Julius Henry Marx began his show business career in 1905, a few months before his fifteenth birthday. He had been singing in the choir of a Manhattan church and was inspired by his uncle, the vaudeville star Al Shean. He answered a classified ad and got his first professional job as a singer in small time act called the Leroy Trio. Part of this act featured Julius as a female impersonator. Prior to his brothers joining him on stage, he sang with a British singer named Lily Seville in the act, Lily Seville and Master Marx. Making fast progress, Julius was hired by the important vaudeville producer and songwriter Gus Edwards and joined Gus Edwards’ Postal Telegraph Boys.
While still a teenager, Julius got his first acting job in a touring play, The Man of Her Choice. He received favorable reviews and was subsequently cast by the influential vaudeville impresario Ned Wayburn for a circus-themed act called Ned Wayburn’s Side Show. Wayburn would be instrumental in the formation of the Marx family act. Julius secured the Wayburn job though the persistent efforts of his mother, Minnie Marx – the sister of Al Shean. Minnie was sufficiently encouraged by the early success of Julius to usher another son onto the stage. She enrolled Milton (later known as Gummo) in Ned Wayburn’s vaudeville school, where he gleaned just enough to perform with Julius. Wayburn put Julius and Milton in a trio with another of his pupils, Mabel O’Donnell.
Ned Wayburn’s Nightingales became the Three Nightingales when Minnie hijacked the act away from Wayburn. Minnie soon replaced Mabel O’Donnell with Lou Levy and added another son, Adolph (later known as Arthur, then Harpo.) The Four Nightingales toured the Eastern and Southern United States extensively in 1908 and 1909. When the Marx family moved to Chicago in 1909, Minnie expanded the act to a sextet adding herself and her sister Hannah. Now known as the Six Mascots, the act began to incorporate more comic elements including a rudimentary classroom sketch – although there had always been some humor in the Nightingales act.
By the end of 1910, the Six Mascots had run their course and the act transformed from a singing act with comedy to a comedy act with singing. After attempting different billings the act finally became known as the Three Marx Brothers and Company. Julius played the German immigrant teacher in the classroom sketch now called “Fun in Hi Skool.” Adolph and Milton played students, as did Aunt Hannah. She soon followed Minnie in retiring from the stage. The act toured the Midwest and achieved enough success and good reviews to land them a West Coast tour. Meanwhile, Minnie’s eldest son was off on his own vaudeville path with a succession of partners. Leonard Marx’s vaudeville career without his brothers was undistinguished and effectively ended when he joined them in fall of 1912.
The Four Marx Brothers expanded the “Fun in High Skool” act into a two-act full-length tabloid musical by adding a class reunion premise set ten years later. They initially played it as a double bill of Fun in Hi Skool and Mr. Green’s Reception. Eventually, the show was simply titled Mr. Green’s Reception. The Four Marx Brothers were getting too old to play school children and the classroom sketch was dropped. By fall of 1914, they were looking for a new show and it was their uncle, Al Shean who wrote it. Home Again was a breakthrough success for the Four Marx Brothers. The seven vaudeville seasons during which the Marxes played Home Again under various titles would be their most formative. Not only did they acquire their famous nicknames, but they also developed the personas that would define them for the rest of their careers. Along the way, Milton (Gummo) left the act and was replaced by Herbert (Zeppo) in 1918. The Four Marx Brothers – Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Zeppo – would remain intact until March 1934 when Zeppo ultimately came to the same conclusion as Gummo – being the fourth Marx Brother wasn’t such a great job. (Zeppo was a salaried employee of his brothers and did not share in their business partnership.)
On February 4, 1920, during a short break in a busy touring schedule, Groucho married Ruth Johnson in Chicago. Ruth had been dancing in the Marx Brothers company for a year doing a specialty number with Zeppo. Ruth may not have been the best dancer in the troupe and Zeppo complained. He wanted her fired, but Groucho emphatically stated, “The girl stays. I’m going to marry her.” Ruth and Groucho honeymooned on the Orpheum Circuit as the tour resumed only days after the wedding. Their first child, Arthur Julius Marx was born on July 21, 1921. Their daughter Miriam followed on May 19, 1927.
