One of things I love most about living in London is the continual discovery of places old and new; some an integral part of London life now, others a key player years ago.
Today, I experienced both worlds, having been invited to Century Club for an exhibition & talk about the legendary Murray’s Cabaret Club. ‘Century’ is one of those places you wouldn’t notice unless someone points it out to you, nestling discreetly by a far more conspicuous Bella Italia. It’s a delight inside: classy, in an understated way – and offering the largest rooftop terrace in Soho. A great environment, then, for us to learn more about what was once London’s hottest nightspot.
Believe it or not, the original Murray’s was founded by a Chicago gangster, Jack Murray, in 1913, on Soho’s Beak Street. In those days, Regent Street separated vice in Soho from money in Mayfair – and opium and cocaine were traded across Murray’s dance floor. After May was deported, for bribing the police to turn a blind eye, Percival Murray (no relation) set up a new Murray’s Cabaret Club, just across the road. He had very different ideas for the Club: read on to find out more…
Percival Murray’s vision saw him employ a 130-strong staff: classically-trained choreographers, witty lyricists, celebrated band leaders and skilled seamstresses. Alongside the dancers and showgirls, they pioneered the art of the cabaret floorshow. Two shows a night, comprising three themed numbers, danced in elaborate costumes based on all sorts of themes: Latin America, Chinatown and Pygmalion, to name but a few. All of the costumes were hand-made – and their glamour and elegance provided a wonderful contrast to a drab, post-war London.
This was the kind of entertainment previously only seen in conventional theatres such as Windmill’s – the difference being that in Murray’s, there was no divide between stage and audience, as shown in the wonderful black & white British Pathé footage that we watched.
Needless to say, Murray’s didn’t allow just any old person through its hallowed portals. A strict door policy saw non-members turned away from this intimate basement venue, which attracted both the racy and the respectable: royalty, film stars, politicians and gangsters. Prince Philip and Princess Margaret were both members, as were The Krays and Winston Churchill (the latter hid behind a screen, to avoid being recognised). Every big name of the day wanted to perform there, with Shirley Bassey, Eartha Kitt and The Andrews Sisters all making appearances.
Percival Murray was known for treating the people who worked for him well. His showgirls and dancers all attended a ‘charm school’ at his country estate, where they learned a “night club accent”, and he frequently took groups of them on holiday to glamorous locations such as the South of France.
In turn, these women got to wear the most fabulous costumes – the inspiration behind this exhibition. 300 exquisite costume illustrations were recently discovered in the attic of Elsie Birchmore, Murray’s head seamstress, by her niece. They date from Murray’s heyday in the 1950s, up to the early 1960s – and feature glorious designs by the legendary theatrical designers Ronald Cobb, Hilda Wetton and Michael Bronze.
Given its illustrious clientele and spectacular shows, you won’t be surprised to hear that Murray’s played a key role in 20th century history. Christine Keeler, Mandy Rice-Davis and Ruth Ellis were all employed there as dancers – and it’s where Christine Keeler was introduced to Stephen Ward…and John Profumo. Yes, you could argue that Murray’s Cabaret Club brought down a government.
Political scandal aside, the advent of the 1960s and competition in the form of Playboy Club saw Murray’s star fading. Once ahead of its time, its recipe of mild titillation and sophisticated entertainment began to look dated. The Club had had its day – and those incredibly expensive costumes and floorshows eventually forced Murray’s to close its doors, in 1975.
There’s no doubting Murray’s place in popular culture – or the fact that it brought some light and laughter back to a city bruised and battered by two world wars. Massive appreciation should go to the Museum of Soho for organising this exhibition and ensuring that the Club’s memory lives on; it’s a fitting tribute to Percival Murray and all that he set out to achieve.