Elizabeth McPherson, PhD, is a freelance writer and faculty member of Long Island University–Brooklyn.
Ballroom dance expert Arthur Murray (1895–1991) was a businessman at heart. With his acute sense of marketing via direct mailings, magazine ads, radio and television, Murray created a ballroom dance empire. When he retired in 1964, there were more than 350 franchised Arthur Murray studios thriving around the world, and today close to 200 studios still bear his name.
Murray was born Moses Teichman on April 4, 1895, in Galicia, Austria (now part of Poland), to parents Abraham and Sara. One year later, his father emigrated to the United States; his mother took him and his older sister Riwka the following year. Murray’s parents would go on to have three more sons: David (who would work for Arthur Murray International), Isadore and Israel.
The Teichman family lived on the lower east side of Manhattan and owned and operated a bakery. They struggled financially, and Murray took on various odd jobs at a young age in an effort to help out. He was a shy child with a stammer and it wasn’t until he began learning some ballroom dances from a friend that his self-esteem began to develop. He practiced his skills at weddings in the community—many of which he was not invited to—and went on to win a dance contest at a local settlement house.
After leaving high school, Murray found work in an architect’s office, took draftsmanship classes and continued dancing. In 1912, he began teaching evening ballroom dance classes at New York City’s Grand Central Palace. Once he started earning more from teaching dance than working in the architect’s office, he quit his day job to work full-time for the dance instructor G. Hepburn Wilson.
Murray continued his own studies at Castle House with Irene and Vernon Castle, learning dances like the “Castle Walk” and the tango. There he met Baroness de Cuddleston, who in 1914 invited him to be her dance partner and teach at the Battery Park Hotel in Asheville, North Carolina, during the fall and winter. It was around this time that he changed his name from Moses Teichman to Arthur Murray, believing that a Germanic-sounding name, particularly during World War I, might hurt his career. The Asheville job allowed him to begin sending money home to his parents. He would return to teach at the Battery Park Hotel for two more years.
In 1919, Murray enrolled in business school at Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, while continuing to teach ballroom dance to students of all ages, including children at the resort hotel The Georgian Terrace. Just a year later, Forbes Magazine profiled him in an article titled “This College Student Earns $15,000 a Year” (equivalent to about $200,000 today).
The forward-thinking Murray used technology to gain national attention. He arranged for dance music to be transmitted from a radio station to a rooftop party at the Capital City Club in Atlanta on March 27, 1920—one of the first times dance music was transmitted by live broadcast. Murray started another marketing venture that same year, this one a mail-order business selling kinetoscopes (small, moving-picture toys) with the slogan “Learn to Dance at Home.” Unfortunately, the kinetoscopes were not sturdy enough for the mail, and Murray lost money. But it wasn’t long before he came up with a better marketing idea—dance instruction booklets using footprints that marked where the feet went with each new step. (Famous politician and lawyer William Jennings Bryan allegedly said to Murray: “Send out instructions for the left foot only—don’t tell them what to do with the right foot until they pay up!”)
Murray moved to New York around 1924, initiating an ad campaign with the slogan, “How I Became Popular Overnight,” that appeared in two magazines. He received an overwhelming response from customers. His major selling point was somewhat autobiographical—that anyone can learn to dance, and that doing so can dramatically improve one’s social life.
By 1925, Murray perceived that he had maxed out the mail-order possibilities for ballroom dance and turned his attention back to teaching. Some of his famous students through the years were Enrico Caruso, Elizabeth Arden, Cornelia Vanderbilt and the Duke of Windsor.
Also in 1925, Murray married Kathryn Kohnfelder shortly after meeting her at a radio station where he was teaching dance steps on a radio program. They had twin daughters Phyllis and Jane in 1926. Kathryn became Murray’s essential partner, writing many of the company’s dance manuals.
Weathering the Great Depression was not easy on Murray’s business. He lost personal money in stocks, but survived the economic difficulties by downsizing his operations. A boon came when the general manager of the Statler Hotel chain requested that Murray send instructors to Statler Hotels around the country to teach and demonstrate the popular “Big Apple” dance. He agreed, and worked out a deal in which the instructors would give him a percentage of their pay. From this point, Murray branched out to franchise studios across the country, starting with Minneapolis in 1938.
Later that year, Murray wrote his first book, How to Become a Good Dancer, a teaching manual/instructional guide. He went on to write several others and develop an organizational magazine called Murray-Go-Round. His books and the magazine have a positive, self-help tone, with such encouragements as “STOP and think a moment—do you know anyone who is a good dancer and who is not outstandingly popular? I doubt that you do. And that is the main reason why people want to be good dancers. There is nothing so thrilling in life as to be popular with friends and sought after as a companion.”
Murray was so successful at keeping his name in the press—and thus in the public’s mind—that in 1942, Johnny Mercer and Victor Schertzinger wrote the hit song “Arthur Murray Taught Me Dancing in a Hurry,” in which they subtly tease the positive qualities in Murray’s teaching and writing:
Arthur Murray taught me dancing
in a hurry,
And so I take a chance.
To me it resembles the nine-day trembles,
But he guarantees it’s a dance.
Murray incorporated his company in 1946 as Arthur Murray International. In 1950, he launched a television show called “The Arthur Murray Party,” with Kathryn as the exuberant host. The popular show ran until 1960, bringing dance into homes across America.
All was not roses, however, as there were some legal problems related to the company’s “hard sell” techniques with prospective students. In 1960, after numerous complaints of fraud, the United States Federal Trade Commission ordered the Arthur Murray Studios to “stop using bogus contests and high-pressure tactics to sell their courses of dance instruction,” as reported by The New York Times. The FTC and Arthur Murray Studios ultimately worked out a code of ethics for selling the dance instruction packages.
When the Murrays retired in 1964, they moved to Hawaii, where Arthur occupied his time with investments and collecting art. He died on March 3, 1991, at the age of 95, leaving a large “imprint” not only in dance, but also in the business and advertising worlds with his use of a franchise system and innovative marketing ideas. DT