Hello, We Must Be Going — to Brooklyn
The Marx Brothers’ History in the Borough
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During the early decades of the 20th century the fledgling recording, motion picture and radio broadcast industries were poised to rival and eventually surpass vaudeville, America’s primary form of popular entertainment. Many vaudeville attractions faded into oblivion. Several acts, however, endured through vaudeville’s waning years. Such was the case with The Marx Brothers. They persevered by honing their talents while ingeniously adjusting to the vicissitudes they encountered traipsing the boards for over twenty years.
The Marx Brothers’ apprenticeship flourished in their birthplace of Manhattan and also thrived in Brooklyn where they experienced many turning points, many of which would remain obscure or unknown without the scholarship of Marx Brothers historian Robert Bader. His book Four of the Three Musketeers: The Marx Brothers on Stage (Northwestern University Press; 2016/2022) is a chronicle of The Marx Brothers journey through their developing years, best described by Dick Cavett, whose 2022 PBS American Masters episode, Groucho and Cavett. Robert wrote and directed. “Robert Bader–focusing on the under-researched vaudeville days of the hilarious siblings–has gone where no man went before, discovering a treasure trove of Marxiana to delight the hearts and minds of those of us who can never get enough.” Robert has shared his knowledge and archival material for this article.
Enter Groucho — and Gummo
Regardless of its consolidation with the other boroughs to form New York City in 1898, Brooklyn maintained its own brash identity. For the brothers, Brooklyn was an independent city and was among the first places they would play. Groucho, born Julius in 1890, was the first of the brothers to enter show business and the first to perform in Brooklyn. He started out as a singer. After he was stranded twice on the road at fifteen, Minnie, the ultimate stage mother, got her son a job where he would perform, mostly in the New York area, as one of seven Gus Edwards’ Messenger Boys. Edwards was a well-known impresario who specialized in showcasing child performers. They played in June, 1906, at Coney Island’s Dreamland. This was Groucho’s first known appearance in the borough.
Minnie realized an opportunity to advance Groucho and her son Gummo, born Milton in 1892, once she met Ned Wayburn, who ran a school for aspiring vaudevillians. Gummo enrolled and Groucho landed a job in Ned Wayburn’s Sideshow which appeared in April, 1907 at Hyde and Behman’s Theater in Brooklyn at 365 Fulton Street. A review in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle of April 9, 1907 exclaimed, “Ned Wayburn’s Side Show” is the leading feature of a most attractive bill at Hyde and Behman’s this week. It was one of the funniest vaudeville sketches that has come to Brooklyn.”
Soon, Groucho and Gummo teamed with another Wayburn student, Mabel O’Donnell, forming The Three Nightingales. They performed two shows in Brooklyn in October, 1907 at the Dewey Theater at 2384 Coney Island Avenue in a Sunday concert, a vaudeville attraction consisting of disparate acts which happened to be in town on Sundays either arriving for a local engagement or before catching trains for their following week’s bookings.
Harpo Makes a Splash
After humming along as The Three Nightingales, Minnie expanded the act into The Four Nightingales by dismissing O’Donnell, since she couldn’t share rooms with her boys while on tour, and including Harpo, born Adolph in 1888, who couldn’t sing and Brooklynite Lou Levy, who could. Minnie could now keep the money mostly in the family. This new aggregation made its debut singing quartet numbers in June, 1908 at Henderson’s Music Hall at 1230 Surf Avenue. Groucho was the lead singer and the only comic. According to Robert, “The first night didn’t go too smoothly for Harpo. Groucho recalled that he was so nervous that when the curtain opened and Harpo saw the audience, he had an accident in his pants. As Harpo’s wife Susan liked to say, ‘He saw the audience and let fly.’”
School of Hard Yuks
Humor, of course, was the Marx Brothers forte and they gradually began to include it in the act. During one routine Groucho – dressed as a butcher – sang while delivering a basket of frankfurters on a string while Harpo cut them off and ate them behind his back. They soon moved to Chicago where they could work both sides of the split that resulted from the Keith vaudeville circuit’s dominion over the eastern half of the country and the Orpheum circuit’s dominion over the western half.
