Happy 126th Birthday, Groucho Marx!

The immortal Groucho Marx was born Julius Henry Marx 126 years ago today on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. He is, for us, in the show-business pantheon, perhaps the funniest man who ever lived. We loved him with a passion while he was still with us, and we miss him dearly today.

Here are 10 GM Did-You-Knows:

  • Groucho and his four brothers were first-generation New Yorkers. His mother, Minnie, was from northern Germany; His father, Sam, came from Alsace in France (hence the affectionate name he was given: Frenchie). Sam and Minnie met in New York, married and raised a clan of sons that left an indelible mark in the worlds of vaudeville, musical theatre, movies, radio and television.
  • People know of the exploits and accomplishments of Groucho, Harpo and Chico, and there are some who are familiar with Zeppo‘s 18-year stint in the family act. A few even know of Gummo‘s brief participation while the brothers were still working in vaudeville, but few are aware of Manfred, Sam and Minnie’s first-born son, who was born in 1886 but lived just seven months.
  • Groucho was a lifelong insomniac, which he blamed on the financial bath he took when the stock market crashed in 1929.
  • Groucho was very much a middle child, pining for his mother’s affection throughout his life. Minnie doted instead on Chico (perhaps understandable, since he was the first child born after the painful loss of Manfred).
  • Groucho and his brothers were nephews to Al Shean, Minnie’s brother, who was a huge success in vaudeville as half of the headlining act Gallagher and Shean.
  • In the early years of the brothers’ vaudeville career, Groucho played a “Dutch” or German character, a familiar role during the heyday of ethnic humor.
  • Though he dreamed of being a doctor, Groucho’s years of formal education were brief, and in 1905, he was the first of the five sons to enter show business—but as a singer, not a comedian. He answered an ad in the New York World for an audition being conducted by one Gene Leroy at his apartment at 281 Third Avenue (the building is still there, as is, one assumes, the apartment). Groucho was hired to tour with the Leroy Trio, but was soon abandoned in Colorado when Leroy and the third member of the trio, Johnny Morris, absconded with all the money the threesome had earned. Minnie had to wire Groucho money to get back to NYC. Groucho’s lifelong worries over money (even after he was successful and financially very stable) is often attributed to the aforementioned losses he suffered in the Crash of ’29, but we’re inclined to think his traumatic first experience on the road in vaudeville had as much, if not more, to do with it.
  • The self-educated Groucho was an avid reader and admired writers much more than performers. His own humorous prose was frequently published in The New Yorker and other periodicals of the day. He also authored several books.
  • Groucho was a Gilbert and Sullivan aficionado and was thrilled when he was given the opportunity to portray Ko-Ko in a 1960 television production of The Mikado on NBC.
  • Groucho introduced Johnny Carson as the new host of The Tonight Show on October 1, 1962, and was Carson’s first guest on the show.

Happy birthday, Groucho, wherever you may be!

Groucho Marx

Times Square Tintypes: The Marx Brothers

In this chapter from his 1932 book, Times Square Tintypes, Broadway columnist Sidney Skolsky profiles the Marx Brothers.

AH, NUTS!

THE MARX BROTHERS. They are known as Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Zeppo. Their real names are Julius, Arthur (formerly Adolph), Milton (editor’s note: Skolsky got this wrong: Chico’s real name was Leonard; it was Gummo who was named Milton) and Herbert. They were given their nicknames by a kibitzer at a poker game in Galesburg, Ill.
Caricature of the Marx BrothersThey always sign their contracts in green ink.
Three of them are married. Harpo, the unmarried one, has been on the verge of eight times. With eight different girls.
Have been known as “The Three Nightingales,” “The Four Nightingales,” “The Six Mascots” (in this act they were assisted by their mother and their other brother, Gummo, now in the cloak and suit business), and “The Four Marx Brothers.” The name of the act depended on how many of the family were in it.
Are nephews of Al Shean of Gallagher and Shean fame.
Groucho’s theatrical career started at the age of thirteen in a Gus Edwards “School Days” act. He was fired in the middle of the tour because his voice changed.
Harpo’s debut was made twenty-two years ago on a Coney Island stage. He was pushed on when “The Three Mascots” were playing there. He wore a white duck suit with a flower in his buttonhole. Frightened, he stood with his back to the audience an didn’t say a word until the curtain fell. Has yet to speak a word on the stage. After his début “The Three Mascots” was changed to “The Four Nightingales.”
After finishing a sandwich at a party, Groucho throws the plate out the window.
Chico is the business member of the quartet. It was he who arranged for their first appearance in a Broadway show.
Harpo was once a bellboy at the Hotel Seville. He earned an extra twenty-five cents a week from Cissie Loftus for taking her dog for a daily stroll. Chico played the piano in nickelodeons. Groucho drove a grocery wagon in Cripple Creek, Col. He had a burning desire to become a prize fighter.
Whenever they want to get out of an engagement Harpo fakes an appendicitis.
Their dressing room is always filled with visitors. Herbert Swope, Neysa McMein, Harold Ross, Alexander Woollcott, Heywood Broun and Alice Duer Miller are nightly visitors when they have a show in town.
Chico will bet on anything. Merely say it is a nice day and he will say: “I’ll bet you.”
Harpo’s and Zeppo’s favorite dish is crab flakes and spaghetti. Groucho and Chico, on the other plate, are especially fond of dill pickles and red caviar.
The four of them play the stock market. That’s why they’re still in the show business.
Whenever Groucho wants to visit his broker he tells his wife he is going to play golf. He visits his broker attired in a golf outfit, carrying a bag of clubs.
Are always playing practical jokes. Annoy interviewers by pretending they are slightly deaf. Another gag is Groucho telling their life story. He stops at a certain point saying: “This is all I remember of my life. Chico knows the rest.” Chico continues with an entirely different story. He also stops in the middle, offers the same excuse, referring the interviewer to Zeppo, who continues the process until all four have told a different story of their lives.
Offstage Groucho, Chico and Zeppo occasionally wear glasses.
Zeppo is in the real estate business. He tries to sell property backstage.
Harpo is the best poker player of The Thanatopsis Club. Has won enough money from Heywood Broun to pay for young Heywood’s tuition fee through any college in the country. Is also a great croquet player. Often plays in Central Park for a thousand dollars a game.
Their grandfather was a noted strolling German magician. Their grandmother was also in the act. She played the “accompanying music” on a harp.
They failed to click only once. In a London Music Hall. The Englishmen booed and threw pennies on the stage. Groucho stepped to the footlights and told them they were cheap. He dared them to throw shillings. They made more money at the performance than they were paid for the week.
To Harpo every woman, regardless of her name, is Mrs. Benson.
Harpo can play any musical instrument. Chico plays the piano and harp. Groucho plays the guitar. Zeppo likes to listen to the radio.

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