Tom Murrin: 1939–2012

Erin Courtney remembers the beloved downtown performer

The first time I heard about Tom Murrin, I was a kid in Southern California and my parents told me about their friend who had been a lawyer and quit the law and ran off to New York to become a performance artist. I thought he sounded fantastic. In my twenties, I moved to New York City and Tom welcomed me. We had lunch at Veselka Diner and Philip Glass walked by and the two of them exchanged hellos. I thought, oh my, this is the NYC of my dreams. "How do you know him?" I said. "Oh, just from around," said Tom. And he really did know almost everyone from around. Tom went to see everything, wrote about everything, and loved to meet new people and learn about what they were doing. He had a genuine curiosity about people and an incredible generosity towards them. Tom gave great advice. I moved to East 3rd Street and he said, "Perfect! That's where all the theater is." When I started making theater, he said, "Keep going. Make a show a year."

The first time I saw him perform as Jack Bump, I was truly frightened. Here was this beautiful Irish Catholic Southern California man, same age as my mom and dad, and he was spitting out little plastic baby dolls and pantomiming sexual acts while dressed like a priest. With plays like Butt Crack Bingo and Sport Fuckers, Tom was not afraid of the dark side, and he loved pushing us, while laughing, to the edge of our comfort zone. But the performance side of Tom that I knew the best was his Alien Comic self. In those shows, he made costumes and masks out of discarded items—cardboard, pantyhose, plastic spoons—and he told stories, jokes, and performed magic tricks. He arranged all of his props and masks in a circle around him on the floor. He liked to have that circle because, as he worked his way around the masks and props, the audience knew exactly where they were in the performance and how much time was left. He also usually started those shows wearing many, many layers of clothes, and as the show went on, the layers came off. He might emerge in a gingham dress, painted cardboard mask and glitter boots, then T-shirt after T-shirt, then finally a vintage lady's bathing suit and sweat. He also performed a full moon show every full moon for 35 years, on street corners, mountaintops, and theaters. I think this made him an honorary woman because he was always physically aware of each lunar cycle. He marked each passing month with a ritual.

For Paper magazine, he always wrote about the shows he liked. He made an active choice not to be a critic but to choose to support the work he found interesting. "There's enough criticism out there," he said. He promoted artists that were not afraid to provoke, frighten, and expose. In the last several years of his life, he gave us the The Talking Show, under the beautiful direction of Lucy Sexton, in which we got to hear about his ephemeral street performances around the world, a funeral for a fish outside the Plaza Hotel, and making magic shows with his sister Patsy in his parents’ backyard. He loved his wife, Patricia Sullivan, and loved her photographs of herself in wolf masks and dressed as Abraham Lincoln. He loved his friends and family.

The one night that he could not perform a full moon show because he was in a hospital bed, his friends and family and fans made full moon shows all around the world. We wore masks, we waved lunar receptors at the moon and lit flash paper, we made note of the time passing, we stripped off our clothes, and by handing his last full moon performance over to us, he showed us how to go on.

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Editor's note: Those who knew and loved Tom are welcome to share their memories below in the comments section. We'd love to hear your stories.

Also, the Alien Comic Fund has been established for the preservation of Tom’s work and the resolution of his estate. If you wish to donate, checks can be made payable to the Alien Comic Fund and sent to Alien Comic Fund, c/o PS 122, 67 West Street, Suite 315, Brooklyn, NY 11222. An informal wake will take place on Sunday, March 18 from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. in the garden of St. Marks Church in-the-Bowery, in the East Village. A larger memorial is apparently being planned for the full moon in either May or June, in honor of Tom's Full Moon shows. More info will be available at this Facebook page.
 
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10 comments
Debra Schena Bywater
Debra Schena Bywater

I never had the opportunity to meet Tom but I did aquire an original piece of art he drew of the devil with a magic marker autographed and signed.Also signed by 2 Instant Girls

TuraLura
TuraLura

I was fortunate enough to work with him in the late 80s and early 90s and again in 2009. An incredible artist, and a great, great person!