As vaudeville began to lose popularity with the rise of sound films and radio, the Four Marx Brothers found themselves at a crossroads. Their brave decision to make a go at legitimate theatre was actually a necessity. They had been blacklisted by the vaudeville business once before, but their 1922 blacklisting came as vaudeville was in serious decline. In 1923 they took a low-paying job in a summer revue in Philadelphia at the Walnut Street Theatre called I’ll Say She Is. After a year on the road I’ll Say She Is opened on Broadway and the Four Marx Brothers became the toast of New York. When journalists called them an overnight sensation they failed to mention the twenty years the brothers had spent crisscrossing the country as vaudevillians. Two more Broadway shows followed – The Cocoanuts in 1925 and Animal Crackers in 1928. Both productions toured the country with great success.
As part of his new celebrity status in the Broadway community, Groucho began making humorous contributions to several New York newspaper columns. He had become friendly with several columnists and his prose began appearing in the columns of Frank Sullivan, Heywood Broun and Franklin P. Adams. He made similar contributions to Variety and a few other newspapers during his vaudeville years and was flirting with his childhood dream of becoming a writer. He also began contributing longer prose pieces to The New Yorker, The Saturday Evening Post and other popular magazines once the Four Marx Brothers were Broadway stars.
While appearing on Broadway in Animal Crackers the Four Marx Brothers spent their days filming The Cocoanuts for Paramount Pictures. The film was released in 1929. A filmed version of Animal Crackers followed in 1930. Groucho achieved a significant milestone in late 1930 with the publication of his first book, Beds. He also continued contributing humorous essays to various magazines and newspapers.
The Four Marx Brothers signed a three-picture contract with Paramount and relocated to Hollywood in the spring of 1931. Monkey Business (1931) and Horse Feathers (1932) followed before they ran into business and legal difficulties with the studio. After a delay of several months the final Paramount film, Duck Soup, was released in November 1933. In August 1934, Groucho made a rare stage appearance without his brothers in a summer stock production of Twentieth Century at the Lakewood Theatre in Skowhegan, Maine.
During this period Groucho and Chico tried their hand in the quickly developing medium of radio with shows on NBC (Flywheel, Shyster and Flywheel) and CBS (The Marx of Time.) Neither of the shows succeeded. After completing their obligations at Paramount, Zeppo left the team to become an agent. The Marx Brothers signed a new contract at MGM as a trio. Their first two films there – A Night at the Opera (1935) and A Day at the Races (1937) were their biggest box office successes. Groucho also tried screenwriting and co-wrote The King and the Chorus Girl (Warner Bros., 1937) with Norman Krasna. Another 1937 effort, Madcap Mary Mooney – co-written with Ken Englund – was never produced.
The man who brought the Marx Brothers to MGM, producer Irving Thalberg, died suddenly during the making of A Day at the Races. Thalberg was their greatest supporter and other MGM executives – primarily Louis B. Mayer – were not necessarily Marx Brothers fans. The Marxes opted out of their MGM contract, which was a provision afforded them in the absence of Thalberg. They signed a lucrative deal with RKO to make three pictures but only made one. Room Service (1938) was disappointing at the box office and the Marxes returned to MGM for three more pictures. At the Circus (1939), Go West (1940) and The Big Store (1941) were box office disappointments and the Marx Brothers retired in 1941. Groucho and Ruth separated that same year. Their divorce was finalized the following summer.
Groucho was always interested in being a radio star but it had been elusive since his early failures in the medium. He and Chico tried again in 1939 on the NBC all-star program, The Circle with a cast of stars including Cary Grant and Carole Lombard. But this show was also short lived. He frequently appeared on shows hosted by stars like Rudy Vallee and Dinah Shore, but he couldn’t get his own. He focused on his writing, something he always took great pride in. In January 1942, his second book, Many Happy Returns was published. His writings appeared in magazines and newspapers in greater numbers now that he wasn’t making Marx Brothers pictures. He also began work on a play initially called The Middle Ages in partnership with Norman Krasna. They worked on the play for years and by the time it opened on Broadway in 1948 it was called Time for Elizabeth. One reason for the slow process on the play was that Groucho finally got his chance to star on a radio show.
