From circus to Broadway to jazz
In the beginning, at the age of 20, “The Big Broadcast” emcee Murray Horwitz spent three years as a circus clown.
No, Horwitz didn’t run away from home to join the circus. During his senior year at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, while majoring in English and drama, Horwitz won a spot in a five-week Ringling Brothers circus course and convinced the school and his parents to let him train in Venice, Florida.
After graduation, he started working as a clown. “I wasn’t very funny at first,” Horwitz admitted in a recent interview with the Beacon.
“But as time went on, I was very lucky to discover who I was — that my essential nature was to offer a public service, to bring laughter.”
After three seasons, Horwitz left the circus, moved to New York, and eventually went on to win a Tony for co-writing the hit Broadway musical Ain’t Misbehavin’.
Now 74, Horwitz hosts the weekly radio show “The Big Broadcast” on WAMU 88.5, which airs classic radio programs like “Gunsmoke,” “Dragnet” and “The Jack Benny Show.”
Horwitz’s listeners tune in every Sunday night from 7 to 11 p.m. to participate in what has been called the “theater of the mind.”
As he puts it, the listener of old-time radio shows “provides the lighting, designs the set — even does the casting by ‘seeing’ what the actors look like.”
“The Big Broadcast” took to the WAMU airwaves in 1964 and is the station’s longest-running show. Horwitz, its third longtime host, took the reins in 2016.
Not only nostalgia
It was started, Horwitz said, “as a nostalgia show.” That is, its listeners tuned in because they remembered the programs from their earlier years. “Now,” Horwitz said, “there are relatively few” who tune into the programs for old times’ sake.
That’s because current listeners are much younger. In fact, some might be confused by sound effects in the old programs, such as the plink of coins being dropped into a pay phone or the whir of a rotary telephone.
Last fall, Horwitz presented his annual airing of “The War of the Worlds,” the program featuring Orson Welles that first aired 85 years ago.
The fake news broadcast of a Martian invasion by “reporter-eye witness” Welles caused panic among many listeners who tuned in while the program was in progress and missed the introduction that the program was based on the novel by H.G. Wells (no relation).
Although Welles won three Academy Awards for the 1941 movie Citizen Kane, and directed and starred in many other films, “Orson Welles considered his radio broadcasts [for The Mercury Theater] his best work,” Horwitz noted.
A native of Dayton, Ohio, Horwitz has lived for the past 35 years in Chevy Chase, Maryland.
But he and his wife, Lisa Miller, an opera singer, previously lived in New York for more than a decade. While there, Horwitz created and participated in many cultural endeavors.
He wrote a short-lived Broadway musical, Haarlem Nocturne, acted in productions of the one-man show An Evening with Sholom Aleichem (about the late Ukrainian Yiddish writer, whose stories gave birth to Fiddler on the Roof), and directed TV soap operas (“Guiding Light,” “As the World Turns,” etc.).
Making a mark in D.C.
Horwitz moved to D.C. in the late 1980s because, he said in the interview, his director salary of $75,000 a year wasn’t enough to support a family of five in Manhattan.
He took a position as assistant director of the Opera Musical Theater program in D.C., a National Endowment for the Arts program that tried to challenge what audiences expected from opera.
Horwitz wasted no time making his mark in D.C. In 1987, he backed the new opera Nixon in China, which blended Big Band, jazz and other music.
The next year, he was instrumental in the creation of the Mark Twain Prize in American Humor. Determined to establish an award for comedy in the same vein as the Academy Awards or Tony Awards, in 1988 Horwitz proposed his idea to several media executives and the White House.
Today, the Kennedy Center presents the prize to a well-known comedian every year. Richard Pryor was the first recipient, and Horwitz’s Ohio buddy Jonathan Winters copped the prize in 1999, the second year it was offered.
Among other endeavors, Horwitz initiated for NPR the weekly comedy quiz show “Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me,” which has run every Saturday morning since 1998. The program won a Peabody Award in 2008.
Horwitz was also managing director, from 2002 to 2009, of the National Film Institute’s Silver Theater and Cultural Center in downtown Silver Spring, Maryland, where he often introduced the movie classics and events held there.
Love of jazz
Horwitz’s appreciation for film and comedy was preceded by his love of jazz music.
“Comedy was something that I always loved and started doing professionally at the age of 20. But I’d always, always loved jazz,” Horwitz told Opera America in 2022.
As a child, he accompanied his parents to jazz concerts, catching performances by Dave Brubeck and Louis Armstrong.
Horwitz said he “fell in love” with the music of Thomas “Fats” Waller when, at the age of about 18, he took out a recording of the pianist-vocalist-composer from the Dayton Public Library.
“It was the music I had been waiting for my whole life,” Horwitz said.
Years later, Horwitz co-wrote the musical Ain’t Misbehavin’ with Richard Maltby Jr. about Waller’s life and music. Waller, who died in 1943 at age 39, composed jazz standards such as “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” “Honeysuckle Rose,” “Keepin’ Out of Mischief Now,” and “Black and Blue.”
Starring Nell Carter, the musical opened in 1978 and “electrified Broadway,” according to The New York Times, racking up prestigious awards for the next decade.
Ain’t Misbehavin’ not only won a Tony for best musical in 1978, but also an Obie, a New York Drama Critics Circle award, a Grammy for the album, and an Emmy for its 1982 NBC broadcast.
Horwitz agreed that today’s younger generation doesn’t seem as enraptured by jazz music as were those living in earlier decades.
Nowadays, he noted, jazz has become like classical music: “People don’t appreciate it until later in life,” he said.
The playwright-lyricist-broadcaster may still take another Broadway turn. He said he is currently “working on three or four plays at the same time.”
Horwitz remembers his circus years as a time when he discovered who he was and what he wanted to do with his life. Connecting with an audience — as he continues to do every week — was a way to convey hope, he said.
“I was able to let people know, through comedy, that we are all in this together.”
Tune in to “The Big Broadcast” from 7 to 11 p.m. on Sundays at WAMU 88.5. For a preview of each week’s lineup of shows, visit bigbroadcast.org.