A man of many stories and surprising talents

Murray Horwitz embraces comedy, music and life, without limits

Theater

January 12, 2003|By J. Wynn Rousuck | By J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

Murray Horwitz is a Renaissance man in an age of specialists.

He's been a professional circus clown, songwriter, playwright, public radio executive and arts administrator. He's directed TV soap operas, worked for the New York State Assembly and appeared on stage with performers ranging from Jonathan Winters to Wynton Marsalis.

"Specialization is highly overrated. We are living in an age when everybody is encouraged to specialize ... and we're discouraged from knowing anything outside of our own particular ken," he says.

"I think that way lies madness and death. The whole idea is to know as much as you can about as many things as you can." The 53-year-old Chevy Chase resident makes this pronouncement while sipping coffee on the sectional sofa in the room he calls his media room.

It's a room that contains some of the usual high-tech equipment, but it also has shelf upon shelf of LPs and even 78s. Framed early 20th-century covers of Theatre magazine decorate the walls; displayed behind the sofa are record albums (from jazz to comedy) and books (from poetry to dog photographs).

But while he may be a man of eclectic interests and accomplishments, Horwitz feels a bit self-conscious about the term "Renaissance man." "My mother might say 'Jack of all trades, master of none,' " he admits. Putting it another way, he suggests "dilettante."

"He is a jack of all trades and a master of many," insists Baltimore-born actor Andre De Shields, who starred in two Horwitz Broadway shows.

"What makes him a Renaissance man is the core of innocence and trust with which he approaches life. There's a kind of childlike appeal to Murray Horwitz. He has not lost the wonder. He has not lost the spontaneity. He has not lost the belief that all things are possible and that the universe always says: Yes. That's why he can bring to any situation so many skills, so many abilities, so many talents."

In recent years, those talents have taken Horwitz into the corporate suite. He spent 13 years at National Public Radio, the last five as vice president of cultural programming. He left in July to head the American Film Institute's Silver Theatre and Cultural Center, a historic Silver Spring movie house now undergoing renovations.

When Horwitz unearths a 30-year-old photo of himself in full clown regalia, it takes a minute to recognize the conservatively dressed man seated before you. But underneath the whiteface, exaggerated painted lips and red ball nose in the photo are the expressive eyes and slightly bushy brows of an animated talker, a man who has, indeed, never lost the playful curiosity of his inner clown. If he hasn't learned as much as he can about all sorts of things, it's not for want of trying.

"He is a knower of things and a knower of people," says director and lyricist Richard Maltby Jr., with whom Horwitz co-wrote the Fats Waller musical Ain't Misbehavin'. A new co-production of the 1978 Tony Award-winning show opens at Center Stage on Wednesday and will have a subsequent run at Washington's Arena Stage in the spring.

"He's a genuine idea person. I've always said Murray will never go hungry because he always has ideas," Maltby says.

Man of many stories

Ain't Misbehavin' was one of Horwitz's best ideas, and there's a story behind that. For that matter, Horwitz has a story about just about everything. There's the story about his late physician father treating Orville Wright (a musical about the Wright brothers, co-written with Bland Simpson of the Red Clay Ramblers, is one of Horwitz's current projects). Then there's the story about Horwitz joining the circus. And, of course, there's the story of how he fell in love with the music of jazz great Fats Waller (1904-1943).

Here's a condensed version of the Wright story. Horwitz comes from Wright's hometown of Dayton, Ohio, and his father's office was across the street from Wright's laboratory. One morning near the end of his life, the famed aviator collapsed from a stroke, and Horwitz's father was summoned. Framed in the house where Horwitz grew up -- and where his mother still lives -- is an autographed picture of the first flight, Dr. Horwitz's bill for $5 and his uncashed check from Wright's estate.

The story about joining the circus goes back to Horwitz's senior year at Kenyon College in Ohio. As his senior drama thesis, he created and performed a one-man comedy show for which he spent five weeks studying physical comedy at the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College.

"There were three big hurdles to overcome," Horwitz recalls. "I had to get admitted to clown college, which statistically was harder than getting into Yale Law School that year. And the second hurdle was to get Kenyon to let me go, which required a vote of the full faculty. And, you call up your mom and dad and say, 'Ma, Pa, I want to go to the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey clown school.' This when they're paying some extraordinary freight to send you to a liberal arts college."

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