In the spring of 1943 Groucho was hired as the host of Pabst Blue Ribbon Town, broadcast by CBS. He made an audition disc of highlights from his appearances on the Rudy Vallee Sealtest Show and was hired on the strength of that material. But the show lasted just over a year and Groucho was back to radio guest shots and writing short magazine pieces. He also became active entertaining soldiers at military bases and hospitals after the American entry into World War II in 1942. Harpo and Chico also spent considerable time entertaining the troops, but the Marx Brothers did this important work separately. When they ultimately regrouped in 1945 to make their movie comeback, they tested scenes in front of live audiences at military bases and hospitals. Groucho remarried on July 21, 1945 and brought his new wife, Kay, on the tour. They became parents on August 14, 1946 with the birth of their daughter Melinda. The film, A Night in Casablanca (1946), was well received and represented a return to form for the Marx Brothers. But it did not signal a full-scale comeback and the team quickly retired again. Groucho did, however, appear in his first film without his brothers. Copacabana (1947) starred Groucho and Carmen Miranda. Still focused on radio, Groucho had a yet another opportunity. But this time would be different.
Expectations were low when Groucho’s new radio series – a game show called You Bet Your Life – debuted on ABC in November 1947. After all, including the three failed shows with Chico in the 1930s, Groucho was a four-time loser on network radio. But this time Groucho clicked with the audience and the show quickly became a hit. You Bet Your Life was honored with a Peabody Award in 1949. But even with his newfound security as a radio star, Groucho was compelled to make one final Marx Brothers picture. And it was barely a Marx Brothers picture. Harpo had developed a solo film project and Chico, who never wanted to stop making lucrative Marx Brothers pictures, was quickly added to the cast. The producers conspired behind Harpo’s back to get Groucho involved. He agreed to make a limited contribution but Love Happy (1949) is really a showcase for Harpo.
Groucho and Kay were experiencing problems at home during this period and they were divorced in May 1950. In an unusual move for the time, Groucho was awarded custody of three-year-old Melinda. Groucho continued to appear in films without his brothers and filmed It’s Only Money with Frank Sinatra and Jane Russell at RKO in 1948. (The film was shelved before finally being released in 1951 as Double Dynamite.) Groucho also had a small, but memorable cameo appearance in the Bing Crosby film, Mr. Music in 1950.
After two seasons on ABC and one on CBS, You Bet Your Life moved to television in the fall of 1950 on NBC, where it continued for another ten seasons. (The show also continued on NBC radio for nine seasons.) With the show consistently near the top of the television ratings, Groucho became a star all over again. There was a plethora of You Bet Your Life merchandise including a board game, and Groucho made an album for Decca Records. Hooray for Captain Spaulding and Other Songs by Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby Sung by Groucho Marx was released in 1952. Groucho proudly had his daughter Melinda appear on You Bet Your Life several times, occasionally singing and dancing with him. His older daughter Miriam worked on You Bet Your Life for a few years in the research department, helping to formulate the quiz questions.
During summer breaks from You Bet Your Life Groucho occasionally appeared in stock productions of Time for Elizabeth. He married for the third time on July 17, 1954 and his new wife Eden occasionally appeared with him in Time for Elizabeth. During a break in 1951, Groucho returned to Paramount to film A Girl in Every Port (1952) with William Bendix and Marie Wilson. In 1957, Groucho, Harpo and Chico appeared in separate sequences in the Warner Bros. all-star epic, The Story of Mankind, creating a strange sort of Marx Brothers non-reunion. That same year Groucho made an un-billed cameo appearance in the 20th Century Fox Jayne Mansfield film Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?
Groucho continued to write and in 1959 his autobiography, Groucho and Me was published and became a best seller. Occasional reunions with his brothers on television were not enough for Groucho to seriously consider reviving the team, although a few contemplated projects reached the point of contracts being signed. (In one case a pilot was filmed, albeit with minimal participation by Groucho.) On October 11, 1961, all hopes for a Marx Brothers reunion ended with the death of Chico Marx. Harpo’s death followed on September 28, 1964.
