The Marx Brothers Early Career Explored in Fascinating New Book

Robert S. Bader spoke to us about his book detailing the Marx Brothers' rise in vaudeville.

Attention Comedy historians: I know you’re out there, binge-watching season 3 of Seinfeld for the umpteenth time, studying Lenny Bruce Without Tears for clues to the mysteries of life, or scouring YouTube for the earliest Richard Pryor videos you can find. Maybe you are obsessed with that one out-take from M*A*S*H or can’t get two of George Carlin’s seven words you can’t say on TV out of your head. You know which ones, the assault of the letter K. None of this would have been possible without the Marx brothers and this book details exactly how four or five brothers from the Upper East Side changed comedy.

Four of the Three Musketeers: The Marx Brothers on Stage by Robert S. Bader is the first comprehensive history of the Marx Brothers’ “hardscrabble early years honing their act in front of live audiences,” according to a press release. “From Groucho’s debut in 1905 to their final live performances of scenes from A Night in Casablanca in 1945, the brothers’ stage career shows how their characters and routines evolved before their arrival in Hollywood.”

Bader doesn’t just give a history of the Marx Brothers. He fills in lost details to the whole history of the business of funny. And the joke’s on us because the first thing that got any of the Marx Brothers fame wasn’t funny at all. By all accounts, it was beautiful. You might not know it, watching him strum that acoustic guitar to the goddess of comedy Thelma Todd, but Groucho’s singing voice was not only the bees’ knees, but also the cat’s whiskers, before they started using greasepaint.

Den of Geek spoke exclusively to the author of Four of the Three Musketeers: The Marx Brothers on Stage, Robert S. Bader, who is also the editor of Groucho Marx and Other Short Stories and Tall Tales.

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Den of Geek: This book is more than a history of the Marx Brothers. It is an in-depth look at the evolution of show business in the early 20th Century. Why do you think no one parsed through all the available information before?

Robert S. Bader: I can’t account for why others haven’t tried to put all of the details together, but I suspect it would be because of the sheer amount of time involved. I had no idea how long it would take to write the book I set out to write. It just grew out of my own curiosity and my fascination with the Marx Brothers. I had been researching them for many years before I started work on the book. And even with that pretty significant head start, it took eight years to write it.

What separated vaudevillians from Broadway?

To answer that I have to separate the two main classes of vaudeville: the big-time and the small-time. Many big-time vaudevillians also worked on Broadway and in touring legitimate shows. But the small-timer was not a consideration in the legitimate theater business. It was sort of like the minor leagues in baseball. An act could improve and get from the small-time to the big-time and then maybe even get to Broadway. This is exactly what the Marx Brothers did, by the way. But it was a rare accomplishment.

To put it in perspective there were 40,000 working vaudevillians at the height of the business. Only a select few were worthy of Broadway. Broadway producers basically felt that audiences would not pay the higher ticket prices for an act that they’d seen in a twenty-five cent vaudeville show.

Can you tell us, in very few words, about the different circuits, i.e. the Shubert, the Orpheum, and the Keith-Albee?

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Two major circuits dominated vaudeville: the Keith-Albee in the eastern half of the country and the Orpheum in the western half. They were both operated under an entity called the United Booking Office. The UBO controlled big-time vaudeville and most of small-time vaudeville. Smaller circuits operated all over the country – some in conjunction with the UBO like the Interstate, some in competition with it like the Pantages.

The Shubert Brothers were mostly involved in legitimate theater, but got into vaudeville a couple of times as competitors of the UBO. They failed miserably in vaudeville because the UBO was too powerful a monopoly.

Do you think the writers who came before you cut the Marx mythology some slack because they didn’t want to spoil the legends?

I can’t speak for those writers, but I do find those legends – whether true or not – very entertaining.  I will add that in some cases the true stories are even more entertaining than the made-up versions of those events. I would also guess that previous writers assumed the legends were true and didn’t feel the need to investigate. I suppose I’m less trusting.

