Dateline October 2, 1890 – Julius Henry Marx is born in NYC. Later he is nicknamed Groucho and, along with his brothers Chico, and Harpo, became one-third of the greatest comedy team of all time: The Marx Brothers.
The Marx boys started in Vaudeville as singers. The Four Nightingales were Julius, Milton (also called Gummo), Arthur, and another boy named Lou Levy. They were always near the bottom of bill. After one performance in which the audience was more interested in a mule kicking up a fuss in Nacodoches, Texas, they started cracking wise onstage. Among the ad libbed gems: “Nacogdoches is full of roaches” and “The jackass is the flower of Tex-ass.” As it turned out, they were better comedians than singers. Instead of getting angry, the audience loved them. The Marx Brothers completely rewrote the act (read: borrowed a skit about a schoolroom and had it rewritten to suit themselves) and toured in variations of it for the next seven years or so, adding Chico along the way.
|There were actually 5 Marx Brothers. 1938: Front L-R:
Harpo, Chico, Groucho; Back L-R: Zeppo, Gummo
Each of the brothers played upon a comedy trope popular at the time. Harpo played a “Patsy Brannigan:” An Irish ruffian. He was uncomfortable speaking onstage, so he took the advice of his show-biz uncle Al Shean to remain silent and mime. Chico used an Italian accent that had, in real life, helped him avoid some bullies who were looking for a Jewish kid. Groucho played the teacher in this “Fun In Hi Skule” skit with a German accent. However, after the Lusitania was sunk a German accent was no longer funny to ‘Merkins. Groucho dropped the accent and became the character we know today: a rapid-fire, joke-cracking Lothario.
After seven years The Marx Brothers found themselves at the top of the bill and starring in their own Broadway shows, two of which became their first two movies: “The Cocoanuts” and “Animal Crackers.”
FUN TRIVIA: The action in “The Cocoanuts” takes place in Coconut Grove, Florida, during the land boom of the 1920s. Coconut Grove is also the location of the E.W.F. Stirrup House, which I am trying to save from a rapacious developer. Take a few minute to read about my ongoing series dedicated to the campaign to save this 120-year old house, which is currently undergoing Demolition by Neglect.
In all, The Marx Brothers made 13 movies together and Groucho made another 13 movies without his brothers. By the time Groucho became a radio show host for “You Bet Your Life,” which he later took to tee vee, he had already been in show biz for nearly half a century.
Here are some highlights of Groucho’s long career.
Just think: Had it not been for that mule in Texas all those years ago, we might have never heard of The Marx Brothers. We are lucky to have had them.