Ever the enterprising mom, Minnie decided to expand the act into The Six Mascots by adding herself and her sister Hannah. Lou Levy did not go to Chicago so they hired Fred Klute to replace him. They developed a twelve to fifteen minute classroom sketch, a popular vaudeville concept made famous by Gus Edwards’ School Days. As they attracted more attention, the brothers emphasized comedy and minimized singing in the act/ They were now billed as The Three Marx Brothers and company in “Fun in Hi Skule.” With the addition of a few other kids, they gained recognition touring the Midwest. In 1912 the company performed what was known as a split-week engagement in Brooklyn. Sometimes in a particular area a theater owner might have multiple theaters in different neighborhoods too small to support the same acts staying for the typical Monday through Saturday vaudeville week. In this case, “Fun in High Skule” appeared in Brooklyn from February 26 to 28 at Loew’s Fulton Street at 1283 Fulton Street and from February 29 to March 2 at Loew’s Liberty Theater at 61 Liberty Avenue by Crossbay Boulevard, near the border of Brooklyn and Queens. A few days later the brothers took the show to Loew’s Bijou at 25 Smith Street.
And Then There Were Four
As the brothers matured, they recognized an inescapable truth. While Groucho was believable at 22 playing the German school teacher, Harpo, at 24 and Gummo at 20 were a little long in the tooth to play school children. They overcame this dilemma by devising Mr. Green’s Reception in which they would celebrate their 10th anniversary reunion after graduation. In the fall of 1912 dialect comedian and piano player Chico, born Leonard in 1887, joined Mr. Green’s Reception, marking the debut of the Four Marx Brothers.
While still based in Chicago as World War I began, the brothers decided to dropped Mr. Green’s Reception. Their uncle Al Shean, of the famous act Gallagher and Shean, wrote Home Again, which become their signature show and hurled them into the big time.
The premise of this breakthrough is a reception Groucho holds at his house to which he invites passengers he met during a boat excursion, principally the young girl with whom he has been flirting. The antics kick up once he gets suckered into inviting musicians Harpo and Chico. Gummo played Groucho’s son. Starting in the fall of1914 they performed this show for seven solid vaudeville seasons. Home Again came to Brooklyn in early March, 1915 at the Bushwick Theater at 1396 Broadway. They performed it a couple of weeks later at the Orpheum at 578 Fulton Street and in April at the Prospect at 520 8th Avenue.
Robert asserts that this three-theater run underscores the notion that for the foursome Brooklyn was a separate city and market. “There was no impediment to playing Brooklyn because they had just played The Palace, the pinnacle of vaudeville, as well The Alhambra and The Colonial in Manhattan. Brooklyn and Manhattan’s accessibility to one another gave them a break, allowing them to avoid getting on trains and to stay in one place for quite a run.”
In March 1917, they brought Home Again back to both the Orpheum and the Bushwick. Since they were frequently doing the same show, they changed the title to N’Everything. Robert elaborates upon this necessity. “The Marx Brothers were huge at this point. If they came back to your city and did Home Again five or six months after you’ve just seen it, you’d go again, bringing your friends saying, ‘This is the funniest show I ever saw. You’ve got to come and see it.’ Since they did a lot of repeat business, they would change songs, add gags and change characterizations. For instance, Harpo and Chico would now be stowaways.”
Proving how beloved the show was, between June, 1919 and November 1920 Brooklynites flocked to successive stints of N’ Everything at Henderson’s Music Hall, the Orpheum (twice), the Bushwick (twice), the Prospect (twice), the Brighton Coney Island Theater at 3101 Ocean Parkway and Sea Breeze Avenue and Moss’ Flatbush Theater at 2207 Church Avenue. N’ Everything also appeared at Rockaway Beach. In addition, in September, 1920 they performed a Sunday Concert at the Orpheum.