One of my favorite Tom anecdotes involves his passionate love for and support of Lucien Buscemi's band Fiasco. He used to come to every performance. Surrounded by sweaty, convulsing teenagers, he would stand toward the back, beaming his famous smile. Occasionally a kid would ask another, "Dude, who's that weird old dude?" And always the same answer: "Dude, that old guy is COOL."

RIP Tom. I learned so much from you.

Stuart Cottingham
Stuart Cottingham

I was saddened to learn of Tom's passing. While his work was playful, joyful and inspiring, I didn't have the opportunity to meet him until about four years ago. His art was a reflection of a kind and approachable human being with a fascinating story. NYC has lost another of its most colorful.

Veronica Vera
Veronica Vera

Tom was full of love. I , and then with my fiance Stu, could meet him on the street and talk and catch up for quite a while. He had the courage of his convictions. His show were always so wacky and wonderful, even crude and horny Jack Bump. He could perform for everyone from adults to kiddies...just try and stop him. Tom also knew and appreciated the people and history of performance art in New York. I always learned from him...in so many ways. I'm so happy that he and Patricia found each other and have had those many years together...too short, I know, too short for all of us who knew him, as well. His spirit will live on because he was impossible to forget.

Joe Tripician
Joe Tripician

It was my privilege to have produced several videos of Tom's performances through the '80s. But it was an even greater honor to have known the lovable and generous man. He liked to say that "performance is anything done with purpose and style." His life is a testament to that. Brave, honest, kind, creative -- that's how I will remember him. Thanks for the love and laughs, Tom.

David Levine
David Levine

I directed Sportfuckers and Butt Crack Bingo (along with <god help="" us=""> "Deviants, Arise!" "Who Will Carve the Turkey?" and "Dick Play"). And I can say definitively that no matter how evil, twisted, and arcane Jack Bump the playwright was, it was always Tom Murrin the incredibly warm and gentlemanly guy who was in rehearsals. And really, even the twistedness was in total good humor. And the number of downtown artists willing to say the most debaucherous things, simulate the kinkiest acts, and play out the most ludicrous visions, with the best spirit in the world, in these shows was astounding. All for Tom. That's how much everyone loved him. To Wit: David Slone wearing nothing but an enormous Salad Bowl; David Cote being penetrated by Lucy Sexton in silhouette; Jonathan Ames making love to an enormous stuffed tiger; Brian Bickerstaff & Eve Udesky with a....well, that one might be too nuts even for a tribute to Tom. I always knew that no matter what else I did in the future, no matter what alias *I* was using, I would always direct anything he asked me to. Because that's how much I loved him.

David Soul</god>

Rachel Chavkin
Rachel Chavkin

I only met Tom recently, introduced a couple years ago through a mutual friend. And, this sounds silly, but I just thought Wow. Lovely. OPEN. Pure heart.

And since then talking to him about my work, or seeing him at PS122 or Dixon Place...it was that every time. Strange. Open. Space for you to laugh at the work, at yourself, to howl at the moon and spin around 5 times over. Amazing man.

Robert Galinsky
Robert Galinsky

Beautiful article for a beautiful man. Will be missed.

Timmee
Timmee

I once ran into Tom very late one Tuesday night on lower Avenue B. He was standing outside of a bar/nightclub with a small group of people. I was vaguely aware that the man to my left bore an uncanny resemblance to Steve Buscemi. As Tom and I were chatting, he suddenly said to me, "Tim, do you know my good friend Steve Buscemi? We were roommates around the corner on Attorney Street in the 70s." I don't know what was more typically Tom--that he took the time to introduce me to his famous friend, or that he thought I might already possibly know him. Of course, they were there to see Lucien's band play.

TuraLura
TuraLura

That's so Tom- the very soul of politeness!

 
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