Ross Murray – September 12th, 2009

101_0016Ross Murray will turn 91 on Wednesday, September 16th and he graciously agreed to meet at his home for a chat about his life both before moving to the Valley nearly thirty years ago and since.
Ross was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1918 to Harry and Sydelle, both of Russian descent, whose families had lived in the States for a few generations. His father was a children’s clothes designer who throughout Ross’s childhood and teenage years remained “an irresponsible ladies man” embarking on many affairs. “As a result, my sister Shelley (seven years younger) and I had a very insecure childhood, never knowing if Dad was going to be at home – he’d disappear for a week or more at a time. On top of this we were always moving with his job. I attended six different elementary and grammar schools and five different High Schools. I had to make friends very quickly and learned to adapt quite well as we moved from New York, to Virginia, and on to New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and back to New York again where I graduated from High School in the Bronx in 1935.”
Ross entered Temple University to study pre-med and during his time there he fell and broke his right elbow which never healed correctly, something that was to be of significance a few years later. After two years at college, Ross decided he had to get away and in 1937 moved with his mother and sister to southern California where they stayed with his mother’s cousin in Los Angeles. “It was the end of my college career as I felt I had to get a job and support my mother and sister. I had a couple of friends in the rapidly expanding movie business and, even though I had no formal training, I had been in the dancing club at school as a kid, so I signed up for Central Casting – the agency that supplied all the studios with extras.”
Not only was Ross at just the right age to play a military man in the many “soldier pics” being made as war loomed, he also had many of the required skills – “I could dance, ride a horse, ice skate, and had fenced on the college team. Things were slow at first but I found a job as an usher at a cinema/theatre in Beverly Hills and one day a customer came up to me and told me to call her at 5am to see what movie extra work might be available. She was a casting director and took a liking to me, and immediately found me steady work. I made some money from appearing in war movies but mostly from dancing in the chorus lines behind the likes of Fred Astaire, Betty Hutton, Shirley Temple, Eleanor Powell, Olympic ice skater Sonja Henie, and also the Andrews Sisters – many years before my wife Joyce was to join them, but a strange coincidence all the same.”
In the late thirties the draft was instituted but Ross was designated as 2A – the sole supporter of a family. It meant he would not have to go to war. “I remember seeing Ronald Reagan often in his military uniform around the studios at that time and he was always talking about wanting to go and ‘kill some Japs.’ It was all talk and he spent the entire war working at Hal Roach Studios.”
In December 1941, the U.S. declared war on Japan and just two weeks later Ross was going through a physical at the Naval Air Corps. “I wanted to do my bit. I had been interested in planes since a child and had flown with friends many times. However, even though they failed to notice my bad right arm – I cannot straighten it without using my left hand – I had a deviated septum in my nose and was turned down. I had this fixed but when I went back I was now 23 and told I was too old – they wanted 19 and 20 year olds, like George Bush Sr.”
“I fussed and fumed for a month or more before going to Santa Ana to the Army Air Corps. They also failed to spot my bad elbow and I passed the physical, one major telling me that the Navy’s loss was the Army’s gain. By late 1942 I was Private Ross Murray and in March 1943 I began my aviator training. Because of my elbow, one maneuver was difficult for me and I thought I would get rejected but it turned out that in multi-engine planes your right arm is for the throttle only, you flew with your left so I was fine. I graduated at the end of the year at Roswell Army Base in New Mexico and became the pilot for bombardier students who were learning how to drop bombs, became a training officer soon after.”
“In 1944 the B17 bombers arrived and around that time I became the Operations Officer of the base, organizing the training program and so, despite constantly looking to get overseas, I was now tied to the base on the new bombers… Then at the end of the year the new B29’s arrived, much bigger bombers, and my Colonel allowed me to go and train on these at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, Arizona, so that I might finally get a chance to go overseas. He had fought at the Battle of Midway and said I was a ‘dumb son of a bitch’ for wanting to go and fight. I completed my training just a few days before they dropped the atomic bombs and the war came to an end. I had busted my ass trying to help in some way and was a very, very frustrated young man. It was something that bothered me for years, not really going away until after meeting Joyce and she explained that ‘A’ for effort was fine.”
In 1944, while in the Army Air Corps and on leave, Ross had married a girl he had known in show business – “she probably wanted to collect on my life insurance, a lot of that went on” – and it had lasted three days. Then a year later he got married again, to a woman who sang with the Ted Lewis Orchestra and whom he had booked to perform for the troops at the Air Base. ‘We were together for over twenty years but there were many difficulties. We had three kids and I got custody when we divorced.”
“I thought about staying in the service at the end of the war but I had met a writer and he said I had talent and offered me a job. I left the military and returned to civilian life only to be told that the job was no longer there for me. I was very upset indeed and returned to the picture business, becoming the stand-in for Peter Lawford (later of Rat Pack fame) for two years.”
Ross looked for and found a change of direction in 1949 when he began work for C.B.S. Radio as a sounds effect editor on dramatic shows/plays, while on the side he started to write mysteries for radio broadcasts. “Writing was something I’d always wanted to do but initially my work was heard only on regional broadcasts. Everyone can do one story but can they do a second? I did and sold it to network radio for airing around the country and for the next eight years I wrote at least four shows a year – mysteries, comedies, and romance, featuring such names as Ronald Reagan and Broderick Crawford.”
“Old men tend to be history revisionists as nobody can correct them, particularly if they get to be ninety-one years old! Here are my plays – I am not making this stuff up.” Ross then proceeded to show me a number of the scripts for his plays, each in its original binder with the title and date of airing.
As for his regular job, in 1954 Ross was moved from radio to a 6am television show in a move he did not want. “I did not understand it but a friend told me that the Engineering Head did not like the fact that I was meeting producers and directors through my writing. This was show business and I had come to understand the frequent jealousies of ‘small’ people. I nearly left C.B.S. to concentrate on writing but I had responsibilities and needed the steady job so I stayed and the opportunity passed me by. Besides, I had a good job and enjoyed what I was doing.”
