to leave his props, scenery and costumes behind, a small amount of which he recovered after the war. When asked why he had not evacuated earlier, Murray replied “I though sanity would prevail – but it didn’t.”
Ill health forced him to retire from showbiz in 1954 and he settled in Blackpool to open his first Murray’s Magic Mart on King Street, opposite the stage door of the Hippodrome which then became the ABC.
Fylde based magician Leslie Melville recalled visiting this first shop and chatting to Murray when Tommy Cooper popped in to have a look round. Spying a shelf full of gag books by the American Robert Orben, Cooper asked if he could look through them and started sorting the volumes into two piles. Murray’s hopes of a big sale were dashed when Copper picked up one of the piles, asking “Can I borrow these, Murray?”
The shop later moved to Cookson Street, where it sold jokes and tricks, including some custom made box tricks by Jack Gillespie. Not surprisingly, it became a favourite haunt for aspiring and practising magicians, of whom Murray was very encouraging and supportive.
He once told Leslie Melville that his mind reading act was one that would “Receive applause at the breakfast table,” meaning it would be talked about long after it was seen.
Those who bought books on magic from the shop are blessed with unique collector’s items. Not only was each book individually stamped with “Murray’s Magic Mart” but their pages often sported his thumb print, a result of him reading his own stock while munching buttered Ryvita’s.
The Illustrious Proprietor
Many who visited the shop in later years would have no idea about the illustrious proprietor. That was certainly the case when two young thugs once entered with knives and attempted to force the seemingly harmless 80 year old to part with money, an undertaking that those who knew him would deem an impossible task. Murray set about the pair with a broomstick and they ran out of the shop screaming.
Local resident, Bev Carroll fondly remembers Murray’s Magic Mart:
“Around our street we called him magic Murray because he always seemed to appear as if by magic in his shop. My brother and I would always ask for pocket money to go and get something from magic Murray. When we would play with the kids who were staying in the street on holiday, we used to take them there too.”
In 1986, Murray received the Masters Fellowship the Academy of Magical Arts. The shop closed down in 1987, and he sadly passed away on 22nd January 1989, aged 87. But his memory lives on as Murray’s Magic Mart has since become a part of Blackpool folklore.
(My special thanks to Leslie Melville for sharing his anecdotes of Murray with me).