denis gullickson | talking titletown | april 2017
Part Three of a Three-Part Series
The weather in early-November, 1912 had been your typical Northeastern-Wisconsin mid-autumn mix. Folks in and around Green Bay hustled against the impending cold as fall ticked along. For diversion, football of all kinds could be found on vacant lots and gridirons. Nationally, Woodrow Wilson had been elected the 28th U.S. president on Tuesday, November 5.
Monday, November 11, dawned chilly, but promised to warm as the day passed. At 12:30 pm, the Chicago & Northwestern train from the Windy City rumbled into the Dousman Street depot. Among its passengers and freight were the “Marx Brothers and Company" and their costumes, sets and props.
A horse-drawn coach transported the Marx's luggage and cast to one of the east-side hotels on Washington Street — possibly the Beaumont; more-likely the Bay City or Charles House nearer Walnut Street.
A dray hauled the company's stage gear directly to the Orpheum Theater at 217-221 East Walnut Street to be unloaded at the dock facing Adams Street. It would be put to use at 7:30 that evening in the opening show of a three-day stint. The theater had been cleared that morning — after the final performance Sunday evening by “Klein, Ott and Nicholson" and four other acts touring as the “Metropolitan Vaudeville" show.
Three Days, Seven Shows
A grueling October had seen the Marx troupe perform up to five dozen shows over twenty-eight days — primarily in Illinois. It was a real-life, madcap series of “jumps" from one theater, hotel and train station to the next. November offered some stretches where the Marx Brothers, et al could relax before commencing a jam-packed winter schedule.
Following an intense run of theaters across Central Illinois in late-October and early-November, they'd spent a few days at home in Chicago before heading into Wisconsin and Minnesota and, then, back home for Christmas.
Vaudeville weeks typically split into Thursday-Sunday runs in one venue and Monday-Wednesday runs in another. This created a semi-weekly scramble — even for simple acts — as they moved wholesale to another town. For more-complex operations like the Marx's, it could be especially daunting.
Oftentimes, acts caught the “red eye" out of a town immediately following their final late-night performance — early the next morning if that wasn't possible. Sleeping between stops was still done as the train rattled down the tracks — in hard seats by fledgling acts, in berths by the better-heeled.
In Green Bay, however, the Marx entourage was a little-less harried; they'd not had an engagement the previous weekend.
If managing the logistics of lodging and transportation was a headache for any act; then coordinating the countless theater and performance aspects — especially, in an evolving vaudeville — was a stiff pain in the backside. For relief, performers increasingly signed on with the emerging theater circuits of the day like the Bijou, Gayety, Lyric, and Orpheum.
By 1912, the Marx Brothers had already experienced the pros and cons of inking with a circuit: Having eagerly enlisted with the Pantages circuit for a foothold in vaudeville, they'd later realize that, in the process, they'd alienated themselves from the rival Orpheum and other circuits.
The surging success of their 1912-offering, “Mr. Green's Reception," meant several things: One, that the Orpheum and aligned circuits could no longer afford to blacklist their act and that decent travel and hotel accommodations were welcome comforts now within reach.
As the cast unpacked at the hotel that afternoon, a small crew was already toiling at the Orpheum. Dressing rooms, costumes, staging and lighting needed tending if the Marx Brothers and Company's act was going to come off seamlessly.
“Mr. Green's Reception"
An ad for the Marx show had first appeared in Saturday's “Green Bay Gazette." It promised “two elaborate acts with gorgeous scenic and costume investiture" … “One and a half hours of farce, musical comedy and vaudeville features" … and “Catchy singing numbers by principals and pretty girl chorus."
Reflecting a still-quirky scheduling process, theaters didn't typically announce coming attractions much in advance — rather, they posted their split-week cards just prior to a show's opening.
The Marx's shows were scheduled for 7:30 and 9:00 each evening, 10-15-25 cents, with a “Ladies' Souvenir Spoon Matinee, Tuesday, 3 p.m., 10 cents."
