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Arthur Murray (1895-1991) and Arthur Murray Dance Studios

By Libby Smigel

The Arthur Murray Dance Studios have become a ubiquitous presence around the world, despite changes in dance fashion over almost ninety years.  The silhouetted dancing couple that adorns Arthur Murray Dance Studios advertisements and storefronts has become a recognizable sign of reputable dance instruction and romantic connotations associated with forms of ballroom dance.  The hallmark footprint patterns in Murray’s dance instructions that date back to the 1920s have also become a pervasive visual symbol of ballroom dance. 

Early Life and Initial Success

Murray was born Moishe Teichman.  His family immigrated to New York from a region then known as the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  The young Murray took up dancing for his health, grew to love it, and met new dance partners as a self-admitted wedding crasher.  He abandoned plans to become an architect or draftsman after winning a prize for his waltz at the Grand Central Palace in 1912 and accepting an opportunity to teach dance at G. Hepburn Wilson Dance Studios.  Many new social dances of this period were enjoyed by the young set for their freedom and novelty, but were disparaged by the privileged classes as uncouth or erotic.  Perhaps with a wealthy client group in mind, Murray’s preferences initially inclined toward the more refined styles, and he studied and eventually taught for the famous American dance duo Vernon and Irene Castle

In 1914, the Baroness de Kuttleston persuaded Arthur Murray to move to affluent Asheville, North Carolina, to tutor aristocrats in dance at the elegant Battery Park Hotel.  With the growing anti-German and anti-Jewish reactions during World War I, he shed his birth name and assumed the more culturally neutral name by which he is remembered.  Although successful in his Asheville venture, when he discovered that the Baroness kept 90% of the $50 lesson fee, Murray moved to Atlanta, Georgia, in 1919 with aspirations to set up a business autonomously. 

Enrolled in business studies at Georgia Tech, Murray augmented his income by teaching social dances at the Georgian Terrace.  He marketed dance lessons in 1920 by promoting the first “radio dance,” for which he arranged for a campus band to broadcast dance music to Georgia Tech students partying atop Atlanta’s Capital City Club.  Murray also used new technology, creating films to be played on kinetoscopes, as a way to make dance lessons a mail-order business.  The kinetoscope, which was applied to first commercial uses in the 1890s, exhibited moving images within a cabinet box by advancing a film strip with sequential images over a light source.  Kinetoscope strips were, however, ill-suited to mail delivery, with many of the packages arriving damaged. 

Always seeking ways to reach more prospective dance students, Murray integrated his training in architectural drawing and created diagrams for a direct-mail dance-lesson business called the Arthur Murray Mail-Order School of Dance.  Perhaps an early example of distance-learning, instructions for popular social dances were represented by sets of numbered footprints that corresponded to the order and rhythm of the dance patterns described in accompanying written instructions.  After distributing an estimated five million mail-order lessons by 1925, this service was discontinued during the Depression because of rising rates for magazine advertisements and a shrinking number of customers able to afford mail-order subscriptions.

In 1938, Murray published his dance manual How to Become a Good Dancer, which was reissued and updated in many editions.  The book codifies his dance technique, much of which appropriates from earlier ballroom dance manuals the five positions and turnout of the feet of ballet.  The business-minded Murray recognized the appeal of a high-art form, the classical ballet, to those who were affluent or who harbored social aspirations.  His technique emphasized stepping out onto the ball of the foot, where many other contemporary dance teachers permitted a stride that more closely resembled walking.  His earlier association with the Castles, famous for their “Castle Walk” one-step which relied on toe-stepping for the precise speed and look of the steps, may have influenced Murray’s long-standing preference for dancing with the weight lifted high and the stance on the ball. Murray’s manual emphasizes the health benefits of proper dancing and includes an “apology for dancing,” offsetting some of the negative perceptions of the 1930s “taxi dance halls,” where women were paid to partner men, and “dance marathons,” contests of stamina that provided a monetary prize for the couple who could remain upright in a snug ballroom position for the longest time.  With his publication, Murray sought the traditional appeal of American and European dance manuals but also accompanied the $1.96 book with a strategic innovation: the Murray Magic Footprints, the set of eight cutout footprints that a novice could place on the floor to practice the order of the dance steps.