What was it about the Marx Brothers that first clicked for you, as opposed to the Ritz Brothers, Abbott and Costello, or Laurel and Hardy?

I enjoy all of those teams, but I discovered the Marx Brothers first and I never thought any of the others were as interesting. I was attracted to the dialogue when I was a child. The rapid-fire exchanges were very appealing to me – probably even before I understood all of them. And the songs and the music made me keep going back to the Marx Brothers. But Harpo also fascinated me. He exists in his own world even within the Marx Brothers. I found so many different things to love about the Marx Brothers. No other team is as multi-dimensional.

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When you first read about risqué or blue material, were you hoping to have certain adolescent expectations fulfilled?

The odd thing about blue material is that it doesn’t seem all that blue when it’s over a hundred years old. I was amazed at some of the stuff the Marx Brothers got in trouble over. It was very tame by even the standards of the time. But vaudeville was very puritanical.

What a lot of people don’t realize today is that there was nudity on the Broadway stage in the 1920s. The Marx Brothers’ show I’ll Say She Is had a dance number in which a woman’s clothes were torn to shreds. They didn’t play it that way in every city on tour. They had to adjust the show for the local blue laws.

But vaudeville was always very carefully monitored and censored. Legitimate theatre was directed at a more sophisticated audience. At least that was the theory at the time.

Some speculation: The lost silent Marx Brothers film Humor Risk; how do you think it would fare in comparison to similar smaller budget silent films of the early 1920s?

I suppose if it existed I would have a predisposition to liking it because it would be the earliest possible look at the Marx Brothers. It was filmed when they were at the peak of their powers in vaudeville, but losing the element of speech would make them far less effective. It would be an interesting artifact, but would probably not measure up well against a good silent short with a silent film comedian who had mastered that medium.

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When did the Marx Brothers begin to incorporate surrealism into their act?

I doubt they thought of gags in their vaudeville shows as surreal, but an early example came in their breakthrough show Home Again in 1914. They had a piece of scenery that approximated a boat on water. The waves were made of cardboard and the boat rolled on wheels. Harpo swam behind the boat and spit a stream of water into the painted cardboard ocean. Harpo had a lot of gags like that. By the time he stopped speaking on stage during the early days of Home Again he had developed into a completely surreal character. The other brothers didn’t do anything like that, so Harpo was really the link to surrealism in the act.

What instances in the films of the Marx Brother do you suppose were ad-libbed? Personally – from the look on Margaret Dumont’s face, the first one that pops to mind for me is “look at this magnificent chest.”

I know people don’t like to believe this, but the thing that makes the dialogue seem so spontaneous is that it is so well written. I’d be surprised to find anything in their movies that wasn’t in the script. Of course they added a lot of things to The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers when they did them on stage, and some of that material made it into the filmed versions.

But the masterful work of the writers should be recognized. George S. Kaufman in particular wrote wonderful dialogue for Groucho, who was able to deliver it perfectly and make audiences think it was totally off the cuff. As for Margaret Dumont, don’t believe for a second that she didn’t understand the jokes. She was a total professional and the fact that more than eighty years later people still think she is really the character she played is a magnificent tribute to her ability.

How did movies impact vaudeville performers?

Movies sent the entire vaudeville business into a panic. And it was totally justified. Economically a theater manager could save a lot of money by booking a film instead of a bunch of vaudeville acts. And the film didn’t have travel expenses and hotel costs, which in some cases were covered by the theaters or circuits. As films got better and movie stars developed, many vaudeville theaters converted to movie theaters and stopped booking live acts. When sound films arrived it was pretty much the end of vaudeville’s most prosperous period.

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Why would anyone shoot a Marx Brother?

The obvious reason would have something to do with their quest for female companionship. There’s also the gambling possibility because the brothers spent a lot of time in poolrooms. But women were more likely the cause of most of their encounters with loaded weapons.

How many Marx Brothers did jealous boyfriends, fathers, or husbands shoot?