Radio began to ‘die’ in the late fifties and Ross stopped his play writing in 1958, concentrating on starting and developing the videotape-editing department for C.B.S. television in Television City with three others. “We worked on many different projects and went on to win Emmy’s for our efforts on the 1960 Winter Olympics and Play House 90 (a ninety-minute television drama), but by 1962 I figured I’d done what I could in that department and thought it was time to ‘go upstairs’ – where ‘show business’ was happening!”
I returned to sound effects and began work on the Danny Kaye Show, for which I was to receive my third Emmy. I was there for four years and for about a year of that Joyce appeared with the Andrews Sisters on the show but I was so involved in my work that I didn’t even get to meet her. I was obsessed with my job and helped on the Red Skelton Show too, staying on there when the Danny Kaye Show came to an end…Life at home was not particularly happy and we were divorced in 1968 and I received custody of our three teenage boys – David, Timothy, and Fred.”
In 1969 Ross became the sound effects editor on the Carol Burnett Show and would remain there until the show came off the air in 1978. “In 1970 I became the Head of the Sound Effects Department for C.B.S. Television but still got to stay with the Burnett show. I had met Joyce in 1971 and we were married in 1973. Life was very good and working on that show was an absolute delight. Carol was wonderful; very, very nice and easy to get along with, and her husband (and the Show’s producer), Joe Hamilton, was a great guy. The whole cast was so much fun, such good people, and we spent many great years in the company of the likes of Harvey Korman, Tim Conway, Vicky Lawrence etc – it was a very close group and always very professional. During that time I remember going to the home of Joyce’s friend, Maxine Andrews of the Andrews Sisters and she showed me an old picture of me dancing with the Sisters many years before, as I mentioned earlier. It was before Joyce had joined them and I now have that photograph on the wall.”
Ross stuck around at C.B.S. for a couple of years after the end of the Burnett Show but by 1980 he and Joyce were ready to leave Los Angeles and “the rat race it had become.” An old screenwriting friend, Michael Kraike, had retired to Elk on the Mendocino coast in northern California and Ross and Joyce visited him and “fell in love with the area.” Local realtor, Mike Shapiro started to show them properties and they bought forty acres a couple of miles outside Boonville in the hills and woods on Mountain View Road. Ross designed and helped to build the house. “During that summer of 1980 we were living in a mini van with a stove and small fridge and had the garage built first which became our bedroom for about four months while the house was being built by contractor Joe Cave, Michael’s son-in-law. Two of the first local people we met were Bill and Nancy Charles who one evening came to welcome us with a bottle of champagne as we sat reading our books by lantern light in the garage. It was very touching to be welcomed like that and we have remained close friends ever since.”
Ross felt that on retirement people should try if they can to bring something to a community – “for a while, why you still can” – so he joined the Chamber of Commerce, later becoming its President. He also joined the Mendocino Development Association; was on the Grand Jury, later its foreman for a year; became Commander of the American Legion; and soon became good friends with many local people such as Margaret Charles, Ray and Kathryn Ewbanks, Lee Sidwell, Post Mistress Peggy Bates, and Art and ‘Barky’ Korpella. Ross also continued his interest in flying at the Boonville Airport (he still has his flying license) through which he and Joyce later met another circle of friends – The Airport Crowd as they are affectionately known today, and who meet most Friday evenings at alternating houses.
Sometime around 1999, Carroll Pratt, board member of the local public radio station, KZYX & Z, suggested Ross do a radio show. “Carroll and I knew of each other from our film and television days in southern California, and we had both flown bombers, so I listened to what he had to say and began a one hour a month show in which I just talked about politics and current affairs – that was it. It ran from 2000 to 2004 before I decided it was too much and since then I have continued to produce my five-minute commentary once a week at 6.30pm on Thursdays (repeated on Monday mornings at 8am). I just tell you what is happening, what you might not hear elsewhere; it is not an opinion show in the strict sense. I enjoy it very much and I’ll continue to do it as long as I can… I have noticed a big difference in my energy levels over the past couple of years – no more chain saw work for me – and there is a huge difference between being 71 and 91. It is annoying but I’m here and that’s all I care about – here with Joyce.”
“Thank you” said Joyce from across the room. “You betchya, babe,” Ross replied with a big smile.
I asked Ross for his brief responses to some of the issues confronting Valley people at this time… The Wineries? – “Look, life is a continually changing landscape – literally in this case. This Valley used to be an apple valley, now it is grapes. Fifty years from now, who knows? Overall I am positive about the wineries – they supply jobs and are relatively clean – we hope. The water is a problem here but it’s a huge problem worldwide thanks to global warming. We must use our intellect to figure out efficient ways to use ocean water at some point. Water doesn’t go away, it just goes to different places”… The Radio Station? – “I have to always give it an ‘A’ for effort. The recession has hit it badly and the people there are doing their best under the circumstances”… The A.V.A. newspaper? – “Like the radio station it is people giving their time for the good of the community. It takes a certain kind of person to do this and they do the best they can; some do better than others”… Marijuana production? – “It should be legalized. At the end of prohibition, which I remember, they said legalizing alcohol would encourage everyone to get drunk – I distinctly remember that being said. Well it didn’t. Social security was said to be the biggest fraud ever perpetrated on the U.S. public – I heard that on a newsreel in 1936. How wrong people can be. It’s the same with marijuana. Everyone’s going to smoke it? – Give me a break.”
I asked Ross for his choice for the Mayor of Anderson Valley, if such a position was created with the power to make a difference. “Me!… No, not really, although some people wanted me to run for Supervisor in the eighties but Joyce said that if I did run for any sort of public office I’d win, and then she’d have to divorce me.”
To end the interview, as I do each week, I posed a few questions to Ross, most of which are from a list originally devised by French Interviewer and Culture “Expert”, Bernard Pivot, and were featured on television’s “Inside the Actors Studio with James Lipton”…
What is your favorite word or phrase? – “I don’t think I really have just one. I am not a creature of habit to use just one word or phrase that often.”

