On Gummo: the Forgotten Fifth Marx Brother

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Now, now, don’t get all testy. When I say “forgotten” I KNOW that Marx Brothers fans haven’t forgotten who Gummo is. But among the general public, many of whom don’t even know who Zeppo is, Gummo may be unknown. As for the millions of young people who don’t even know who the Marx Brothers are – – that’s a lost cause.

Milton “Gummo” Marx (1893-1977) was the second Marx Brother to join the family act with his brother Groucho. Chico and Harpo were playing piano professionally in saloons and cathouses by that time, but on their own. Gummo was a member of the act from 1907 through 1918 — 11 years. Harpo joined not long after Gummo; Chico joined in 1912.

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Julius and Milton were just kids when they started out, and originally they were in singing groups: first Wayburn’s Nightingales with a girl named Mabel O’Donnell…then the Three Nightingales with a boy named Lou Levy…then (when a booking required a quartet) the Four Nightingales with the addition of Adolph (Harpo)…and then the Six Mascots, with the addition of their mother/manager Minnie and her sister. Gradually they evolved into a crazy sketch comedy act and Chico joined. (For more on the whole history of the Marx Brothers go here).

But Gummo has always interested me. It is said that the family dynamic was such that the two older, wilder brothers Chico and Harpo (who more resembled their mother Minnie) tended to pair off together. And Groucho tended to pair off with Gummo, who, like him was a bit younger, more sedate, and more like their father “Frenchie”. Other interesting facts about Gummo — he originally played a “Hebrew” (or stereotypical “Yid”) in the act. This was at the same time when Groucho was playing a German and Harpo was playing an Irishman; Chico was the only one who kept playing his ethnic character, an Italian, until the end of his career. And like his three brothers (Groucho, who could write; and Chico and Harpo, who were musicians), Gummo, had a top notch vaudeville skill — he could dance at a professional level. And lastly, a partial reason for his eventual dropping out of the act: he had a stuttering problem. (Which makes it ironic that Harpo was the one who became the mute).

At any rate in 1918, almost sacrificially, Gummo got drafted into World War One (why not the other brothers?) After the war, he decided to stay behind the scenes, first as a talent agent, then as a manufacturer. His place in the act was taken over by Herbert a.k.a “Zeppo”, who today is better known because he made it into five of the team’s films. But I’m thinking that that dancing Marx Brother would have been an excellent asset in some of those films. Gummo remained close to his brothers until the end of his days. It is probable, though uncertain, that today is his birthday.

Here is a rare picture of the five of them together:

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To learn more about vaudeville, including the Marx Brothers please consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

6 comments

  1. Gummo fascinates me, as well. He had grandchildren–at least two of whom entered show business. Surely one of them could write about the Unknown Marx Brother. I expect swe Marx fiendsa would all buy the book. Gummo was the best liked by his brothers. (Harpo comes in second, and Chico was envied; his brothers admired his boldness in business but were frustrated by his irresponsibility) Groucho was likely the diva and the biggest pain; he and Zeppo were not friends. But I want to know more about Gummo, the singer and eccentric dancer, and how he felt about his brothers and their success. As far as I know, he married only once and stayed married unril he died a year after his wife’s death.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. “As for the millions of young people who don’t even know who the Marx Brothers are – – that’s a lost cause.” That bit cracked me up!

    That’s fascinating that he was the dancer. Wasn’t he Gummo for the gum shoes which laid a more silent tred? Great stuff. And good point about the stuttering and then Harpo becomes the silent brother. A bit ironic that.

    Like

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