If I look oh-so-smug its because in the last couple of days I learned about two dozen important facts about the Marx Brothers that aren’t in any book and I’m honor bound not to divulge anything until the man who painstakingly uncovered it all (Robert S. Bader) puts his book out. Mysteries that seemed unanswerable have been answered. One has already been spilled.
At last night’s Marxes in Manhattan program several more emerged. While I can’t spill, I can tease. Bader knows what became of the original “third Nightingales” Mabel O’Donnell and Lou Levy. And he even knows of a third “third Nightingale” no one knew about. He knows all about Gene Leroy — even has a picture of him, and knows of his tawdry fate, a better story than even die-hard fans can suspect. He’s found corroboration for many “iffy” stories, and has ruled many others out. He showed the classified ad that Groucho famously answered to launch his show biz career, a tiny, tiny needle in a haystack thing. No wonder it took Bader decades to find.
Bader also showed more clips from his upcoming DVD set of rarer than rare rarities.
Stuff that blew my mind included a 1952 clip from You Bet Your Life in which Groucho sings the song he’d sung as part of Gus Edwards act on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera in 1906, “Somebody’s Sweetheart I Want to Be”. The wild thing about this clip is how he sings it. He sings it just as he must have rehearsed and performed it in 1906. You watch him summon the old performance, and you see the child who did it come out. It is eerie and beautiful and touching all at once.
And instructive. It sounded oddly like the old cylinders of the time — this was the performance style. This is a contemporary of Jolson, and Nat M. Wills and Nora Bayes and Eva Tanguay. And this reminder (which I keep getting repeatedly as we delve into this team’s past): though we associate the Marx Brothers with the Jazz Age, the origins of their act were pre-jazz. We have lived with jazz and all the post jazz developments for so long we forget what this was like. All of show business, all pop music had SUCH a different feel prior to jazz. More stately, sentimental, innocent-sounding. This is a wild frontier, it’s something I’d like to spend a lot more time with. You’ll catch a bit of the flavor in I’ll Say She Is, the sensibility of the tunes in that show are for the most part pre-jazz.
There’s TONS more. There was a clip of Groucho singing an old German number (from when he was still doing Dutch comedy), called “Schnitzel Bank”. And young Zachary Catron, playing Groucho sang a song from the Marx Brothers early repertoire called “Hello, Mr. Stein”, possibly the first time the song has been sung publicly in about 90 years. (Earlier in the program, Catron, and performers Richard Pearson and Kit Russoniello recreated the all-drag Leroy Trio, singing “Somebody’s Sweetheart I Want to Be”. Between that, Groucho’s and Sarah Moskowitz’s versions, I know have that very old tune stuck in my head.
Another plug for Bader’s video: many, many silent home movies, going as far back as the late 20s when Groucho lived in Great Neck. When I get the DVD set (and rest assured I will) I’m going to watch these many times.
Also last night, just to spice things up Rob Schwimmer of the NY Theramin Society played a couple of tunes on that weird sci-fi instrument. Chalk it all up to the showman-like brilliance of Kathy Biehl, who organized the program (and was so helpful in supplying me with the historic tunes for my Coney Island program). See her as Mrs. Mintworth in I’ll Say She Is a couple of weeks from now!
It’s a brave new world for Marx Brothers fans.