Groucho Turns 120
Originally published September 18, 1954.
Of all the people you know who were born in 1890, how many can still make you laugh? It’s been 80 years since Groucho Marx first appeared in a movie, but he’s still cracking up audiences. Something about his humor — with its rapid-fire, irreverent wordplay — continues to appeal to the American sense of humor.
The character of “Groucho” was born on the vaudeville circuit sometime in 1919. He bore a certain similarity to the Julius Henry Marx born October 2, 1890. Both were unpredictable and sharp-witted, but Julius was far more sentimental and anxious than his comedic counterpart. As his son wrote in an eight-part biography of “My Old Man Groucho,”
He’s a sentimentalist, but he’d rather be found dead than have you know it. And he’s a dreamer, although he likes to pass himself off as a disillusioned realist.
Arthur wrote the biography in 1954, when Groucho was the enormously popular host of the television show, “You Bet Your Life.” His father added to his son’s efforts by sticking in occasional footnotes.
If I’ve given you the impression that my father is a miser, I’d like to correct that notion at once. (“You’d better, or I’ll cut you off without a nickel.” Groucho) He’s one of the most generous men I’ve ever known. (“Now you’re talking.” Groucho)
Arthur recounted several key moments in Groucho’s career, including the day he abandoned his primarily musical act with “The Fourth Nightingales” and moved into comedy.
[They] embarked on a tour of the South and Midwest. Harpo was still singing off-key, Janie O’Riley was still missing the high notes, and least once a month they found themselves stranded without funds in some whistle-stop town. Somewhere during all this, they changed the name of the act to the Marx Brothers & Co. Presumably this was to hide their identity, but essentially the act was the same. They were fooling no one, and by the time they pulled into a place called Nacogdoches, Texas, they were prepared for a last-ditch stand.
Their first performance in Nacogdoches was at a matinee. It was a real honky-tonk kind of theater, with an audience of big ranchers in ten-gallon bate and small ranchers in five-gallon hats. In the middle of the act the audience got up en masse and disappeared through the front exit to view a run-away mule. My father and his brothers were accustomed to insults, but for some reason this one made them furious. When the customers filed back into the theater, all the Marx brothers wanted to do was get even.
A rough-house comedy bit evolved, with the Marxes, led by my father, flinging insults about Texas and its inhabitants to the audience. Since this happened over thirty years ago, my father is not very clear about details, but he does remember calling this Texans in the audience “damned Yankees” and throwing in lines that went something like:
“Nacogdoches…… Is full of roaches.”
If that’s a sample, perhaps it’s just as well that my father can’t remember any more. At any rate, he was launched on a successful career of ad-libbing. The audience loved the Marx brother’s clowning, and greeted the crudest insults and the most tired jokes with laughter.
And so the brothers were suddenly comedians…
And then, there’s the story of how the Marx brothers got their nicknames.
On one of their vaudeville tours, my father and his brothers found themselves on the same bill with a monologist named Art Fisher. Fisher’s hobby was giving people nicknames. A few hours spent with my father convinced Fisher that he ought to be called Groucho. The origin of “Harpo” [the harp-player] is, of course, obvious. “Chico” evolved from the fact that he was a lady-killer, ladies in those days being known as “chickens.” Gummo was so called because he wore “gum shoes” whether it was raining or not. Soon my father and his brothers found themselves using the new names in place of their real ones.
Although Arthur Marx is careful to show the difference between his father, Julius, and the character Groucho. Yet he also relates several incidents where any difference disappears. After the Marx Brothers had become celebrities, for example,
My father made his first extravagant purchase, a seven-passenger sedan that cost six thousand dollars. (“No, it was a six-passenger sedan that cost seven thousand dollars.” Groucho)
The car seemed as tall as it was long; it had window separating the driver’s compartment from the back seat, and it was loaded with nickel-plated trimmings. At one stage of his vaudeville career my father and his brothers had owned motorcycles, and traveled from town to town on them, sometimes transporting chorus girls on the handle bas. (“Sometimes? Always!” Groucho) But this was his first full-sized motor vehicle.
Chico was on the stage doing his piano solo when the new car was delivered to the stage door of the Casino Theater. Figuring that Chico would be on for another ten minutes, father hopped in the car and, dressed as Napoleon, went for a spin around the block. When his Napoleon sketch was due to go on, he was wedged in a traffic jam three blocks away.
“Chico had to play fourteen encores,” my father recalls. “And this was difficult, since he only knew three numbers.”
In his desperation to get hack to the theater, my father made an illegal left turn, and a policeman stopped him. One look at my father dressed as Napoleon was enough to convince the gendarme that he was a refugee from Bellevue’s psychiatric ward.
“But I’m one of the Marx brothers,” father insisted, “and I’m due on the stage right this minute.”
” If you’re one of the Marx brothers,” said the cop, “let’s hear you say something funny.”
“If you’re a policeman, let’s see you arrest somebody!” retorted my father. That line should have landed my father in jail, but evidently the policeman felt that only a Marx brother would have the nerve to say such a thing. He escorted Groucho back to the theater…
My mother never quite understood my father’s sense of humor. Her first warning of things to come occurred at their wedding, in 1919. The ceremony was to take place in her mother’s apartment in Chicago. They were turned down by five different clergymen before Jo Swerling, their best man, found a minister willing to marry a show-business couple.
My father showed his gratitude to the minister by heckling him all through the ceremony. Harpo can attest to this, because he was hiding behind a potted plant at the time, and was moving the plant around the room to make it appear to be walking.
Coming down the home stretch, relieved that the ordeal was almost over, the minister asked, “Do you, Julius, take this woman to be your lawful wedded wife?”
“Well, I’ve gone this far,” replied my father. “I might as well go through with it.”
Very few women would stand for that sort of thing, much less think it funny. My mother put up with it for twenty-one years…
He always felt fine when he took the family to a restaurant tor dinner. Then mother could count on him for jokes, especially if the headwaiter didn’t recognize him.
“Name, sir? There’ll be a short wait.”
“Jackson,” father would reply. “Stonewall Jackson. And this is Mrs. Jackson, and there are the little Jacksons.”
Mother would do a slow burn, knowing that his real name would get us a table immediately.
“Grouch,” she whisper, “Tell them who you are.”
“Why should I?” he’d reply. “If I can’t get in under the name of Jackson, then I don’t want to eat here. I don’t like restaurants where you have be a celebrity to get in.”
“Then you should have made a reservation,” she’d say. “You can’t walk into a restaurant on Thurdsay night without a reservation and—“
At this point we’d leave for another restaurant, or my father would tap the headwaiter on the arm. “My wife wants me to tell you who I am,” he’d say. “My name’s not really Stonewall Jackson. It’s Abe Schwartz, and I’m in the wholesale-plumbing supply business. And this is Mrs. Schwatz and all the little Schwartzes.”
If the headwaiter thought he was peculiar, the waitress, when we’d finally be seated, would consdier completely mad.
“Miss,” he might begin, glancing up from the menu, “do you have frog’s legs?”
“I’ll ask the chef,” she’d reply.
“No. You’re not supposed to say that,” father would explain in a patient tone. “When I say, ‘Do you have frog’s legs?’ you’re supposed to answer, ‘No, rheumatism, makes me walk this way.’ O.K., now let’s try it again. Miss, do you have frog’s legs?”
Her face would go blank. “It isn’t on the menu. I’ll have to ask the chef.”
“Now you’ve spoiled it. We’ll have to start all over aga—“
“Grouch,” my mother would interrupt, “this girl is busy. Who do you waste her time with such foolishness?”
“It’s not foolishness. It might come in very handy to her someday. Supposing vaudeville comes back and she wants to get up an act. Look at the shape she’d be in with this sure-fire material.”
At the risk of sounding traitorous, I suspect that the comedy was a way of drawing attention to himself, without actually revealing his identity. He had a fixation about not wanting to get any special privileges just because he was a celebrity… At the same time, he couldn’t reconcile himself to being unrecognized. So he made himself conspicuous by other methods. (“Take it easy with that probing. If I want to be analyzed, I’ll go to a psychiatrist.” Groucho)