The Marx Brothers Live!
June 11, 2020 9:05 PM   Subscribe

The Marx Brothers Early Career Explored in Fascinating New Book Robert S. Bader spoke to us about his book detailing the Marx Brothers' rise in vaudeville. In a 2016 article, Robert S. Bader talks to DenOfGeek about the Marx Brothers' early career on stage, even on Broadway, long before their movie career started.

From a 15 year old Julias H. Marx (Groucho) making his debut on Broadway in 1905 [!] to the filming of their hit Broadway show Animal Crackers which led to them only doing stage shows to test their material after that (including for A Night At The Opera), The Marx Brothers began as a stage act (mostly singing, later comedy) and then moved into film. Summaries of The Marx Brothers On Stage, including some theater programs and some sheet music to songs in several shows.

The Theatrical Agency Scene from I'll Say She Is, filmed as its stage version in 1931. [Never otherwise filmed.]
The Unknown Marx Brothers Documentary - Inside The Marx Brothers Best Assets [1h14m]
posted by hippybear (25 comments total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
Nothing really new in the interview, but I like that he’s done his own research to prove or disprove the brothers’ self-myth making. The book sounds like a good read.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 10:04 PM on June 11, 2020

I found the sheet music library for certain shows a bit astonishing.
posted by hippybear at 10:08 PM on June 11, 2020

His website's page about Vaudeville's Oddest Acts is wonderful.
posted by Paul Slade at 12:03 AM on June 12, 2020 [1 favorite]

What myths were the saddest to dispel?

I suppose the toughest one to let go of for Marx Brothers fans would be the fable about what happened in Nacogdoches, Texas – the purported site of the miraculous overnight transformation of the Marx Brothers from a singing act to a comedy act.

For the curious, here's a good version of that tale.
posted by mcdoublewide at 5:56 AM on June 12, 2020 [2 favorites]

Thank you, hippybear! After I RTFA, I immediately went and bought this book. Should be at my house in a few days. This came at the perfect time! I am currently re-reading the Groucho Marx Mysteries series by Ron Goulart and this will be a great next book.
posted by bijou243 at 6:35 AM on June 12, 2020 [1 favorite]

I was intrigued by the early stories about Groucho's singing.

A couple of weeks ago, I was taken aback by a 1933-shot movie called Fugitive Lovers on TCM starring Robert Montgomery but also including Moe Howard, Larry Fine and Jerry Howard (later known as Curly). They do as much singing as foolery. Their vaudeville boss Ted Healy was in the picture too.
posted by notmtwain at 6:56 AM on June 12, 2020 [1 favorite]

the brothers’ self-myth making

How dare you. The only lie any Marx Brother ever told was that Harpo could speak.
posted by Etrigan at 7:19 AM on June 12, 2020 [4 favorites]

Yup, I read this when it first came out. Great stuff. Harpo's autobiography provides the embellished outline ("yeah, being on the road all the time sucked, and we weren't very good"), and this book fills in all the details. It's also a fascinating look at pre-movie entertainment.

Definitely also check out Gimme a Thrill: The Story of "I'll Say She Is," the Lost Marx Brothers Musical and How it Was Found.
posted by Melismata at 7:38 AM on June 12, 2020

In November of 1932 Groucho and Chico did a short-lived radio show called Flywheel, Shyster, and Flywheel. The scripts were thought to be lost, but were rediscovered and compiled into a book that I recommend highly. Whenever I need a laugh, I pick it up and open it at random. This morning's example:
Groucho: Ravelli, get off the floor. You'll catch cold sleeping there with nothing but that thin desk over you.

Chico: Okay, boss. Throw on another desk.
posted by MrVisible at 8:16 AM on June 12, 2020 [6 favorites]

(Also notmtwain that is awesome, there should be an FPP about the Stooges!!)
posted by Melismata at 8:26 AM on June 12, 2020

In the 1990s, BBC Radio recreated those old FS&F shows from the original scripts. They're pretty good.
posted by Paul Slade at 8:48 AM on June 12, 2020 [2 favorites]

This looks really interesting - thanks for sharing!