From 1923 on, Murray established his own dance studio on East 43rd Street in Manhattan and was also in great demand in Los Angeles where he coached many Hollywood stars.  In its first fifteen years, his New York studio took over eight floors of its building, served an estimated 3,000 dance pupils each day, and grossed about $500,000 annually.  Murray engaged about 260 employees with a weekly payroll of $8,000, an enormous sum at the time.  Murray preferred to hire young Southern women as instructors, whom he characterized as forceful but gracious extroverts.  His female faculty served the preferences of both his women pupils and his businessman clients over age forty.  A favorite businessman’s lesson package was a set of twenty lessons for $100.

The Studio Empire

Over the years, his list of dance students became a Who’s Who of public figures, including First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, philanthropist John D. Rockefeller, Jr., orchestra leader Paul Whiteman, cosmetics entrepreneur Elizabeth Arden, photographer Margaret Bourke-White, actresses Myrna Loy and Ina Clare, Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton, writer/broadcaster Lowell Thomas, and boxer Jack Dempsey.  Murray divided his own time between the East and West Coasts, where his dance lessons were in high demand, while developing the nationwide studio system that bears his name, largely from the interest of the Statler hotels that wanted Murray-trained instructors available at all of its hotels.

Murray expanded his dance empire with the establishment of what is believed to be the first franchise dance studio with his name in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  This franchise operation made Arthur Murray, Inc., the second American franchise company to have been established, the first having been the A&W company.  At its height, the Arthur Murray, Inc., corporation grew to 350 franchises internationally and grossed around $25 million.  Even with imitators such as the Fred Astaire Dance Studios, which emerged in the late 1940s, the Arthur Murray studio brand remained unparalleled, usually logging about twice the number of franchises as its nearest competitor. 

Arthur Murray Dance Studios were able to adapt to new trends and practices, promptly offering some form of instruction on most current fads.  Although some of the lessons in the new dances were unlikely to conform to popular practice (following in the tradition of the Castles, Murray would have refined the dance according to his notions of ballroom or nightclub decorum), the ability to supply the lessons that the public demanded was a basic formula for success.  Murray could also identify where related markets would strengthen the dance studios and diversify the income.  In the 1950s, Murray launched two projects that took his name into greater visibility and new markets.  One was the new world of television; the second was the recording industry. 

Arthur Murray and his wife Kathryn (née Kohnfelder) launched, initially at their own expense, a weekly television program titled Arthur Murray Party Time (renamed The Arthur Murray Party) on the ABC network in July 1950.  The program was carried by all four of the television networks (ABC, CBS, NBC, and DuMont) at different times during the course of its ten years on air.  The show expanded from 15 to 30 minutes in 1952 when the program acquired its first advertising sponsor, General Foods.  Murray was reputed to have a stammer and awkward manner in front of the camera, perhaps the reason he delegated host duties to Kathryn.  The program followed conventions of a variety show, with couples competing for prizes (dance lessons at one of the Murray studios), guest stars who sang, other celebrities from sports and entertainment, and professional dancers featured in exhibition numbers. Among the celebrities who appeared on The Arthur Murray Party were Johnnie Ray and Don Cornell (1954), Andy Williams and The Platters (1956), Bert Lahr (1957), and Buddy Holly (1957) whose performance of “Peggy Sue” and “That’ll Be the Day” may be the only extant live footage recorded of Holly.  The formula ending to each show included a waltz to music by Johann Straus.  Thirteen of these early shows and portions of some episodes are preserved on kinescope within the J. Fred and Leslie W. MacDonald Collection at the Library of Congress.

Harnessing the music industry to advance his dance studios, Murray also contracted with a major record label to issue sets of dance music, and with each record a coupon for a free dance lesson was included.  Capitol Records issued the dance music series as “Arthur Murray Favorites,” initially in a 10-inch EP (extended play) vinyl format and later as 12-inch LPs (long-playing).  Les Baxter and His Orchestra recorded the Tango (1951) and Waltz (1955) albums.  Trumpeter Billy May debuted as band leader for the Mambos and Foxtrot records and ghost-conducted on a number of other Murray records, using the name Billy May’s Rico Mambo Orchestra when he performed Latin music.  The Ray Anthony Orchestra contributed the Swing Foxtrot album and Latin American band leaders Chuy Reyes and Enric Madriguera were engaged for rumba and samba albums respectively.  The Fred Astaire Dance Studios took a cue from the Arthur Murray record deal and entered into a similar arrangement with RCA Victor for a record set called “Perfect for Dancing” in the mid-1950s.  RCA Victor collaborated with Murray in the early 1960s for another dance series titled “Music for Dancing,” capitalizing on the popularity of new dances like the Twist.  For this set of records, RCA’s in-house arrangers (Johnnie Camacho, Bill Stegmeyer, Ray Carter) led the bands, usually listed as the Arthur Murray Orchestra or the Arthur Murray TV Dance Orchestra.  Some of the recordings have been re-issued on CD by Sony under the category of “easy listening.”

While highly proficient and elegant, Arthur Murray and his partners never achieved the acclaim of dance performers like the Castles or the team of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.  Nonetheless, because of successful business practices, “Arthur Murray” did become a household name synonymous with social dancing and dance lessons, especially old-time dancing.  His name pops up in songs, films, and television shows where a reference to the name is expected to provide an instantaneous association.  At the height of Arthur Murray’s popularity, lyricist Johnny Mercer collaborated with Victor Schertzenger on a novelty song titled “Arthur Murray Taught Me Dancing in a Hurry” for the musical-comedy film The Fleet’s In! (1942).  Performed by actress Betty Hutton and the Jimmy Dorsey orchestra, the song was a huge hit.  Years later it was referenced by lyrics in Desi Arnaz’s song for the film “Cuban Pete” (1946) to contrast the rhythms and tempos of two cultures:  "Cuban Pete doesn't teach you in a hurry like Arthur Murray/You're now in Havana, and there's always mañana.”  In the film The Sky’s the Limit (1943), Fred Astaire’s character sarcastically replies “Arthur Murray” to an admiring query about where he learned to dance.  In an I Love Lucy television episode titled “Little Ricky Gets a Dog” (1957), Lucy Ricardo (Lucille Ball) tells her son she is learning to dance the Mexican hat dance from Arthur Murray, an ironic reference to the incongruity of Murray’s dance expertise and a simplistic inauthentic “Latin” dance that requires no tutelage. 

The financially successful Arthur Murray, Inc., however, faced a proliferation of legal challenges in the 1950s through the 1970s, some of which established precedent for franchise enterprises. In one notable case,1 a franchise studio sued its former instructor, Clifford Witter, to prevent him from breaking the non-compete agreement required by Murray to prevent teachers from jumping to the rival Fred Astaire studio chain. The court found the non-compete clause to be unreasonably restrictive and did not recognize any possible economic effect if Murray’s former employees joined another dance studio’s faculty.  More commonly, however, the non-compete covenants were upheld; for example, in Worrie v. Boze,2 the court upheld the Murray Dance Studios’ ban on competition within twenty-five miles of franchised studios as a reasonable geographical area which the studio contract could protect.   