Groucho soldiered on and tried another television show after You Bet Your Life. Tell it to Groucho on CBS in 1962 was essentially twenty-week failure created solely for the purpose of getting You Bet Your Life into the lucrative syndication market. At the time, television shows did not go into syndication while new episodes were being produced. So while Groucho still wanted to star in a television series, it was financially prudent to star in one that wasn’t You Bet Your Life. Tell it to Groucho didn’t work out, but You Bet Your Life was a huge success in syndication. Groucho briefly starred in revival of You Bet Your Life in England in 1965, where the show was simply titled, Groucho.
Groucho’s collection of essays about love and romance, Memoirs of a Many Lover, was published in 1963. He spent the 1960s making the rounds on various talk shows and sparred on air with Steve Allen, Jack Paar, Johnny Carson, Merv Griffin, David Frost and Dick Cavett. He also appeared on programs of every kind including game shows and situation comedies. He even took a dramatic role on the General Electric Theater in The Hold Out and twice filled in for a week as the guest host on The Tonight Show. It was Groucho who introduced Johnny Carson as the new Tonight Show host in 1962. But his proudest television moment came in 1960 when he starred in a production of the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, The Mikado on NBC, which also featured his daughter Melinda. Groucho had long been an ardent admirer of Gilbert and Sullivan and this production was very important to him. A subsequent soundtrack album for Columbia Records was released.
In the midst of Groucho’s semi-retirement, the Library of Congress requested the donation of his personal papers and letters in 1965. Groucho was very proud of the honor, which led to the publication of the book The Groucho Letters in 1967. The following year, Groucho appeared in his final film, Otto Preminger’s Skidoo, in a mercifully small role in the otherwise ill-conceived film. Groucho’s marriage to Eden ended in divorce in 1969, although they remained close and even continued dating after the divorce. Groucho famously quipped, “I like to stay close to my money,” when asked about dating his ex-wife. In 1970, Groucho’s son Arthur co-authored the Broadway musical Minnie’s Boys, the story of the early days of the Marx Brothers in vaudeville. Groucho served as a technical advisor and promoted the show on television.
Inactivity did not suit Groucho even as he began to suffer health setbacks. In 1971, an ambitious young woman named Erin Fleming came into Groucho’s life initially to help him answer the bags of accumulated, unread fan mail. Soon Erin took control of Groucho’s career and began offering him to producers and promoters. As Groucho’s health deteriorated, she took control of all of his day-to-day activities. She was most definitely a controversial figure. Groucho wanted her in his life and many of his friends were concerned about how he was being controlled. But he seemed to many quite content with the situation.
For better or worse, Erin kept Groucho in the public eye. In the spring of 1972, a series of concerts brought Groucho to Carnegie Hall in New York. He also played in Ames, Iowa, San Francisco and Los Angeles. But shows in Chicago and Detroit were cancelled due to Groucho’s failing health. An Evening with Groucho, a record album of recordings from the tour, was a hit and Groucho was back on television as You Bet Your Life was once again in syndication. Erin was also instrumental in Groucho being honored at the Cannes Film Festival in 1972 and receiving an honorary Academy Award in 1974. Groucho’s continuing health problems led to a well-chronicled court battle concerning Erin’s activities during Groucho’s final years. It wasn’t the only legal matter that kept him in the headlines during this period.
Groucho recorded several interviews with Richard J. Anobile that were published along with numerous photos from Groucho’s personal collection in the fall of 1973 as The Marx Bros. Scrapbook. In an unsuccessful attempt to stop the book, Groucho claimed to be unaware of Anobile’s intent to publish the interviews verbatim. His own off-color language apparently embarrassed Groucho. He countered with three books of his own, all published in 1976. He collaborated with Hector Arce on The Secret Word is Groucho, the story of You Bet Your Life, which was published in March. A month later Groucho’s first book, Beds was issued in a paperback edition with a new introduction by Groucho. And in November, Groucho’s answer to the Anobile book, The Groucho Phile, was published. Hector Arce helped Groucho assemble his own lavishly illustrated memoir and also became Groucho’s authorized biographer. His book, Groucho, would be published in 1979.
Groucho died on August 19, 1977 at the age of eighty-six. He had been in show business for more than seventy years. Vaudeville, Broadway, movies, radio, television, records, concerts, books – few performers traveled so many roads to success. Groucho left several vast bodies of work and remains an icon. New generations continue to discover him and the Marx Brothers. As long as people laugh, Groucho will be timeless.
© 2020 Robert S. Bader