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House of Cards

Nine bright kids, two harried parents, and a table a few sizes too small made for a raucous dinnertime at the Murray home in Wilmette. Turns out, growing up amid the wisecracks provided the best training a comedian could hope for.

(page 4 of 5)

As the siblings aged, their underlying talents began to blossom. While at Loyola Academy, Bill landed a role in a community theatre production of The Music Man. Later, he was lead singer of a cover band called the Dutch Masters. All of the siblings had taken lessons on the old beater upright piano their father had dragged home one day. Basement performances-and later, after the father built a family room, living room shows-provided the first real outlet for the family hams. “Nancy was always the big cheese,” says Laura. “She was the director and star.” Indeed, Nancy makes sure you know she was Bill’s first director. “It was the Nativity play in the basement,” she recalls. “We had two blankets across the [clothes]line as our stage curtains. The ticket taker stood at the top of the stairs. I was Mary, of course. Billy was St. Joseph.” Her famous brother, she says, had a flair for the dramatic even then. “He would think of a better way to do certain things.” When he didn’t like his shepherd’s costume, “he tied one of Dad’s ties across the towel for the St. Joseph look.”

The basement shows included takeoffs on “The Mickey Mouse Club"-with Nancy as Annette Funicello, naturally, and the brothers taking turns playing Jimmie Dodd. The siblings also belted out Broadway tunes, a nod to the father’s favorite kind of music. “The most embarrassing moment was when I sang a song from Sound of Music,” Nancy recalls. “The words are ‘High on a hill was a lonely goatherd, lay ee odl lay ee odl lay hee hoo!’ But I thought it was ‘High on a hill stood a lonely gopher.’ To this day, I have not been able to live that down. When Billy and Andy and his kids went to the von Trapp house in Stowe, Vermont, they sent back this big postcard that said, ‘Here is the gopher!’”

Given her passion for show business, the siblings still marvel that, of all the kids, Nancy chose to become a nun. “My mother did not like it one bit,” she recalls. “She told me, ‘Nancy, they get up at five in the morning-you’re not on time for the 12 o’clock Mass. You like shopping too much; you like dating too much; you like everything too much. This life is not for you.’”

But to her, the sisterhood made perfect sense. For starters, she found out what dating held in store for a Murray sister. On her first date, “she brought the poor guy home and opened the door and the brothers, and Dad, were all standing there, dressed up like hillbillies and looking unbelievably goofy,” says John. “I think there was a banjo and some goofy hats and underwear involved and they were just saying, ‘C’mon in!’ The poor guy must have been scared to death.”

More important, however, she discovered she could pursue her love of the theatre while being a nun. Today, as a member of the Adrian Dominican Sisters, she tours the world with a one-woman show about St. Catherine of Siena, a 14th-century woman she calls a “gutsy, charismatic figure of her day.” Wearing a vintage Dominican habit that she hauls in a suitcase from city to city, she performs the entire 90 minutes in character, telling jokes and stories about Catherine in a thick Italian accent. To this day, Nancy is the only Murray sibling with a degree in acting, having earned a bachelor’s in theatre from Barry University in Miami Shores before returning to Chicago’s Loyola University to earn a master’s in pastoral studies.

But Nancy acknowledges that her real training came not in school, but at dinner. The ritual was the same. Every evening the children would begin to take their places at the long, double-leaf table. The father sat at one end; the mother, the other. “Mom would do a roast and Dad would always carve and serve it up,” Laura recalls. “She would put the roast on the plate with the mashed potatoes with everyone waiting, and he would pass the plates, one by one.” The rules were ironclad. “You didn’t touch your plate until [Mom] was sitting down and everybody was in their place,” recalls Andy. Manners were mandatory. No bad news. No foul language. Above all, absolutely no elbows on the table. “Father was a hawk for that,” says Nancy. “If you had your elbows on the table he would sneak up on you and whack you on the elbow with the end of the knife,” recalls John. One-liners and putdowns were not only tolerated; they were welcome-provided they were funny. “If you weren’t funny, you did the dishes,” Bill recalled in a 1999 interview. All it would take to get the ball rolling, Laura says, was “How was your day, Daddy?”

“It was like ‘Your Show of Shows,’” Bill said. “An absolute madhouse.” And the goal was always the same: make the father laugh with his mouth full, a daunting accomplishment. “In most families you have people who will go on, or people who think they’re funny and hog the stage,” says Joel. “You didn’t have that luxury at this table.” “When you’re one of nine,” adds Laura, “you had to work to be noticed.” Staying out of harm’s way was an art in itself. “I just ducked,” says Andy with a laugh. “There were zingers flying everywhere and all you could do was hope you didn’t get hit.”

Different siblings got the laughs on different nights, but even early on, Brian and Billy stuck out, the siblings say. “You’d sit at the table and watch Brian and Billy and see how much they enjoyed an audience,” recalls Andy. “Billy could tell these wonderful stories of guys he worked for, do imitations of this guy or that, and we would be rolling.” The evenings got to be so entertaining that friends would sometimes drop by to catch the show. “They would come in and kind of sit around,” says Joel. “It was like a second seating.”

Visitors to the Murray home, however, may have been more taken aback than amused. Beyond the dining room, guests-particularly unexpected guests-often stepped into a house that resembled a caddy shack locker room. “My mom was not the best housekeeper in the world,” says Ed. “I think there’s still laundry in the basement from my high-school days.” In Cinderella Story, Bill writes, “Our house was a wreck, a constant, claustrophobic mess.” To this day, he adds, “all of my siblings have a problem with neatness.” When the occasional brave soul dropped in, “the entire family tore into action, running in every direction while picking up as much stuff as we could hold. Closets were jammed, clothes were stuffed under couches, shirts were tucked in.”

With nine children, Lucille could be forgiven a little messiness. It’s also understandable that the siblings occasionally ran roughshod, particularly on the father’s weekly bowling night out. “He would leave at exactly 6:45 and be home at ten after nine,” says Peggy. “As soon as he left, the punching and slugging began. Some nights we would have shoe fights. You’d split into teams and grab as many shoes as you could. One team would be at the top of the stairs; one team would be at the bottom. My mother was a wreck. She’d be yelling at us, ‘Wait till your father gets home!’”

If controlling nine kids could be a challenge, keeping the cupboards full could be a nightmare. The refrigerator often showed bare. Only the basics stocked the shelves. “I remember scrounging for something and opening a can of pumpkin filling because I loved pumpkin pie,” says Ed. “It was terrible. It tasted like squash. I didn’t realize that you had to cook it!” And then there was the legendary Jell-O and tuna surprise. No matter how little food filled the cabinets, Lucille insisted on serving dessert. One particularly desperate night, “it was green Jell-O with chunks of tuna,” Ed recalls. “We all passed it around and took a spoonful, trying not to make a face.”

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