In the 1960s, financial challenges for the parent corporation emerged from its licensing of the prominent name of Arthur Murray to its franchised studios. In one 1967 case,3 a creditor with no hope of payment from a California franchise sued Arthur Murray, Inc., and the courts found the national corporation was liable for the local franchise’s unpaid bills, largely because franchises all traded upon the name recognition.  Also in the 1960s, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) halted some of Murray’s marketing ploys, customer contracts, and quizzes whose prizes seemed unredeemable without additional purchases. In Syester v. Banta,4 the plaintiff accused the faculty at a Des Moines franchise of flattery and “false and fraudulent” selling techniques to pressure her into a contract for 4,000 dance lessons for a sum of more than $30,000, the equivalent of a six-figure sum today. 

While these lawsuits demonstrate a climate of aggressive protection for the Arthur Murray brand of ballroom dance, they also reveal that the hospitable conditions for social dance were changing.  Many popular dances of the 1950s and 1960s required little to no instruction, and the rise of the new Fred Astaire franchises in the late 1940s only intensified the survival strategies needed to sustain the Murray franchise empire. In 1964 Murray himself was arrested for ignoring a subpoena to appear before a grand jury in Minnesota on a related fraud charge, but the arrest warrant was cancelled when he agreed to testify. A few months later, he resigned as president of Arthur Murray Dance Studios, and a year later sold his controlling stake in the company but remained on the board as a consultant. He formally retired in 1969, and enjoyed a lucrative second career as a financial adviser in Honolulu, Hawai’i, for a coterie of affluent friends in his social circle.

Murray died of pneumonia on March 3, 1991, in Hawai’i, and his wife, Kathryn, to whom he had been married since 1925, died in 1999.  His life’s work, the Arthur Murray dance studios, still exists, with approximately 250 independently owned franchises operating across the world.


NOTES

1 Arthur Murray Dance Studios of Cleveland v. Witter, 105 N.E.2d 685 (Ohio 1952).

2 62 S.E.2d 876 (Va 1951).

3 Nichols v. Arthur Murray, Inc., 56 Cal. Rptr. 728, 730 (1967).

4 133 N.W.2d 666 (Iowa 1965). 


Libby Smigel MFA PhD co-chairs the Dance & Culture Area of the Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association, is treasurer of the Congress on Research in Dance, and is an associate editor of the Journal of American Culture. She currently serves as executive director of the Dance Heritage Coalition.

 

Selected Resources for Further Research

Books & Articles

Scholarly books and articles

Adler, Barry E.  “The Accidental Agent.” University of Illionois Law Review Vol. 2005, no. 1:  65-75.

Aldrich, Elizabeth.  “The Civilizing of America’s Ballroom: The Revolutionary War to 1890.”  In Ballroom, Boogie, Shimmy Sham, Shake:  A Social and Popular Dance Reader.  Ed. Julie Malnig.  Urbana/Chicago:  U of Illionois Press, 2009.  Pp. 36-54.

__.  From the Ballroom to Hell:  Grace and Folly in Nineteenth-Century Dance.   Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1991.

Brooks, Tim; Marsh, Earle F. The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows, 1946-Present.  9th ed.  New York:  Ballantine Books, 2007.

Engel, Lyle Kenyon. The Fred Astaire Dance Book: The Fred Astaire Dance Studio Method.  NY: Cornerstone, 1962.   Includes mambo, swing, and variations called “twinkles” named after Fred Astaire; uses drawings as well as the Arthur Murray footprints.

Franks, A[rthur]. H[enry]. A Pictorial Manual of Ballroom Dancing.  London: Museum Press, 1959. Included here because it includes history, photos of ball-of-the-foot dancing, and positioning of shoes to show related distances and also a pattern on floor so English manuals appropriated some of Murray’s strategies.

Heimlich, Jane [Murray]. Out of Step.  Orange Frazer Press, 2010.  Family biography written by one of Arthur Murray’s twin daughters.

McMains, Juliet.  Glamour Addiction: Inside the American Ballroom Dance Industry.  Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2006.

Murray, Arthur.  How to Become a Good Dancer.  1938; New York: Simon & Schuster, 1947 (21st printing).  

___. Arthur Murray’s Dance Secrets. Arthur Murray, 1946.

Murray, Kathryn.  My Husband, Arthur Murray. NY: Simon & Schuster, 1960.

Perlman, Ronald S.  “The Threat of Former Employees.” 8 pp. On non-compete contracts.  Accessible online at  www.wifcon.com/anal/analforemp.doc 

Picart, Caroline Joan S.  From Ballroom to DanceSport: Aesthetics, Athletics, and Body Culture.  Albany: State University of New York Press, 2006.

“Quarterly Report.” Indiana State Department of Education April-June 1995:  9-10.  On non-compete clauses in contracts.

Threedy, Debora L.  “Dancing around Gender: Lessons from Arthur Murray on Gender and Contracts.”  Wake Forest Law Review 45 (2010): 749-777.

Travis, Doris Eaton. The Days We Danced: The Story of My Theatrical Family from Florenz Ziegfeld to Arthur Murray and Beyond.  2003.

Wagner, Ann.  Adversaries of Dance: From the Puritans to the Present. Champaign:  University of Illinois Press, 1997.

Weinstein, David. The Forgotten Network: DuMont and the Birth of American Television.  Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2004.

Popular Articles (a selection):

“Modern Living: Watch Your Step.” Time 11 April 1960.

“Music: In Murray’s Steps.” Time 29 Aug. 1938. Accessible online at http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,789151,00.html

Neufeld, Rob. “Asheville Girls Shaped Arthur Murray’s Life.” The Read on WNC: online source for informed talk and book-related media [citizen-times.com]. 4 Feb. 2011. Accessible online at

http://thereadonwnc.ning.com/forum/topics/young-arthur-murray-in

Smigel, Libby. “Dance Manuals Are Windows to 19th-Century Social Life.” New York-Pennsylvania Collector (Rochester, NY) 26 March 1991: pp. 26-29.

Online Resources 

An American Ballroom Companion, Dance Instruction Manuals, ca. 1490-1920. http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/dihtml/dihome.html

“Collegiateshag.com – Hope of the forgotten shag.” http://collegiateshag.com/index.html

Includes photos of Arthur Murray demonstrating the shag, college students doing Murray’s Big Apple, and excerpt of instructions from Murray’s instruction manual. http://collegiateshag.com/photos.html

V is for Vintage Blogspot. “Arthur Murray: How to Become a Good Dancer.” 27 Sep. 2011: http://vforvintageblog.blogspot.com/2011/09/arthur-murray-how-to-become-gooddancer.html

“Arthur Murray: How to Shag.” 28 Sep. 2011: http://vforvintageblog.blogspot.com/2011/09/arthur-murray-how-to-shag.html

Song Lyrics:

Mercer, Johnny and Victor Schertzinger. “Arthur Murray Taught Me Dancing in a Hurry.”

http://www.songs-lyrics.net/so-Betty-Hutton-lyrics-Blonde-Bombshell-lyrics-Arthur-MurrayTaught-Me-Dancing-in-a-Hurry-lyrics-E9047769C001100540.html

Photos or Illustrations:

http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=pv&GRid=7312839 This photo is identified as Murray and his wife but only as Murray elsewhere.

http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2003653866/ From Library of Congress: Ann Forest and Arthur Murray dancing c. 1924 in an advertisement. 

Moving Image

“The Arthur Murray Party.” Television program excerpt, circa 1950. Johnnie Ray, special guest. Jack Philbin, executive producer. Accessible online at http://www.archive.org/details/Party1950s

Research Video, Volume 1: 1900-1930’s. Dancetime Publications. Includes clips from newsreels and other sources of vintage dances. Accessible online at http://www.dancetimepublications.com/index.php?option=com_virtuemart&Itemid=868

Betty Hutton in The Fleet’s In (1942), singing “Arthur Murray Taught Me Dancing in a Hurry.” Accessible online at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6IWv53ZFXFo

Archives

J. Fred and Leslie W. MacDonald Collection, Library of Congress. Includes kinescopes of “The Arthur Murray Party.”