What is your least favorite word or phrase? – “You’re ninety-one years old!”

What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally? – “Anything I can see beauty in – writing, scenery, women, many things.”

What turns you off creatively, spiritually or emotionally? – “Narrow-mindedness.”

What sound or noise do you love? – “The wind in the trees – we get that a lot up here.”

What sound or noise do you hate? – “Helicopters.”

What is your favorite curse word? – “Bullshit!”

Is there a film/song/book that has greatly influenced you in some way? – “Well a book that I have always remembered is ‘The Life and Work of Leonardo DaVinci’ – he did everything. As for films, anything with Ingrid Bergman in it. I worked with her several times and in ‘Joan of Arc’ I was the stand-in for Jose Ferrer, playing opposite her. She was very special, but vulnerable.”

What is your favorite hobby? – “Writing.”

What profession other than your own would you like to attempt? – “Well I went to college to be a doctor but circumstances changed things. As Joyce knows I’m still an amateur doctor.” (They both laughed)

What profession would you not like to do? – “Probably a bookkeeper,”

What was the happiest day or event in your life? – “Meeting and marrying Joyce was the highlight of my life. We have had thirty-eight wonderful years together – I get choked up just thinking about it. I am just so grateful we managed to finally meet.”

What was the saddest? – “I have had quite a lot of sadness in my life from time to time…I guess disappointment rather than sadness was from not getting that writing job that was promised to me at the end of the war. It still bugs me, I left the military for that.”

What is your favorite thing about yourself – physically/mentally/spiritually? – “My adaptability. I have always been able to adapt to various circumstances, situations, and disappointments because of what happened to me in my childhood. I have learned to ride out the negatives.”

Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? – “Well if God is a man then perhaps he is looking for a buddy and so “I’ve been waiting for you” would be good. If God is a woman, “Welcome aboard” would work – being God, she’d know I was married to Joyce so I couldn’t really be her buddy, could I?”

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Published in: on September 23, 2009 at 8:29 pm  Comments (4)  

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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Hi…Is Ross Murray still alive?

    • To Joseph Horowitz, Just read your reply to Ross’s article. Ross is alive and well and headed to 94. His wife just broke his ankle and I’m sure he would enjoy a reply from you. I don’t know if he uses his email address anymore but it is royce@pacific.net. His phone number is:
      707-895-3697.

      Colette

  2. Just read article on Ross Murray from 2009. This is my cousin. I have been searching the family tree and trying to locate relatives still alive. Would you know if he is still alive and how to contact him? You can give him my email address if you wish and inform him that his mother and my grandmother were sisters.

  3. To Bonnie Horowitz, Just read your reply to Ross’s article. Ross is alive and well and headed to 94. His wife just broke his ankle and I’m sure he would enjoy a reply from you. I don’t know if he uses his email address anymore but it is royce@pacific.net. His phone number is:
    707-895-3697.

    Colette


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