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Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The Marx Brothers

Samuel Marks, born Simon Marrix (1861-1933), was a tailor in New York City, who emigrated to the United States in the 1870s from Alsace, France. In 1885, he married Minnie Schoenberg, born Miene Schönberg (1865-1929), who emigrated in 1879 from Dornum, Germany. Soon after they married, Sam and Minnie adopted her sister Hannah's illegitimate daughter, Pauline, so the couple set their wedding date back two years. The couple had six sons of their own, five of whom would survive into childhood. Sometime in the early part of the twentieth century, Sam "Frenchie" Marks changed the spelling of the family name from Marks to Marx. Minnie, using the stage name Minnie Palmer, became their sons' manager in show business. She never got to see how successful her sons became and, in reality, her husband also never got to see this either.

Here is a list of the six Marx brothers:

Manfred Marks was born in January 1886 in New York City. He died on July 17, 1886.

Chico Marx was born Leonard Marks on March 22, 1887, in New York City. His nickname was originally spelled Chicko, because he was always running after pretty girls. A typesetter missed putting in the K, and that spelling stuck. His name should retain that pronunciation and not Cheek-o. Chico's gimmick was that he was to look like a shady Italian. He had an unorthodox way of playing the piano, which involved shooting keys like pistols. Chico was in several radio programs with his brother Groucho in the 1930s. Married twice, he had two big addictions in his life: gambling and women. He died October 11, 1961, from heart disease.


Harpo Marx was born Adoph Marks on November 23, 1888, in New York City. When he was in the second grade his teacher told him never to return to school again. He never did. In 1911 his name was changed to Arthur. In the Marx Brothers act, Harpo never spoke. He often whistled or honked a bicycle horn. He used the name Harpo because he played the harp. He also played the clarinet. He played both of these instruments in unusual manners. In 1936, he married actress Susan Fleming (1908-2002). They had a storybook marriage with four children. They were the most successful couple of the Marx Brothers acting team. Because of Harpo's persona of not speaking, he was rarely noticed in public. He died after open heart surgery on September 28, 1964, in Los Angeles. His body was cremated and the ashes were spread over the sand trap of the seventh hole of the Rancho Mirage Golf Course in Rancho Mirage, California. The joke was that he never got out of that trap when he was playing a game. And he wouldn't get out of it in death!

Groucho Marx was born Julius Henry Marks on October 2, 1890, in New York City. Julius was the most successful of the boys with regards to his schooling. He always modestly considered himself an intellectual. It was his ambition to be a doctor. Of course, this was never to be. The family was poor and, on his mother's side of the family, there was a background in entertainment. He never made it into high school. In 1905, with his brothers Leonard and Adolph, and another boy named Lou Levy, they had an act called "The Four Nightingales." It involved singing and jokes with foreign dialects. The act was only modestly successful. Eventually, the group would include brother Milton (Gummo). They "paid their dues" by acting all over the United States. Gummo left the act and was replaced by kid brother Zeppo. They met with success back home in New York on Broadway with their show, The Cocoanuts. This, in 1929, became their first successful motion picture (they earlier made an experimental film, Humor Risk (1926). Groucho later claimed that the movie was so bad that he destroyed all the prints himself. Eventually, the Four Marx Brothers made four more movies for Paramount (Animal Crackers, Monkey Business, Horse Feathers, and Duck Soup). Most Marx aficionados, who call themselves Marxists (including the author of this 'blog, who also happens to be a conservative Republican), consider the Paramount movies to be the Marxes' greatest achievements. The Cocoanuts was filmed in New York City but the rest of their films were done in California. In 1933, the brothers cut a deal with Metro Goldwyn Mayer. Zeppo left the act by this time. The act was now big time. In 1936, the MGM producer Irving Thalberg (1899-1936) died of pneumonia at the age of 37. Thalberg was a great communicator and organizer. Many feel his death led to the accelerated decline of the Marx Brothers and many other actors at MGM. The brothers continued working at MGM until 1939, when they were let go from the contract and became free agents. The boys went separate ways. Groucho's gimmick was being the smart aleck. He had a painted mustache and painted eyebrows. In real life, all the brothers, except Gummo, looked pretty much alike. In 1946, the American Broadcasting Company (ABC) wanted Groucho to be a game show host. He had done several radio series during World War II, including his own series, Pabst Blue Ribbon Town. He was going through his first divorce (he'd ultimately have three; he was married three times). He need some money. So You Bet Your Life aired from 1947 to 1957 on radio (ABC, CBS, and NBC) and from 1950 to 1961 on NBC television. It is said to be the last production shot at the old Radio City West at the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Vine Street in Hollywood. The producers wanted Groucho to wear the greasepaint mustache and eyebrows he wore in the movies. He refused but compromised by growing a real mustache. This later confused children who saw him on TV wearing a real one and in movies with a painted one. In his last two decades, Groucho was mostly a talk show guest and gave comedic performances. In his last days he was taken care of by Erin Fleming (1941-2003), which was actually a love affair. She committed suicide at the age of 61. Groucho died in Los Angeles on August 19, 1977, at the age of 86, making him the longest lived. Most people don't remember the day as it happened three days after Elvis Presley died.


Gummo Marx was born Milton Marks on October 23, 1893, in New York City. Gummo got his nickname because he was sneaky, like a detective (gumshoe). He was a part of the brothers' act until he was drafted into the US Army just a few months before World War I, so he served his time in the United States. He was the only one of the Marx Brothers who was a serviceman. After he returned from duty, he followed in his father's footsteps and went into dressmaking. When his brothers became successful in California, he became their agent. He then became the agent for many other Hollywood actors. Gummo was married to Helen von Tilzer for 48 years. He died in Palm Springs, California, on April 21, 1977, at the age of 83.

Zeppo Marx was born Herbert Manfred Marks on February 25, 1901, in New York City. Zeppo was forced into the family act after big brother Gummo was drafted into the Army. He was the only one who didn't have a weird character and said to be the brother with the best singing voice. He didn't quite have the sense of humor his brothers had and admitted it himself. He would smile just thinking of brother Groucho. Zeppo idolized Groucho so much that he could imitate him so well that Groucho thought it was better than himself! When the Marx Brothers finished their work with Paramount in 1932 and joined Metro Goldwyn Mayer, Zeppo decided to join his brother Gummo as a Hollywood agent. In their movie ads, Groucho would say, "We're twice as funny without Zeppo." That actually didn't hurt Zeppo's feelings at all. He wasn't happy as an actor. Zeppo was a mechanical person. He was good with fixing cars. Eventually, he started a company, the Marman Products Company, in Inglewood, California, in 1941. The company manufactured a variety of technical products, including the clamps that held the atomic bombs to the Enola Gay, which destroyed Hiroshima at the end of World War II. After the war, the company developed a motorcycle, the Marman Twin, a two cycle job that appeared in 1948. Wikipedia states that the company now exists as the Aeroquip Company, however, this is not true. Zeppo was married twice. The first time was to Marion Benda. They married in 1927 and divorced in 1954. The second was to Barbara Blakeley. They married in 1959 and divorced in 1973. Zeppo Marx died of lung cancer in Palm Springs, California, on November 30, 1979. He was 78 years old.

The legacy of the Marx Brothers is legendary. Too many people who have never seen what they did are too quick to put it in the same category as the Three Stooges, who couldn't do what they did on radio because it was all based on sight humor. That isn't to say what the Stooges did was bad. It was just different.

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