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

The Personality Girl resurfaces

Annette Hanshaw, one of the most revered performers in the Cladrite Radio pantheon, was a very busy gal for a few years in the late 1920s and early ’30s. She recorded dozens of memorably jazzy pop sides (or were they poppy jazz?) between 1926 and 1934, under a variety of names and for several record labels (as was so often the norm in those days), and made innumerable radio appearances between 1932 and 1935. In fact, the readers of Radioland magazine voted Hanshaw, known in those days as “The Personality Girl,” their favorite singer of 1935.

Tommy Dorsey himself once called Hanshaw “a musician’s singer.”

So it was a huge loss to the world of pop and jazz music when Hanshaw retired from show business after marrying Pathé Records executive Herman “Wally” Rose. She made her last record in 1934 and appeared on the radio for the final time in 1937.

In recent years, much of Hanshaw’s recorded output has made its way to CD, boosting her current popularity and keeping her in the public eye. Her songs are even featured prominently in director Nina Paley’s 2009 animated film Sita Sings the Blue.

Though a rumored pair of mysterious demo records, cut many years after her retirement when Hanshaw was said to be considering a comeback, have never been released to the public, some “homemade” recordings Hanshaw made recently surfaced on youtube.com.

The person who posted the recordings, whose youtube handle is merrihew, offers the following background:

These two selections are the best sounding of a batch of homemade recordings that Annette Hanshaw did. Her husband copied them onto a tape for a friend of mine. I don’t know when they were made but on one of the records she refers to “Steve Cochran’s looks”. He was a big movie star for a couple of years around 1950. So that’s a hint. Unfortunately the sound on the others is pretty bad.

For Hanshaw fans, these recordings, even lacking as they admittedly are in fidelity and clarity, are an unexpected and delightful gift.

We’ve posted what merrihew says are the best of the recordings as this week’s Cladrite Clip (look to the sidebar on the left), but you can hear other, more muffled and scratchy snippets of songs from those home recording sessions at the links below:

If you’ve not been exposed to Hanshaw, we encourage you to give a listen to some of her earlier work online, at Last.fm, RedHotJazz.com, or one of the many other sites where streaming music can be heard. You’ll also hear Hanshaw often on Cladrite Radio.

We think it best to hear her at her best first, and then give these later, lo-fi recordings a listen to get an idea what might have been if, in fact, Hanshaw, who died of cancer in 1985, had undertaken a comeback.