A few years back I was really into reading the autobiographies of as many of the old vaudeville / early film and TV stars. The Marx Brothers, Jack Benny, George Burns and Gracie Allen, etc. And since they all knew each other, a lot of the stories overlapped. And to this day I still recommend Harpo Speaks as one of my favorite autobiographies, not least because he had such a fascinating life (he was the only person who was a regular member of both the Hollywood "round table" and the Algonquin Round Table) - but also because for every one of the raunchy or semi-illegal stories that they all repeated, his version always revolved around how he was there, but didn't really participate - or he was there, but had to leave early. And he's just so earnest and winning about it that you (almost) believe him...
posted by Mchelly at 8:55 AM on June 12, 2020 [7 favorites]

Sidebar: How do you pronounce “Chico”? I recently listened to Leonard Maltin’s commentary for A Night at the Opera and he was saying it like “Chick-o”. But I’ve been using “Chee-ko” all these years?
posted by Ten Cold Hot Dogs at 3:14 PM on June 12, 2020

It is Chick-o, because he was an inveterate woman-chaser.
posted by Etrigan at 3:18 PM on June 12, 2020 [4 favorites]

Needs more Gummo.
posted by Chrysostom at 10:29 PM on June 12, 2020 [1 favorite]

Pronounced "Jummo."

The best Three Stooges ancillary materials I've found are the Larry Fine interviews after his stroke, I'm convinced he was the funniest one. There used to be a lot on YouTube, but it's all pretty piecemeal now.

Here's a teenaged Tom Bergeron interviewing him in the early 70s:
Tom: "You still play the violin at all?"
Larry: "Not since I've been paralyzed."

Thanks for the post, so much great material here!
posted by rhizome at 11:02 PM on June 12, 2020

How many Marx Brothers did jealous boyfriends, fathers, or husbands shoot?

There are no actual statistics on this, but certainly there is some compelling evidence to suggest that one of them tended to be on the wrong end of a gun more than the others.

It is Chick-o, because he was an inveterate woman-chaser.
posted by dannyboybell at 5:13 AM on June 13, 2020

Georgie Jessel said that Chico didn't zip up his fly for good until he was 70.
posted by DJZouke at 5:32 AM on June 13, 2020 [2 favorites]

In the 1990s, BBC Radio recreated those old FS&F shows from the original scripts. They're pretty good.

Thanks for the link. I’m pretty sure I used to listen to these on the CBC in the 90s, but I didn’t know the backstory.
posted by stopgap at 10:14 AM on June 13, 2020

"Chico" is one of those names where I know the right way to say it, but I can't bring myself to say it that way. Like "Moog".

Off stage the Marx Brothers looked and sounded very alike, which is one reason the distinctive made-up characters were so necessary for their act. I have heard stories of the brothers somtimes switching roles at stage performances, and the audience didn't even notice.
posted by w0mbat at 6:20 PM on June 13, 2020

Yeah, I first noticed the resemblance between Chico and Harpo the first time I saw the piano duet in The Big Store. It’s like when you have two cats from the same litter who have the exact same face shape but different markings. (Or as we say in our family, “same cat, different paint job.”) And Groucho and Zeppo are completely believable as father and son in Horse Feathers.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 8:42 PM on June 13, 2020

The idea that perhaps sometimes Chico and Harpo would change places for an evening, with the opposite wigs, and the audience wouldn't know the difference... is making my brain explode in a way that I didn't realize it could until just now.

If you need me, I'll be in the corner speaking non-language and rocking quietly.
posted by hippybear at 1:47 PM on June 14, 2020 [2 favorites]

If you enjoy reading about vaudeville and the early days of comedy (going into the 1980s), read The Comedians by Kliph Nesteroff. Highly recommended. (To head off the complaint of at least one Amazon commenter, no, it's not a funny book; it's a book about comedians.)
posted by pmurray63 at 4:01 PM on June 14, 2020 [3 favorites]

We took a group of high schoolers to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival a few years back and saw a production of Animal Crackers, and then The Cocoanuts the next year. I was a fan from way back, but I thought the kids would hate it, think it was corny, etc. They loved it, and some of the girls crushed hard on Groucho. Note: The actor who played Harpo, who was always my favorite, came out into the audience and sat on my lap at one point
posted by olykate at 10:54 AM on June 15, 2020 [2 favorites]

In his autobiography, Harpo describes a racket he and Chico had going as young men, trading on the resemblance. As the oldest, Chico was the only brother who got formal piano lessons. Harpo had a great ear and learned by watching Chico, but he only had a repertoire of two or three songs. With his ear, he could play them in a bunch of different styles and moods, but they were still the same two or three songs. Chico had steady work accompanying silent movies. He’d go to a new theater, audition, and get the job. Then Harpo would show up to work. He’d make it last maybe a few days before people noticed he was repeating the same songs, complain, and get him fired. At which point Chico would go to another theater, audition, etc. etc.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 2:09 PM on June 15, 2020

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