Here are 10 things you should know about the legendary Groucho Marx, born 128 years ago today. He is, for our money, perhaps the funniest man who ever lived. We loved him while he was still with us, and we miss him dearly today.
In 1974, big news was made when prolonged legal wrangling over the rights to the Marx Brothers‘ second movie, Animal Crackers (1930), was finally resolved and the movie was released for public screenings for the first time for the first time in many years.
Imagine that: A “new” Marx Brothers movie (new in the fact that no one had been able to view it, in a theatre or on television, for so long—and of course, there were no VHS tapes yet, much less DVDs or Blu-Rays).
It was our junior year in high school, and we were working part-time evenings and weekends at the Northpark Cinema 4 in Oklahoma City. Already very devoted to all things Marx Brothers, we were thrilled when Animal Crackers was booked there. The movie settled in for an inexplicably long run (our memory might be playing tricks on us, but we recall it being there for a month or more), and we spent many an hour on those slow weekend afternoons soaking up the Marxian magic when we should have been out front taking tickets and sweeping up spilled popcorn. (To this day, we have the dialogue from that picture all but memorized.)
But it wasn’t just Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Zeppo who held our attention. The winsome Ms. Lillian Roth, who played the ingénue in Animal Crackers and whose 107th birthday it is today, hooked us but good with her flirtatious ways and deep-dish dimples.
We’ve had a crush on her ever since, and we trust that, after watching the following clips, you will, too. Happy birthday, lovely Lillian Roth, wherever you may be.
This post first saw the light of day on 12/13/2012.
- Chico’s father, Samuel Marx, emigrated to the U.S. from Alsace-Loraine; his mother, Minnie Schönberg, came over from Germany. Sam, known as Frenchie, was, according to his famous sons, NYC’s worst tailor.
- Chico was the eldest of the brothers who would go on to become world famous, but he was not the first-born of Minnie and Sam’s offspring. Their first child, a son named Manfred, died as an infant.
- Of Jewish heritage, Chico honed his Italian accent as a youth, navigating the Upper East Side’s rough-and-tough Yorkville, a neighborhood where the predominant ethnicity changed from block to block, making it advisable to be able to pass when confronted with unfriendly locals.
- For most of his life, Chico had two interests: women and gambling. As a youth, he had already become such a gambler that none of the family’s possessions were safe from the pawnshop. Frenchie frequently had to pay for the privilege of retrieving his tailor’s shears.
- Chico Marx experienced much more success as a womanizer than a gambler. Though his gambling habit left him short of money most of his life, his charming (and persistent) personality paid off royally in the area of female companionship.
- Chico was not only the eldest surviving Marx brother, he was also Minnie’s favorite. She doted on him, even paying for him to take piano lessons when money was very tight. Her investment paid off as early as his adolescence, when he was paid to tickle the ivories at silent movie theatres and in bordellos (when Chico would skip out on these gigs, his younger brother Arthur (later Harpo), who closely resembled Leonard when they were young, would often take them over, though his pianistic abilities fell well short of his older brother’s).
- Chico was the last of the four elder Marxes to join the family act; Herbert (later Zeppo), born in 1912, was much younger). Chico held a number of jobs as young man, including a song plugger gig in Philadelphia that he left to team with a singer named Aaron Gordon. They formed a vaudeville act called Marx and Gordon.
- The nickname Chico is properly spelled (and pronounced) Chicko. In May 1914, during the brothers’ vaudeville years, a monologist named Art Fisher gave them their nicknames during a backstage poker game. He was inspired to dub Leonard “Chicko” because of his penchant for chasing girls—often called “chickens” or “chicks” in those days. The brothers wouldn’t use their nicknames professionally until some years later, but after they started doing so, a typesetter omitted the K when spelling Chico’s name in a theatre program, and Chico continued to use that spelling thereafter.
- In January 1942, with the Marxes’ film career not yet over but definitely winding down and with Chico, as always, in need of money, he partnered with Ben Pollack to form a touring big band. The outfit was successful but short-lived—it broke up in July 1943, but not before having released four recordings on a pair of 78s. The band can be heard in action in a 1942 appearance on the radio program The Fitch Bandwagon. Jazz crooner Mel Torme spent time with the orchestra, serving as drummer and vocalist.
- Chico’s daughter, Maxine, did a little bit of film acting in the 1930s and went on to be a successful casting director. In 1980, she wrote an affectionate but honest memoir of life with her father entitled Growing Up with Chico.
Happy birthday, Chico Marx, wherever you may be!
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!