There are no actual statistics on this, but certainly there is some compelling evidence to suggest that one of them tended to be on the wrong end of a gun more than the others. Understand that, in those days, a local father or husband in a small town would be congratulated for shooting a vaudevillian caught with his daughter or wife. Small town America considered vaudevillians immoral and dangerous a hundred years ago. The Marx Brothers didn’t do much to change anyone’s opinion about that.

Was Minnie Marx a successful theatrical producer or a spectacular con artist?

A little bit of both, actually. When she started, her goal was to get her sons off the streets of New York and into paying jobs. It didn’t take her very long to figure out that a terrible singer like Harpo, when added to a singing trio, increased the act’s salary. They got more money as a quartet by adding a singer who couldn’t sing. She was smart and used the success of the Marx Brothers to build a stable of less impressive vaudeville acts. She had as many as a dozen shows on the road by the time her sons made it to the big-time in vaudeville.

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But there was always a bit of the con artist in Minnie. The publicity for her shows – including the Marx Brothers – often included wild fabrications, like world tours that hadn’t really happened. But no one was checking to see if her claims were true and some of the acts were pretty good, so she was quite a success for a few years.

What were the major differences between Fun in High School, Mr. Green’s Reception and the other early pieces?

Mr. Green’s Reception was the natural outgrowth of Fun in High School. They had been doing a schoolroom act for a few years and were becoming too old to play children on stage. So they created the premise of a reunion with their teacher ten years later. They eventually played both shows as a double bill, and it became very obvious that there were school children in their mid-twenties in the act. A new show was desperately needed at that point and that show was Home Again, which they did for several seasons.

These were the three main shows from their early years in vaudeville and they really formed their characters with them. The acts prior to these were the singing acts – the Three Nightingales, the Four Nightingales, and the Six Mascots.

What did they bring to I’ll Say She Is that set it apart from other stage shows of the period?

I’ll Say She Is was not initially conceived as a Marx Brothers show. They were one of many acts hired to appear in a revue. But they quickly became the most important part of the show and eventually it became their show. There were a lot of similar musical comedy revues during the period. What set I’ll Say She Is apart from the others was that it featured a hugely popular vaudeville act that eventually moved the show to Broadway. It was one of those rare instances of vaudevillians becoming Broadway stars.

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Do you think Groucho would have been a star without his brothers? Even after his voice broke?

Absolutely. As a sixteen-year-old singer Groucho was very successful and well on his way to a good vaudeville career on his own. Minnie saw this and realized that she had several more potential vaudevillians in her apartment. So she basically attached them to Groucho and dragged him down a little to create the family act. We can’t really know if his voice changing affected his career. It was a story Groucho liked to tell in his later years, but the reviews of Julius Marx as a teenaged singer were uniformly good.

If Zeppo didn’t get into the act, might he have become a noted Chicago gangster?

Zeppo was eight years old when the Marx family moved to Chicago. He was pretty much left to his own devices most of the time. Minnie was out on the road with the Marx Brothers a lot and their father Frenchy was not much of a disciplinarian. By his own account, Zeppo was carrying a gun and stealing cars by the time he was fourteen. Minnie needed him in the act when Gummo left to join the army, but she was also interested in getting him off the streets of Chicago for his own protection. Zeppo mentioned late in his life that most of the people he ran with during his youth in Chicago wound up either dead or in prison.

Who were the Six Mascots?

Minnie had gotten the act a salary increase by making a trio into a quartet, and she did it again again by turning the quartet into a sextet. Groucho, Harpo and Gummo remained from the Four Nightingales. They added a boy singer named Fred Klute – who has been known in Marxian lore by the pseudonyms Groucho gave him: Freddie Hutchins or Freddy Watson. Minnie and her sister Hannah rounded out the Six Mascots. It was a good business move because the act did indeed get a raise. Artistically it might not have been as good, since two women in their mid-forties were playing schoolgirls.

You mention a lot of obscure vaudeville acts, famous and forgotten. My favorite was the Wangdoodle Four, an African American dancing quartet pretending to be Chinese. What were some of the acts you uncovered that inflamed your curiosity?