Their performance was much-anticipated in Green Bay; previous audiences and critics had delighted in the show as a “tabloid" act — nearly an entire evening of vaudeville itself — combining high-quality song, dance, comedy and semi-straight theater. Indeed, the cast had grown to twenty-one performers including the four Marxes, Paul Yale, George Lee and fifteen “pretty" girls.
The story had emerged from the troupe's 1910-offering, “Fun In High School" aka “Fun In Hi Skule." The first act was set in a country school classroom replete with students learning music under the tutelage of their dear teacher, Mr. Green.
Added during the summer of 1912 after Leonard finally joined the act — the second act represented a reunion of the students, ten years removed from the classroom in a retired Mr. Green's garden.
An ad in Monday's “Gazette" hailed the act as “Refined Vaudeville," stating that “seats were being reserved" for that night and next. An accompanying article added: “This entertaining show is arranged along the lines of musical comedy but in reality, it is a big vaudeville offering with gorgeous settings."
The piece went on to laud [sic] “Arthur (Harpo) Marx harpist, George Lee an impersonator of Hebrew roles, the Harris brothers, cleverest of dancers, and Vera Bright soprano." Of note from prior reviews was the guitar playing and singing of Julius (Groucho) and the piano playing of Leonard (Chico).
The theater box office on Walnut Street opened at 10 a.m. Monday morning and, by midday, tickets for that evening's shows were moving briskly. Tuesday's “Gazette" reported that, “the first performances given last evening were presented before large crowds" meaning that as many as 1200 patrons — the Orpheum's seating capacity — had basked in the theater's grandeur while enjoying the Marx act.
As the “Green Bay Theater," the Orpheum had first opened its doors on February 24, 1900, with “Because She Loved Him So" — a standard melodrama of the day. Construction on this — Green Bay's first building dedicated strictly to performance — had begun the previous August.
It was, as Green Bay historian Jack Rudolph described it, “a complete opera house … for many years a combination variety, stock and music hall. At one time or another, virtually every great name in American theater appeared here."
It featured a large, well-appointed stage, decent dressing rooms and a fly loft and was noted for its interior décor which featured “soft and delicate pink" sidewalls and a “Dutch pink" ceiling. Seating was in two, double-tiered boxes at each side of the stage. Much of the interior — seats and box rails included — was red plush velvet. The aisle carpets and silk box draperies hung in matching red shades.
“The auditorium presented a gleaming picture of late Victorian elegance when its lights were turned up," recorded Rudolph.
The theater continued as the Green Bay Theater until February 1912, when it became the Jay-Are Theatre for a few short months. It then switched back to the Green Bay Theater, briefly, that summer before reopening as a house in the Orpheum circuit in late-September.
While other theaters were operating in Green Bay in 1912 — primarily the Bijou which specialized in early films, but also the Royal — the Orpheum remained Green Bay's premier house. In 1929, as the Fox Theater (today's Meyer) was being built nearby on South Washington Street, the Orpheum underwent the art deco facelift still present today.
On the Railroad Again
While the Marx's stage work presented at Green Bay's Orpheum that November may have seemed primitive by the standards set in their iconic films like “Duck Soup" and “A Night at the Opera," much of what the brothers did after 1910 owed its roots directly to the routines and nuances developed during this stretch of their vaudeville days.
Groucho's film characters never strayed far from the role of the loving, but ornery, teacher, Mr. Green and Harpo's fright wig, hat and harp and Chico's faux Italian accent, outfit and slapstick piano playing had all appeared on stage first.
Following Wednesday evening's 9 pm performance, the troupe was in a flurry as it packed its gear and headed toward its next performances, Thursday-Sunday, November 14-17, at Oshkosh's Grand Opera House. From there, it was the Grand Opera House in International Falls, the Broadway Theater in Duluth and the Majestic Theaters in La Crosse and Waterloo.
Thursday's “Gazette" posted the Orpheum's next card — a five-act performance including “Carlette, The Flexible Human Dragon" — with “New Motion Photography" a part of the feature.
What remained behind of the Marx's time in Green Bay are — to this writer, at least — some delightful, zany ghosts that are worth remembering.
As 2017 gets rolling, 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 working on a reprise performance of “The Vagabond Halfback" stage play for this fall.