American entrepreneur Arthur Murray (1895–1991) became a household name with the chain of dance schools he founded early in the twentieth century.
Once a shy, uneasy teenager, Murray believed that social dancing was the key to an improved self-image, and his business strategy often targeted those in need of a little encouragement. His schools, staffed by well-trained instructors, also featured easy-to-learn methods for a wide array of touch-dancing—the term for two-person dance floor couplings such as the waltz and the polka—at a time when dancing was a obligatory part of nearly all social interaction for teens and adults. By the time he formally retired in 1969, the Arthur Murray International Dance Schools had grown into a lucrative worldwide franchise and had earned their founder millions.
Arthur Murray Teichman was born on April 4, 1895, in New York City, to Jewish immigrant parents who had come from Austria a year earlier. The family lived on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, home to many poor émigrés who had also fled anti-Semitism in Europe, and Murray's father, Abraham, found work selling bread from a street vendor's cart. Within a few years, he and his wife, Sara, opened a bakery in East Harlem, far to the north of the city, but the family still struggled financially to provide for Arthur and the four children who followed him. Murray was a sickly child, and grew into a shy teenager who was embarrassed by his family's lack of financial security. Realizing that being a good dancer could easily boost his popularity with young women from any social milieu, he asked a female friend to teach him how, and quickly realized he had a gift for it. For extra practice he sometimes crashed weddings, where he found non-stop music and an abundance of female guests looking for a dance floor partner.
Trained at Castle House
Murray dropped out of Morris High School in the Bronx, one of the city's top public high schools at the time, and took a job with an architect, planning to become one himself. He also took drafting courses at Cooper Union, a private college in the city that offered adult education programs for students from low-income backgrounds. The dance floor still lured, however, and he quit both job and college when he won a waltz contest in 1912. He found work instead as a dance instructor with the G. Hepburn Wilson Dance Studios, which was busy capitalizing on a raft of new dance crazes that young urbanites picked up and then just as quickly abandoned for new ones. The dances went by memorable names such as the bunny hug, grizzly bear, kangaroo dip, and turkey trot, and required some instructional how-to, which businesses like the Wilson Dance Studio offered cheaply.
In addition to his regular job, Murray also spent several more hours of each day training at a school for dance instructors run by husband-and-wife team Vernon and Irene Castle. Vernon (1887–1918) and Irene (1893–1969) had lived in Paris, where they first gained fame and ignited a craze for American ragtime music and the dances that went with it, and they went on to appearances on vaudeville and in Hollywood films. Both were major celebrities by the time that Murray enrolled at Castle House, their school on Long Island. There he met Baroness de Kuttleson, a well-known dance instructor in her time, and went with her to Asheville, North Carolina, a popular resort for the wealthy. Around this time, he heeded de Kuttleson's advice to drop his German-sounding "Teichman" surname, because World War I was underway and a wave of anti-German sentiment had swept across much of America.
The partnership between Murray and the Baroness was short-lived, ending when he learned that she charged one tycoon's wife $50 for each lesson Murray gave the woman, but paid him only $5. He headed to Atlanta, where he enrolled once again in college but this time pursued a business management degree. To pay his tuition and living expenses, he found a job as a dance teacher at one of the city's most elegant hotels, the Georgian Terrace. His classes for children and teenagers proved so successful that he soon had nearly a thousand pupils, and was featured in a Forbes magazine article titled "This College Student Earns $15,000 a Year."
Sold Mail Order Course
Murray's first dance studio of his own was located in Atlanta, and local radio broadcasts of his dance instruction boosted his business prospects. Hoping to keep up with the demand, he tried selling a mail order package that included dance instruction along with a kinetoscope, which was a small motion picture exhibition device. He lost money when the kinetoscopes proved too fragile for the mail, and then their manufacturer went out of business. A second idea proved to be the winning one, however: recalling his architecture classes and the precise drawings he made in his drafting job, he sketched out diagrams for the footsteps of various dances, with the feet in silhouette and lines and arrows illustrating the correct movements. He named his business the Arthur Murray Correspondence School of Dancing, and solicited customers by running ads in pulp magazines and the Hollywood gossip weeklies. The venture proved so profitable that he had moved back to New York City by 1923, opened an office, and hired a staff to keep up with the demand.
