Groucho Marx: Remembering an American Classic

By George Khoury

This month we honor the birth of an American original- Groucho (Julius) Marx.
In 13 feature films, he and his brothers, Harpo and Chico brought a sense of mayhem, madness, irreverence and a strong sense of the absurdities of life as our country suffered under the Depression.

Who could ever forget the stooped posture, the cigar jutting from the mouth, the greasepaint mustache and eyebrows, the glasses and the quick-witted wisecracks?

The Marx family grew up in a section of Manhattan populated by Europeans. Mother Minnie’s brother was Al Schoenberg, who morphed into Al Shean. Shean was half of the famous vaudeville team Shean and Gallagher. The brothers loved and respected Al. They sought his opinion on matters about their future.

Mother Minnie pushed the boys toward show business careers. The eldest, Leonard (Chico) was encouraged to play the piano, Julius was discovered to have a pleasing soprano voice. His goal was to become a doctor but to help the family he dropped out of school when he was twelve. Even though he lacked a formal education, Groucho learned to become a voracious reader.

By 1909 Minnie grouped the boys together as a low-quality singing group. The group included Groucho, brother Milton (Gummo), brother Adolph known as Harpo and another boy from the neighborhood.. The boys played the vaudeville circuit across the country.

It happened in Nacogdoches, Texas on a sweaty night years before air-conditioning. The boys were performing and the audience was a bit uncooperative-they were rude, unruly and on the dangerous side. The boys started cracking jokes among themselves on stage and the audience responded. The group now switched on stage from a singing group to a comedy troupe. They “borrowed” an existing comedy skit, “School Days” and now called it, “Fun in Hi Skule”. This bootlegged skit would provide their bread and butter for the next seven years.

While cutting their show business teeth in vaudeville, the brothers often performed with fake accents. Leonard, the oldest developed his Chico voice to convince a gang he wasn’t Jewish but Italian. Young Groucho developed a wonderful German accent that had to be stopped because a German U-boat sank the Lusitaania. The German character was quickly and repeatedly booed off the stage. This was a stroke of great fortune. Scrambling for a character, Groucho evolved into the stooped and wisecracking image we still love today.

As their popularity grew they next invaded Broadway and struck gold with three hit plays. By the time the Marx’s hit Hollywood, they were already major stars. Their first film was a silent comedy made in 1921 and never released. Tem years later they adapted their Broadway plays to film such as The Coconuts and Animal Crackers. In all Groucho made 26 movies, 1includimg the 13 with his brothers. When the film career
came to a halt, Groucho was asked to host a radio quiz show, You Bet Your Life. By 1950, it was brought to television. Although it seemed that Groucho was ad-libbing his way through the show, much of it was later revealed to have been scripted.

Songs Groucho introduced as still sung today-”Hooray for Captain Spaulding”, “Hello, I Must Be Going”, “Whatever it is, I’m Against,” and, “Lydia the Tattooed Lady.” The greasepaint mustache and eyebrows were born one night in vaudeville when Groucho didn’t have time to put on pasted ones.

His three marriages ended in divorce. He once described the perfect woman as “someone who looks like Marilyn Monroe and talks like George S. Kaufman.”

Despite not having a formal education Groucho carried on correspondence with most of the major figures of his day. The letters are housed in the Library of Congress and are included in his books. In the 1960s he experienced a rebirth. The films were on television and he became a hot guest on the variety shows. He was a favorite with Johnny Carson, Jack Paar, Dick Cavett, Steve Allen and Merv Griffin.

By the 1970s he started to fail. He died at age 84 on April 21, 1977 in Palm Springs, California. His death, some believe, was overshadowed by the death of Elvis three days earlier.

To this day Groucho impersonators are found in Vegas and cruise lines entertaining another generation with his style and wisdom.

Many years ago I took an assignment to interview Marvin Hamlisch because I knew he was a close friend of Groucho’s. When the interview was over Marvin thanked me. I asked if he would honor me by giving Groucho my address for a signed photo. He agreed. Weeks turned into months until one day a 9X 12 brown envelope arrived. Inside was a photo of all the brothers with Groucho’s inscription, “To George, You Bet Your Life. Groucho.” To this day it is one of my most cherished keepsake.
Hooray for Captain Spaulding!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Some of the most famous Groucho Comments

Alimony is like buying hay for a dead horse.

Are you going to believe me or what you see with your own eyes?

Why was I with her? She reminds me of you. In fact, she reminds me more of you than you do!

A man is only as old as the woman he feels

As soon as I get through with you, you’ll have a clear case for divorce and so will my wife.

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