The 1929 movie “Cocoanuts” made Groucho Marx a star at age 39. That year he wrote about the changes he’d seen in his two decades as an entertainer. You’d need at least an associate degree in American History to understand most of his references to obscure events and vaudevillians. Still, it’s interesting to see what nostalgia looked like in 1929.
Vaudeville was at the height of its popularity, and three performances a day, with four on Saturday and five on Sunday, was considered a vacation. A week which only called for one split engagement was a rest cure.
The standard vaudeville wage was forty dollars for a single and sixty dollars for a double; quartets were paid $150 and headliners $200.
Theater curtains were rolled on a log, and to be hit by one was sure death. Stage hands changed the sets in full lights and their shirt sleeves, and the proprietor’s daughter always played the piano. That’s how he came to be the proprietor.
The Three Nightingales became the Four Marx Brothers when Brother Arthur joined the act. When he spoke his first lines we realized he was born to be a pantomimist. We laughed indulgently when he said he’d like to take lessons on a harp and our act was called “Fun In Hi Skool.” This spelling was considered to be very comical in those days and, in fact, was the biggest laugh in the act. As I recall it now, it was the only laugh
Art Fischer,a monologist, disturbed our poker game in Champaign, Illinois, by calling Arthur “Harpo”; Leo “Chico”; Herbert “Zeppo”; and me “Groucho.” He was the only kibitzer on record who ever said anything of value.
Our booking agent was one Minnie Palmer and so was our mother.
Railroad fare was two cents a mile, and hotels had a standard rate of six dollars a week, including a midnight supper after the show.
The musical saw had not made its appearance on the vaudeville stage, and every burlesque show had an Irish and a Jew comedian, as well as a rich widow. It was considered quite the thing to have the saxophone player stretch out across the piano, and the violinist was a bust unless he could fiddle behind his back. All good drummers threw their sticks in the air, and the member of the orchestra who played the loudest was made the leader.
Harvard still won football championships… and men who played golf were considered effeminate. Every well-dressed man wore an elk’s tooth for a watch charm, and a fellow who could blow smoke rings was a social success.
It was a swell house that had more than one bathroom There were very few two-car families, but there was always meat on the table. No hot dog was complete without sauerkraut. Liver was given away with each purchase of meat
Chorus girls were picked for weight, not speed, and shop girls work silk stockings only on Sunday.
“Skidoo” was considered a pretty smart crack. Girls blushed when a wise-cracker would say, “Oh, you chicken!”… and only in a terrific windstorm were a girl’s knees visible.
What the country needed was a good three-cent cigar Beer was a nickel a glass… and dinners with candles were unknown except in homes of plumbers.
Half the population had stiff necks from looking at Halley’s Comet, and you could park as long as you liked in Times Square.
Actors spent their spare time in pool rooms, and if anybody had told me that a magazine would pay me to write articles I would have sneered derisively — If I had known what that meant.