Murray also opened a dance studio in the city, and began franchising his more professionally geared instructional materials to hotels across the United States. Again, he showed a knack for writing advertising copy, and his school ads began to feature faux first-person testimonials under headlines such as "They Gave Me the Ha-Ha When I Stepped Out Onto the Dance Floor," "Thirty Days Ago They Laughed at Me," and "How I Became Popular Overnight." Murray's business thrived over the next decade, but he shut down the mail order division when demand fell off during the Great Depression. By this time he had married Kathryn Kohnfelder, a schoolteacher from New Jersey, and the escalating success of his empire enabled them to move to Mount Vernon, an affluent Westchester County suburb of New York City. Years later, he and his wife revealed that during the early years of their marriage Kathryn had suffered from post-partum depression following the birth of twin daughters, and once even attempted suicide.
Because of Kathryn's fragile state, the Murrays divided their time between residences in New York and California for much of the 1930s, but by 1938 had settled back in the New York area permanently. That same year Murray launched another franchise business, this one also using his name, for freestanding dance studios across the United States. Like the instructors at his New York studio, Murray personally screened his instructor franchisees, looking for those who could project a certain grace and warmth, which he believed would best appeal to potential students and keep them committed to the courses. The first such studio opened in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and by 1946, when he formally incorporated the franchise school business, there were 72 studios in operation that produced total revenues of $20 million annually.
Showed Genius for Publicity
Murray's talent for promotion helped make him a household name as far back as 1927, when he delivered a dance lesson to a student in London via the first transatlantic telephone lines for a sum of $425. He courted the famous to boost publicity, personally instructing First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt (1884–1962), the Duke of Windsor (1894–1972), and scions of American fortunes such as John D. Rockefeller Jr. (1874–1960) and heiress Barbara Hutton (1912–1979). With the advent of television, he shifted his radio promotion efforts to the new medium, and Kathryn began hosting a 15-minute series on the CBS network titled The Arthur Murray Party in 1950. The show proved enormously popular over the next decade, expanding to a half-hour showcase of dancing instruction, dance contests, and comedy skits that featured a few stars long before they were famous, such as Johnny Carson (1925–2005). The highly rated broadcast also served to lure new franchisees, and there were 450 schools bearing Murray's name in 1960, the year that he and his business became the subject of a highly publicized consumer fraud investigation.
The U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) inquiry was launched after local Better Business Bureau offices filed complaints that the Murray Studios' advertising materials featured ridiculously simple riddles. Callers dialed a telephone number to give the correct answer, and were offered a cut-rate instruction package for answering correctly; even those who gave a wrong answer were offered a consolation prize of classes at a reduced rate. Murray's company was served with a cease-and-desist order for this, but in May of 1964 he found himself the target of some dreadfully unexpected publicity when law enforcement authorities appeared at his Fifth Avenue apartment in Manhattan to take him into custody. The arrest came because he had ignored 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.
A year later Murray sold his controlling stake in the company to a group of investors, but remained on board as a consultant. He formally retired in 1969, settling in Honolulu, Hawaii, and enjoyed a lucrative second career as a financial adviser for a coterie of affluent friends in his social circle. He traded stocks and invested in companies from a corner of the living room of his penthouse apartment, telling New York Times writer Robert Trumbull that his "telephone bill runs between $2,000 and $3,000 a month," according to a 1980 article about his investment savvy.
Despite the changing times, Murray's dance studios continued to thrive in the 1960s and 1970s. They offered classes when disco dancing became one of the most unexpected trends of the 1970s, and maintained a steady stream of clients by appealing to couples who were planning their weddings and realized they had little experience with touch dancing. The company even began opening studios in Asia and the Middle East in the 1990s, which pushed revenues from $38 million in 1994 to $55 million six years later.
Murray had passed away by then. Inactive after a 1983 tennis injury, he died of pneumonia on March 3, 1991, in Honolulu. Kathryn Murray died eight years later. One of their twin daughters, Jane, married the doctor who invented the Heimlich maneuver to prevent choking deaths.
Investor's Business Daily, June 29, 2004.
Miami Herald, July 8, 2001.
New York Times, July 2, 1939; May 9, 1960; September 21, 1980; December 4, 1981; March 4, 1991.
"History of Arthur Murray International, Inc.," Arthur Murray Greater Cincinnati Studios, http://www.arthurmurraytristate.com/history_of_am.html (December 1, 2006).