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An act Harpo described in his autobiography is so ridiculous that it immediately goes to the top of my list. Mons Herbert had an act called “The Musical Waiter.” He’d set a dinner table and play “The Anvil Chorus” by blowing knives and forks into each other. For a finale he inflated a rubber turkey and deflated it in a manner that made it play “Oh, Dry Those Tears” out of its rump. Mons Herbert actually did this act on American stages for more than thirty years. I’ve got a section on the book’s web site, devoted to some of the strangest acts in vaudeville history. Groucho’s favorite was Swain’s Rats and Cats, which has become legendary in part because of Groucho’s recollections of it. I’d place that one just after Mons Herbert.

Did the Marx Brothers write any of their own material?

Chico wrote some music and lyrics in the early days, including a couple of songs during his time in vaudeville prior to joining his brothers. Harpo was pretty much responsible for creating his visual material. And that continued on into their film career to a certain degree. He had gag writers helping with the films, but in early vaudeville he was mostly on his own.

Groucho added a lot of original material to all of the Marx Brothers vaudeville acts. He even wrote material for an act that had nothing to do with the Marx Brothers. And Gummo also tried to write for other acts. He registered a script with the copyright office shortly after leaving the Four Marx Brothers. And just to complete the answer, Zeppo attempted a career as a screenwriter during the Marx Brothers’ early days in Hollywood, but he was unable to get any of his four treatments produced.

So Groucho, Harpo, and Chico wrote some material for the Marx Brothers, but Gummo and Zeppo did not – although they both tried to write scripts for others.

Why do the Marx Brothers stay so fresh today?

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The Marx Brothers don’t become dated because the most important thing they do is challenge authority. That never goes out of style. The plots of their films are unimportant to the point of occasionally being nonexistent. But the things they do to pompous figures – like college professors in Horse Feathers, or politicians in Duck Soup – remain appealing today because everyone still enjoys insulting college professors and politicians.

What can you tell me about Kyle Crichton’s authorized 1950 biography of the Marx Brothers?

Crichton was working with the recollections that the Marx Brothers wanted to use to fashion their legacy. He wasn’t really researching a proper biography. In fact, the Marx Brothers owned the copyright in the book and Crichton was hired by the brothers to write it in the hope that it would be made into a movie. So while the book is greatly flawed, it was what the Marx Brothers wanted at the time. As a young Marx Brothers fan I got a lot of entertainment from that book, but it also inspired me to find out what really happened.

What myths were the saddest to dispel?

I suppose the toughest one to let go of for Marx Brothers fans would be the fable about what happened in Nacogdoches, Texas – the purported site of the miraculous overnight transformation of the Marx Brothers from a singing act to a comedy act. The truth is that it was gradual and the occasional facts that turn up in the myth really occurred in Gulfport, Mississippi and New Orleans, Louisiana.

The other important Marx tale that turns out to be completely fabricated is the one in which Chico joins the act in Waukegan, Illinois by surprising his brothers from the orchestra pit. The truth is that Chico was working elsewhere with another act and joined his brothers more than a year later. And it was actually pretty well planned.

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What legend were you happiest to confirm?

As I progressed in my research I had started to think that most of what the Marx Brothers said about their vaudeville days was fiction. But some of the craziest stories were just too strange to be made up. One in particular involved the act getting cancelled because of a smallpox epidemic in a small rural town in Pennsylvania. It took a visit to the Pennsylvania State Archives in Harrisburg to nail it down, but Groucho was very accurate in telling this unusual tale.

Of course some of the legends are impossible to confirm or disprove. But generally speaking, even the myths are rooted in the facts of the Marx Brothers’ experiences in vaudeville. Taken together, their stories and the others that can be found in contemporary accounts, tell the story of a lost world. Thousands of performers made a living traveling the country, living on trains and in cheap boarding houses and being treated like outcasts by most of society. The Marx Brothers lived this life for twenty years before they became Broadway stars. That part of their story is something I was eager to explore.

Four of the Three Musketeers: The Marx Brothers on Stage is available at Amazon.