It's the same old story: Local boy with dreams of a life in theater leaves town and comes back a decade later as ... a kazoo magnate.
Stephen Murray, a third-generation Beaufortonian -- his grandfather was born on Parris Island -- is the president of Kazoobie, Inc., whose kazoo factory has been humming along successfully in Beaufort for more than a year.
As a student at Beaufort High School, Murray, 29, said he really loved acting. His drama teacher, Tim Brown, "was probably the one that saved me. I really didn't have much direction ... and he embraced me into the theater, put me in a show, and it was done. I was hooked."
When Murray was 14, Brown took students to Broadway, and it changed Murray's life:
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"From then on, it's all I wanted to do. ... We came back from New York, and I just dove into theater."
He got a job at the now-defunct Shed Center for the Arts in Port Royal, doing lighting and sound after school. He went to the Governor's School for the Arts in theater during the summer between his junior and senior years and then went back the next year as the technical theater assistant.
Erika Pyle has known Murray since those high school theater days and worked for a time in marketing at Kazoobie. She described Murray as "the hardest-working guy on the team, a dedicated man to his friends, community, and his work. He was and is a man of action, ideas and, most importantly, a great friend."
Not that he was always serious, she added, recalling that Murray was known as a prankster in high school.
OFF THE STAGE
Murray wanted to go to conservatory after high school, but he was on the fence as to whether he wanted to pursue acting or technical theater. He checked out living in New York but found it so expensive that he decided against moving there.
Additionally, he said, "a lot of folks around (me) were saying, 'That's not realistic.' My mom was very supportive, but she was one of the only ones."
In March 2000, Murray was still "looking to get out of town," he said, and "got hooked up with Rick Hubbard," a kazoo performer on Hilton Head Island, through an ad in Playbill. He became Hubbard's production manager for a six-week tour, which turned into a yearlong gig travelling around the country putting up kazoo band shows.
Hubbard gives away 30,000-40,000 kazoos a year to people all over the country and bills himself as "America's only full-time kazoo player," Murray said. Hubbard had bought the domain name "kazoos.com" in 1997, and as e-commerce grew, Murray, wearying of life on the road, agreed to manage the website. The business grew 30-40 percent in the first year, Murray said, "just by me being there to answer the phone."
Hubbard, Murray and another partner went to Michigan to check out a kazoo manufacturer whose business had flagged.
"We figured, 'Hey, kazoos. It can't be that hard!'" Murray recalled with a laugh. They bought all the assets and moved the business to Hilton Head.
"We really sell fun for a living," Murray said, "not just a cheap piece of plastic. If you give a roomful of 5-year-olds a kazoo, they're going to have fun, and if you give a roomful of 60-year-olds kazoos, they're going to have a good time."
Murray can tell any number of great stories he's heard during his decade as The Kazoo Guy. They've sent 5,000 to 10,000 kazoos to Americans serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. The company has gotten orders for the funeral of a woman who played kazoo all her life, and they filled a big order of airplane-shaped and custom kazoos for a party for a retiring general at the Pentagon.
After six years in Florida, the company's 2,000-square-foot space was no longer sufficient, so in July 2009, Kazoobie came to Beaufort. The Kazoo Factory moved into Beaufort Industrial Village, at a location custom-built for the former owners, M&W Lighting Showcase, with a 3,000-foot showroom and a 3,000-foot distribution warehouse.
Though things were great in Florida, Murray and his wife of six years, Melissa, who grew up on Hilton Head, wanted to make the move back to Beaufort to support family, having lost four grandparents in four years. The couple has recently moved into a home they renovated on Pigeon Point, across the street from Murray's grandmother.
Murray admitted that, unlike today, he "hated Beaufort" when he was growing up. Pointing to his home's gorgeous marsh view on a perfect, sunny Saturday he said, "When you're a kid, you don't go, 'How beautiful. We live in paradise.' You see a bunch of water and weeds."