Biographical / Historical
One of 20th century America's most enduring comics and cultural icons was Groucho Marx. Julius Henry Marx, better known as Groucho, was born in New York City on October 2, 1890. He was the third of five sons born to Minna and Samuel Marx. Minna's brother, Al Shean, was a part of the well-known vaudeville team, Gallagher and Shean.
The Marx family consisted of five boys: Leonard (Chico), Arthur (Harpo), Julius (Groucho), Milton (Gummo) and Herbert (Zeppo). The family lived in the Yorkville section of New York City. Groucho had a high soprano singing voice and his first job was singing in the choir of an Episcopal church. He joined Gus Hall and his vaudeville troupe when he was eleven. Groucho attended P.S. 86 but never went beyond the 7th grade. Minna organized the Three Nightingales with Groucho, Gummo and a girl singer. The girl was eventually replaced by a boy tenor and Harpo joined the troupe. The name of the group was changed to The Four Nightingales. Minnie acted as the group's manager. The group became known as the Marx Brothers with everyone except Gummo taking part in the act. The family moved to Chicago ca. 1904 where their grandfather lived.
The brothers toured the South and Midwest performing a vaudeville skit called, "Fun in Hiskule". It is noted that the comedy act began in Nacogdoches, Texas. The Marx Brothers first big success came in 1919 with their vaudeville act entitled "Home Again". In 1920, they were booked into the Palace Theatre in New York City and played there for thirteen months. They were later banished from the circuit due to a contract violation - they had accepted employment without Albee's permission. Groucho married Ruth Johnson on February 4th, 1920 and divorced her in July 1942. They had one daughter, Miriam and one son, Arthur born in 1921.
In 1923, they toured with the show, "I'll Say She Is", a collection of vaudeville routines that Groucho had written in collaboration. The show ran on Broadway for thirty-eight weeks. On December 8, 1925, the brothers (using their nicknames professionally for the first time) opened on Broadway in "The Cocoanuts". The play was written expressly for them by George S. Kaufman and Morris Ryskind with music by Irving Berlin. The brothers made a silent film circa 1924 called "Humor Risk" but it was never released. "Animal Crackers" opened on October 23, 1928. It was in this show that Groucho created one of his most famous characters, Captain Spaulding, the African explorer. Groucho was by this time paired with Margaret Dumont, stooge and foil, whom Groucho claimed never, really understood the Marx Brothers comedy.
On the strength of their success in "The Cocoanuts", they were signed to a film contract. In 1929, they made the film version of "The Cocoanuts" while performing "Animal Crackers" on the stage. Their mother, Minna Marx died the same year. The following year they starred in the film version of "Animal Crackers". Both films were made in New York City. In 1931, Groucho moved to Hollywood where The Marx Brothers made thirteen films. The brothers signed with Paramount Pictures and made "Monkey Business" (1931), "Horsefeathers" (1932) and "Duck Soup" (1933) while at the studio. In 1933, Zeppo left the troupe and Samuel Marx died.
In February 1934, Groucho and Chico teamed up in a radio program called, "Flywheel, Shyster and Flywheel", about characters who were comic lawyers. In March 1934, they replaced Ethel Waters on a weekly radio series sponsored by the American Oil Company. In 1935, the brothers starred in "A Night at the Opera" for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, a film produced by Irving Thalberg and a sequel, "A Day at the Races" (1937). In addition to working for MGM, the brothers starred in "Room Service" (1938) for the RKO studio.
The brothers discontinued the act in September 1941 but reunited for the film "A Night in Casablanca" (1946) and "Love Happy" (1949). Groucho found work as a solo artist making films for RKO, Warner Brothers and Paramount. In March 1943, the Pabst Blue Ribbon Brewery sponsored a half-hour variety show on CBS starring Groucho. Groucho married his second wife, Catherine "Kay" Gorcey in July 1945, they had one daughter Melinda. They divorced in 1951. Groucho continued to guest on many radio shows and continued to be at his peak when ad-libbing. John Guedel created "You Bet Your Life" for Groucho in October 1947. The show aired over the ABC radio network. It moved to CBS and in 1950 it was purchased by NBC and ran on television until 1961. The show ran for a total of four years on radio and eleven years on television. Groucho won radio's Peabody Award as best comedian on radio in 1948; an Emmy award in 1951; and the Motion Picture Daily Annual TV poll from 1951-1954.
Groucho was also musical. He played the guitar, but never as part of his shows. He was also an author and a playwright. He wrote the stage play, "A Time for Elizabeth", in 1948 with Norman Krasna. The play ran for eight days on Broadway but had longer runs in summer stock. In July 1954, Groucho married his third and final wife Eden Hartford. They divorced in December of 1969. In 1967, Simon and Schuster published excerpts from letters Groucho had donated to the Library of Congress in 1965. The book was entitled The Groucho Letters. Groucho authored other books, Groucho and Me (1959) his autobiography, The Secret Word is Groucho (1976) with Hector Arce and The Grouchophile (1976).
Groucho retired in 1961 but in 1972 with the help Erin Fleming, his companion and manager since 1969, he toured in a solo act. The show entitled, "An Evening with Groucho" played Carnegie Hall in New York City in May 1972. Groucho was made a Commander of the French Order of Arts and Letters at the Cannes Film Festival in 1972. In 1974, Groucho received an honorary Academy Award (Oscar) for the contribution of the Marx Brothers to the art of film. Marx died on August 19th, 1977.