denis gullickson | talking titletwon | march 2017
Part Two of an Extended Three-Part Series
A glance back to the vaudeville era makes it even easier to appreciate Marx Brothers' classic films like “Duck Soup" and “A Night at the Opera." (It's also edifying as to why many traits of modern theater are as they are.)
The slapstick routines, wordplay and musical interludes found in Marx Brothers' flicks all trace their roots to their theater days — well before they were Chico, Harpo, Groucho, etal. Even at the zenith of their cinematic careers, their celluloid material was tested and filmed before audiences.
Robert S. Bader's recent tome, “Four of the Three Musketeers: The Marx Brothers on Stage," offers a fascinating glimpse into the world of “Vod-vil" and the Marx's place in it. For this writer, it inspired further digging into the Marx Brothers' 1912 performances in Green Bay as well as other area venues — including a groundbreaking discovery an hour south of here.
In 1905, the third-oldest Marx boy, Julius — then nearly fifteen — had an ill-fated foray into vaudeville with the Eugene Leroy Trio. It brought him to Sheboygan, Wis. July 31 - August 5. As the world-renowned “Groucho" — he would later recall of his first performances, “I just sang and was glad to get off [the stages] alive."
In “Groucho and Me," he recollected some of the act's highlights. It opened with the Trio, in drag, singing, “What's the Matter with the Mail?" Julius followed, singing “The Holy City" in a choirboy costume he'd confiscated from a church choir. Then, there was some tap dancing before Leroy reappeared in women's clothing and sang “Kiss Me Again." The finale had Leroy dressed as the Statue of Liberty and his minions in military attire.
The Unique Theater where the Leroy Trio performed had opened that year or just prior and stood at 608-612 North 8th Street. It was likely linked to Edison-Unique circuit — suggesting it probably interspersed Edison-made films within the gamut of live entertainment. By 1910, it was strictly showing movies — management having realized, like many others, that movies were new, popular and far simpler than booking performers.
The Unique seems to have closed by 1914, but put a bronze plaque where it once stood — it was the scene of Groucho Marx's third run of public performances anywhere, ever.
Julius continued his shaky entry into vaudeville while mother Minnie rallied the rest of her troupe back home in NYC. While Julius was building the strongest resume, Adolph/Arthur (Harpo) and Milton (Gummo) had also appeared on stage and — by 1908 — the three joined Lou Levy in the Four Nightingales. Meanwhile, Leonard (Chico) was working as a “song-plugger" and a member of several performing duets.
In 1909, Minnie moved the family from their Manhattan home on East 93rd Street to Chicago — eventually purchasing a three-story brownstone “mansion." The house still stands at 4512 South King Drive (née Grand Avenue). In the Heartland, they could reach the nation's stages via the ubiquitous rail lines spider-webbing out of the Windy City.
In 1912, Leonard joined his brothers on stage. Minnie's dream of having her sons perform together was nearly realized; it also gave her a tremendous headache in terms of producing their shows and corralling their off-stage exploits — particularly Leonard's.
By 1914, a nearly-fourteen-year-old Herbert (Zeppo) made an appearance with his brothers on stage in Chicago. In late-May, 1915, he joined them somewhat-permanently.
Over the next decade, various permutations of the Marx Brothers and their entourage would operate out of “The Hub" as they painstakingly scaled the vaudevillian ladder of renown and success.
It was from this locus that Minnie became “Minnie Palmer" — promoting herself as “Chicago's Only Lady Producer of Vaudeville Attractions" and her boys as “The Four Marx Brothers and Company."
The “and Company" indicated just how much the Marx act had grown. It now included what ads hailed as “nineteen comedians, singers and Chorus Beauties."
Eventually, Minnie would move her enterprise to a 27-acre “chicken farm" north of town. There, she'd groom beautiful and talented young ladies for touring with her sons as well as other productions. (Note that reads, “beautiful and talented" and not “beautiful, talented" young ladies. According to Bader, operations on the farm were nearly equal parts hanky panky and rehearsal.)
