Never in their lives, even in childhood, were the Marx Brothers ever “angels”, despite the fact that one of them played the harp, and later in life they did PLAY angels in an aborted tv pilot called The Deputy Seraph.
We put “angels” in the title because it looks nice next to “anarchists” and because the Marx Brothers started out as performing kids who at the very least affected a modicum of sweetness whether or not they actually possessed it.
The Marx Brothers were third generation show folk. Their maternal grandparents were Lafe and Fanny Schoenberg, roving entertainers in Hanover, Germany. Lafe was a magician and ventriloquist and Fanny played the harp. When they came to the U.S., their shaky command of the English language meant they couldn’t get bookings. They lived with the Marx family when the boys were growing up, undoubtedly influencing all of the brothers, Harpo in particular.
The other major familial influence on the boys was their mother’s brother Al Shean, a successful vaudeville star. A singer, comedian, and sketch writer, his first act (launched in 1888) had been the Manhattan Quartette. Later, he anchored the Manhattan Comedy Four (1895-1900), and was partner in one of vaudeville’s most popular comedy duos Gallagher and Shean (1912-1914, and again starting in 1921).
Al Shean was particularly influential on Julius (Groucho). While Leonard (Chico) and Adolph (Harpo) were already working as piano players in the early years of the 20th century, the genesis of the act that became the Marx Brothers began with 15 year old Julius, who wanted to follow his uncle Al into the business.
According to Groucho his first paid performance occurred at Coney Island when he stood on a barrel and sang for a dollar. He also obtained work singing in an Episcopal Church Choir until, according to Groucho, “they figured out what was wrong with it”. (i.e., he was Jewish!)
In 1905 he answered a newspaper ad for a boy singer. He and another kid named Johnnie Morris beat out a couple of dozen other aspirants to participate in the Leroy Trio. The act turned out to call for female impersonation. Jean Leroy was in kimono and make-up when Groucho first saw him, and he performed in skirts and high heels. Thanks to scholar Rob Bader, we recently made a pilgrimage to the site of that historic audition. Learn about that here.
At any rate, a few weeks later Leroy stranded Groucho (absconding with his money) in Cripple Creek, CO. Groucho was forced to take work driving a horse drawn delivery wagon until his mother could wire him funds for return passage.
Back in New York he marked time singing in beer gardens, until he got cast in another vaudeville act with a Yorkshire music hall singer. They were billed as “Lily Seville and Master Marx, The Lady and the Tiger, Direct from Paris.” Again he was stranded. Lily dumped him in Waco, Texas, forcing him to find his way home again.
In 1906, however a major turn of good fortune arrived. Groucho was cast in an early Gus Edwards kiddie act, the Postal Telegraph Boys. Songwriter Gus Edwards was vaudeville’s premier producer of kiddie acts. (Learn more about him here).
The Postal Telegraph Boys consisted of eight kids dressed as telegraph messengers who would engage in hijinks and sing songs. (The pic above is of a different Gus Edwards act). It was big time stuff and a definite feather in young Julius’s cap, as was getting his picture on this piece of Gus Edwards sheet music:
It was when he was with this act that Groucho got to sing “Somebody’s Sweetheart I Want to Be” at a benefit for the victims of recent San Francisco Earthquake on the stage of The Metropolitan Opera with a full orchestra.
Wayburn had co-produced the Postal Telegraph Boys. Now, he and Minnie cooked up a new act: Wayburn’s Nightingales, featuring Julius, Milton and a girl named Mabel O’Donnell. This is the true genesis of the act: now we have two Marx Brothers on stage at the same time. The trio got great reviews. While they were a singing act, there was at this stage some mention of Julius already doing “Dutch” comedy in the vein of Weber and Fields and his uncle Al.
The Marxes broke with Wayburn in late 1907, changed the name of the act to The Three Nightingales, and replaced O’Donnell with a boy named Lou Levy. Previously a big time act, they were now busted back down to small time.
In June 1908 we get three Marx Brothers, when Minnie drafted Adolph (Harpo) into the act so that they could get a higher paying gig as a quartet. His historic debut happened at Henderson’s Music Hall, Coney Island, corner of Surf and Stillwell,
There are different versions of the historic occasion. The most romantic has Minnie storming into a nickelodeon where Harpo was playing piano, grabbing him, dragging up the aisle and out of the theatre, forcing him to change into a costume on the subway, and shoving him onstage with the other three boys unrehearsed, where he was so stricken with stage fright that he soiled his pants. Since he was about 19 years old at the time, that must have been quite an occasion.
Gradually, comedy began to creep more and more into the act. Although I have no evidence for this, I imagine Harpo as an instigator. But increasingly Groucho is reported to have been doing his German butcher boy character Hans Pumpernickel, with the others “stealing his wieners”. A reviewer of the time liked their singing, but advised them to cut out the comedy.
The Marx Brothers themselves often liked to cite one particular occasion when the shift in emphasis from singing to comedy in their act occurred.
The year was 1909, and the event is variously said to have taken place in Nagadoches or Marshall, Texas or Ada, Oklahoma. The boys were performing on stage when word reached the theatre that a mule had broken loose and was causing a commotion out on the street. The entire audience made for the egress en masse to get a look at the mule. When they returned the Marx Brothers (mostly Groucho) were duly exercised and cut lose with a stream of invective. And this was the moment went anarchy — improv — became a crucial part of their act.
In 1909, the Marxes moved their home base to Chicago and replaced Lou Levy with one Freddie Hutchins. For a time in 1910, Minnie and her sister Hannah joined the act and they were the Six Mascots.
Minnie and Hannah, then in their late 40s deigned to essay the roles of blushing schoolgirls. They strummed guitars and sang “Two Little Girls in Blue”. But the writing was on the wall when they sat on a chair and it collapsed under their weight onstage. They left the act shortly after that.
The act was evolving into a school act, a form very much in vogue at the time. Gus Edwards (author of the song “School Days”) had launched the craze. By 1911 they were calling their sketch “Fun in Hi Skule”. Groucho played the teacher with a German accent, and the rest were pupils. Harpo was the Irish “Patsy Brannigan” (hence his red wig), and Gummo played a character who was variously described as thre Hebrew, the Juvenile and “a nance”. Chico, who was already doing his Italian dialect character in another act, joined his brothers in 1912.
Two years later they got their iconic nicknames, the centennial of which was the precipitating event for Marxfest.
For more on the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.
For more on comedy film history please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc