denis gullickson | talking titletown | feb. 2017
Part One of a Two-Part Series
Average the birthdates of the Marx Brothers and you come up with mid-August, so why not dedicate a couple of columns to them in mid-winter? (Actually, the youngest brother, Herbert, aka “Zeppo," was born in February — offering some anchor for the zaniness.)
These pieces are an overdue sequel to one published elsewhere two years back — with far more information and a far better understanding of the vaudevillian era that brought various permutations of the Marx Brothers to Titletown and nearby environs, even before there was a “Titletown."
Four or Five Musketeers
A great Christmas gift was a book by Ralph S. Bader, “Four of the Three Musketeers: The Marx Brothers on Stage." This, from my daughter, Rachel Brooks (Gullickson) — a skilled performer in her own right.
I dove into the read as I tore off the wrapping paper and didn't put it down that day or next.
I knew that the Marx Brothers hadn't just materialized in their first films “Cocoanuts" (1929) and “Animal Crackers" (1930). But I was in for a real education with my new book in hand and the implications for me and “our neck of the woods" would be enlightening; they'd even include info that the esteemed Mr. Bader hadn't provided.
The Marx Brothers were five brothers born to Miene “Minnie" Schoenberg and Samuel “Frenchie" Marx between 1887 and 1901. Minnie and Frenchie's boys would become famous as “Chico" (Leonard, 1887); “Harpo" (Adolph, 1888; Arthur after 1911); “Groucho" (Julius, 1890); “Gummo" (Milton, 1892) and “Zeppo" (Herbert, 1901).
Most famous are the Marx Brothers' films: “Duck Soup" and “A Night at the Opera" from the approximate median of their celluloid celebrity. Both are considered U.S. movie masterpieces, listed in the American Film Institute's “100 Years-100 Movies" and preserved in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress.
The Marx's was a typical U.S. tale: Minnie and Frenchie had emigrated from Europe to the United States, met and married. Like countless others, they knocked about the New York neighborhood's — often just ahead of a ferocious landlord — while searching frantically for the American Dream. Along the way, they'd have this literal and figurative handful of boys.
My dad got us kids started on the Marx Brothers. A Saturday matinee of a romp like “At the Circus" or “A Day at the Races" was cause for pause in the Gullickson household as dad pointed out Chico's slapstick piano playing, Harpo's clownish pantomimes or Groucho's verbal gesticulations.
In high school, Sunday night's “W.C. Fields Theater" on WFRV-TV kept me up late catching Fields or Ma and Pa Kettle or the Marx Brothers. In college, I sought out those hazy, student-union film nights whenever the Marx Brothers were showing. Later, I compiled the complete collection of the Marx Brothers' movies as well as anything remotely-related. As an educator, I used Marx Brothers films to teach the art and subtlety of satire.
Being a doting dad, I instructed a three-year-old Rachel that she would love horses, music, Patsy Cline, downhill skiing, Tears for Fears, the Packers, guitars, the Marx Brothers and a few other items or … she would find a different place to live.
To prove her worth and keep a roof over her head, Rachel memorized and performed a darling piece from the Marx Brothers' last, joint movie, “Love Happy." In it, Harpo plucks out and blindly juggles his own eyeballs — even dropping one and wiping it off on his coat — before popping them back in and once again being able to see.
I knew my own fatherly instructions had paid off the night she called me while walking up Broadway after classes at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy. She told me that she was the only student in her acting class who knew who the Marx Brothers were and that she knew more about them than her professor. Ah, the value of a real education!
And so it was, that, in New York City in June, 2014, for Rachel's graduation from AMDA, I took a little day trip. It would prove to be one of the best days ever.
While the rest of our entourage were hopelessly marooned in traffic aboard one those double-decker tour buses that crawl along the streets of lower-Manhattan, I took a 15-mile hike to locate several sites on the upper east-side where the brothers had lived at various points as street urchins and as grown men.
One was Groucho's birthplace, which, alas, had been razed. Another was a high-rise where Groucho had lived with one of his wives — a cigar's-toss from Central Park. Yet another was the penthouse apartment where Harpo lived while a member of the Algonquin Round Table.
Mostly, I wanted to see the apartment building where the Marx family had resided as the boys came of age. That, a four-floor flat at 179 East 93rd Street, set off by Lexington and Third Avenues.
I will never forget the moment I set eyes on the building. I rounded the corner from Third Avenue, walked up the sunlit block a bit and there it was, across the street. I sat on a small cement stoop for a few minutes. In awe.
I crossed the street and stood in front of the flat — mesmerized. Here, the Marx Brothers had chased each other around a hundred-some years earlier.
Thanks to modern technology, I was reading “Harpo Speaks" — Adolph/Arthur's biography — as I snooped. In it, Harpo described the flat, the street, the neighborhood, the school up on Lexington that they'd skipped or quit, the brewery clock tower on the corner where Harpo had learned math, the basement where he and Groucho had staged their first variety show.
They charged cats for admission in the hopes of later selling the cats for a penny each. “As I remember it," Harpo wrote, “we grossed seven cats at the box office but made a net profit of only four cents. Three cats got away."
The family resided there from 1895 to 1909.
It was here that the brothers encountered neighborhood toughs and colorful, ethnic characters. It was here that Leonard (Chico) returned home after yet another brush with the law or angry older fellas who wanted their money. It was here that Frenchie ran his hardscrabble tailor business. It was here that the family cobbled together its finances from various enterprises — most legit — in order to stave off yet another landlord.
Shout Out Sheboygan!
It was here that Minnie's brother, Al Shean, dropped in periodically to shower the boys with silver dollars and flash his fancy duds. He was making a small fortune in vaudeville as half of Gallagher and Shean. It was here that Minnie concocted her scheme to break the family out of their hand-to-mouth existence — by putting her sons on the stage à la their uncle.
It was from this flat that a fourteen-and-a-half-year-old Julius (Groucho) first took the solo plunge into showbiz after answering an ad in the “New York Morning World" for “Boys wanted for act, singers or dancers." This, after some experience in a church choir — based more on a wish to perform and meet a girl than anything spiritual.
As a member of the “Gene Leroy Trio," Julius would find himself slogging along the nascent vaudeville trail of second-tier venues, singing in various costumes including as a “Chinaman," an altar boy and in drag. His first performances were July 16-22, 1905 at the defunct Ramona Theater Pavilion at Ramona Park in East Grand Rapids, Mich. A second set of performances ran at South Chicago's Unique Theater from July 24-29.
A third engagement took the Leroy Trio into east-central Wisconsin — probably because the South Chicago and Wisconsin houses were both part of the Unique Theater circuit.
And so it was that a young Julius Marx came to perform at the Unique Theater, 608-612 N 8th Street in Sheboygan, Wis., from July 31 through August 5, 1905. It would represent the first incursion of the Marx Brothers into the Upper-Midwest. It wouldn't be their last.
From Sheboygan, the trio headed to Fond du Lac's New Idea Vaudeville Theater, August 6-12, and then to Denver where it split asunder — Julius left in the lurch by Eugene Leroy who absconded with the trio's money.
Next issue: more on “Groucho's" Sheboygan debut as well as a look at the vaudevillian era, the sundry renditions of the “Marx Brothers Revue" and new information on the Marx Brothers 1912-Titletown appearance at the Green Bay Theater.
As 2017 revs its engine, educator, author, farmer and horseman Denis Gullickson continues to write about all things Titletown from a horse farm west of Green Bay and a cottage near Lakewood. He is also scheming a reprise performance of “The Vagabond Halfback" stage play for late-spring. Watch for details in an upcoming issue of Frankly Green Bay.