In 1913, E.F. Albee, head of the Keith-Albee vaudeville circuit, wrote, “The season of 1912-13 will be historic in vaudeville but 1913-14 will far outshine it. There is every evidence of greater public support than ever before … No branch of amusement is more distinctively American and no other field relies so completely upon home talent for its greatest figures."
Indeed, with theaters sprouting up across the continent came hundreds of performers — from legit actors to acrobats to animal acts to comedy teams, jugglers, magicians, mind readers and singers to just about anything else one could conjure.
“Painless" Edgar Parker pulled teeth on stage. Gus Visser sang like a duck. Strongman Frank Richards took cannonball shots to the gut. Joseph Pujol blew out candles, did impressions and crafted melodies — by farting. An evening's entertainment could consist of any combination of the above — sophisticated to kooky — sometimes curiously juxtaposed.
A precursor to Tinseltown, vaudeville was also producing a bevy of stars — especially among leading ladies and dashing gentlemen in the day's melodramas, but from other aspects of vaudeville as well. Self-promoting escape artist Harry Houdini was the era's highest-paid draw.
Minnie Marx was set to ride the wave — her sons in tow. Naturally, there was a delicate dance to scaling those heights. Getting on stage at all was a matter of selling booking agents and theater managers on the Marx Brothers' act.
Good press and word of mouth begot better engagements. Eventually, it might lead to a somewhat-steady gig with one of the emerging vaudeville circuits — that, itself, fraught with intricacies and idiosyncrasies.
Numerous circuits came and went and local theaters assumed their names as they franchised — “Family," “Garrick," “Lyric," “Palace," “Shea" and “Royal" theaters and the ilk spread like wildfire across the country.
Around 1900, smaller Midwestern circuits assembled as the “Western Vaudeville Managers Association" working closely with the Keith and Orpheum theater circuit — all operating out of Chicago.
This was a boon to performers who could do a series of shows in a circuit, cut travel expenses, increase performances and generate reliable income. Signing with a circuit, though, also reduced profits somewhat as managers factored in the upside of their circuits to the performers.
One of Minnie's first coups was getting the act signed with Pantages circuit, which proved a blessing and a curse: It gave the Brothers regular work, but alienated Pantages' rivals — the combined circuits and the Orpheum conglomerate.
Mr. Green's Reception
And so it was that the Marx Brothers and Company traveled to Green Bay the autumn of 1912 for a total of seven performances from Monday, November 11 - Wednesday, November 13 — appearances, by the way, not recorded in Bader's extensive book.
They were campaigning “Mr. Green's Reception" — an expansion of their popular 1911-1912 offering,“Fun in High School."
The Marx's tour that fall had started with a four-day run at Chicago's Apollo Theater, September 5-8. From there, trains had taken them throughout Illinois and Indiana during September and October on a stretch of Bijou, Grand, Majestic and independent theaters.
The act was ballyhooed in the local papers and national magazines. As a “tab" or “tabloid" show, it was particularly popular with agents and theater owners because it was nearly an entire vaudeville show itself — combining music and dance with straight theater and comedy. A tabloid act could supplant several independent acts — cutting expenses for the circuits and theaters.
In Vincennes, Indiana, two-consecutive Sunday shows prompted news that the Marx Brothers “filled in an open Sunday here on September 29 and played to $286. They returned here October 6 and did still bigger business."
Of the act, the Rockford, Ill. “Register Gazette" reported, “there are some specialties, which the audiences are branding as very clever. These include harp playing by one of the brothers, a pianologue, some hard shoe dancing, and a bit of a merry dance in which a young man and young woman figure. She dances with such vim that it is one of the hits of the bill."
Slowly, steadily, stealthily, the Marx Brothers were elbowing their way into the big time.
Next Issue: The Marx Brothers' arrival in town, Green Bay's Orpheum Theater where they performed, happenings during their three-day stay and other area appearances at the time.
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 cobblestone cottage near Lakewood. He is also scheming a reprise performance of “The Vagabond Halfback" stage play for later this year.