Where to begin? The magical day of East Rockaway High School alumnus turned movie star Don Murray’s return to his hometown of Bay Park/East Rockaway and his alma mater can perhaps best begin as he and wife Bettie are picked up at the Sunrise Motor Inn by a school district car at a little after 11 a.m. on Thursday, Oct. 20 and whisked down Ocean Avenue to East Rockaway High School.
Murray had wanted to meet with current students from his old school, and Fine Arts Chairman Tom Schloen had gathered some fifty students from the school’s music program to come to the auditorium.
The now 87-year-old Murray chose to stand in front of an open microphone in front of the seated students and dove right in, calling for questions. Schloen had said before the session started that “we would run out of minutes before the students run out of questions” — and he was right.
Students wanted to know what it was like to work opposite Marilyn Monroe; what his memories were of Rock Rivalry; how he had chosen the often controversial themes for the movies he had filmed and often wrote; who his favorite female co-star was; and a host of other questions. The time just flew by!
Superintendent of Schools Lisa Ruiz then hosted a light luncheon in the high school’s conference room, where Murray shared a number of stories and answered more questions, sometimes being upstaged by his wife Bettie, with her sparkling personality and sharp wit.
Later, the Murrays were joined at the high school by film director Don Malcolm and a photographer. Attendees had their tickets collected by ERHS Alumni Association volunteers (led by Lauren Ross Pignataro), who handed out programs and led people to their seats. The alumni volunteers were also assisted by football coach Russell Pajer and members of the football team in these tasks, as well as in distributing comment cards to the attendees. Meanwhile, last-minute ticket sales and “will call” ticket requests were handled by EREF directors Theresa Devlin and Annette Buzzolani.
Shortly after 8 p.m., the brief opening ceremonies began as alumnus and Master of Ceremonies Richard Meagher (Class of 1956) introduced Ruiz (who had school-related gifts for both Don Murray and Don Malcolm; Dan Caracciolo, president of both EREF and the ERHSAA; director Don Malcolm and Murray. A true highlight of the evening was the prolonged standing ovation that greeted Murray as he walked up to the podium.
The audience was attentive during the preview screening of Midcentury Production’s documentary “Don Murray Unsung Hero,” a film that was previewed at the Cinema Arts Center in Huntington in the summer. Directed by Malcolm, it is billed as “The exemplary life and extraordinary times of America’s least-remembered movie star.”
Meagher announced a brief intermission to be followed by a brief outtake from Murray’s post-Sandy visit to his hometown and to the water-damaged home in which he had grown up. Following the clip, the current owner of Murray’s former home, Linda MacLean, and her mom returned some of Murray’s mail that had been found during post-Sandy restoration of the building structure. It was a poignant moment for those who witnessed the transfer.
A question-and-answer session concluded the evening’s program as the two Dons — Murray and Malcolm — sat on chairs on the stage and responded to questions and comments from the audience. Many topics were touched upon, with Monroe coming up more than once.
One example, however, was from an alumnus asking for more detail on how Don’s work with WWII refugees in Italy (and Germany) had helped inspire creation of the Peace Corps – an idea of Hubert Humphrey’s that was ultimately implemented by John F. Kennedy through executive order, since he could not get it through Congress.
Board of Education member Kristin Ochtera saw to it that the Murray’s got safely back to their hotel – and the director and his photographer got safely back to the train station.
Thus ended the magical day when a movie star and great humanitarian came home.