The Chico Affair
During the March 19 to 24, 1917 run of Home Again at the Bushwick, Chico confronted a delicate situation. Robert’s research has unearthed the details, which at the time would have been scandalous. Chico asked Betty Karp, a young Brooklyn girl he’d met in Pittsburgh years earlier, for a date. In Pittsburg, she was intimidated because he was an older man so she stood him up. Nevertheless, having bragged to her friend in New York that she knew one of The Marx Brothers, they went to the show. Thinking that Chico would remember her, she sent a note backstage. Chico played along and they started dating that week. Subsequently, Chico got her pregnant. Chico and Betty conceived their only child, Maxine, during that Bushwick engagement. Later, to make the baby seem legitimate, they claimed to have been married on March 22, 1917, which would have meant that they got married in Brooklyn. They did not. They were married on August 3rd in Chicago. Robert says, “Several years ago, I uncovered their real marriage date in the Cook County Hall of Records in Chicago. When I discovered it, I told Maxine. She cracked up. She spent her last years at an assisted living facility. When I would visit her, she would say, ‘What terrible thing did my father do this time?’”
Stepping Out with Zeppo
The brothers’ composition changed in 1918 when Gummo joined the army and seventeen-year old Zeppo replaced him, becoming the new fourth Marx Brother in the last few rounds of N’ Everything. Zeppo’s first Brooklyn appearance with the brothers was the June, 1919 stay at Henderson’s Music Hall.
The brothers decided after seven years of Home Again and N’ Everything that they needed a fresh idea. Herman Tinberg, a vaudevillian who had performed with Gus Edwards, wrote them a revue, On the Mezzanine Floor. It also went under the name On the Balcony to make it seem different when touring different circuits. The concept entailed Groucho trying to marry off his son, Zeppo with Harpo and Chico again playing musicians. The novelty of the show was a two-tiered set where Groucho could climb a ladder, open a shutter and pop out of wooden windows to make wisecracks. This was a forerunner of the wall on Laugh In. Between May 2, 1921 and December 31, 1922, the brothers played On The Mezzanine Floor at Moss’ Flatbush Theater (two engagements), Keith’s Bushwick Theater, Keith’s Orpheum Theater, the Brighton Coney Island Theater at 3101 Ocean Parkway and Sea Breeze Avenue, the Boro Park (two engagements) and the Schubert Crescent Theater.
A Pivotal Three Day Stretch in Brooklyn
In the summer of 1922, a trip The Marx Brothers made to London resulted in the Keith and Orpheum circuits blacklisting them from American vaudeville. They had violated their contract by not receiving permission to work for someone else. For lack of any other employment, the brothers went to work for the Schubert organization, whose mainstay was legitimate theater. In early December, 1922, On the Mezzanine Floor played at the Schubert Crescent at the Flatbush Extension. A couple of weeks later, The 20th Century Revue, the same show with different title and specialties, appeared at the Boro Park at 5102 New Utrecht Avenue. Both were considered Broadway-type venues.
The Schubert run closed in Indianapolis on March 3, 1923 with the sheriff confiscating the scenery because the shows was in debt. Soon after returning to New York, they received an offer to appear in I’ll Say She Is, a summer revue in Philadelphia. Since they remained blacklisted, they needed of an out-of-the-way place unaffiliated with either circuit where the writer and producer could see them play in front of a live audience and work them into the new show. There were in a bind, worthy of one of their bizarre plots, having already dismissed their company and with no venue available.
Eventually, Brooklyn came to the rescue. The brothers got a three-day booking, April 15 to 18, 1923 at the remote Premier Theater at 509 Sutter Avenue near Hinsdale Street where they showcased an abbreviated performance without the chorus of their 20th Century Revue/On the Mezzanine Floor act. Robert emphasizes the oddness of those three days in East New York. “It must have been a shock to the people who managed the Premier Theater that the four Marx Brothers wanted to come and play. This was probably not even publicized anywhere. I’ve never found an advertisement for The Marx Brothers at the premiere.”
Those crucial three days led to one of the biggest successes of their career, a watershed moment that reinvented The Marx Brothers. I’ll Say She Is, with its zany Duck Soup-like scenario and sets and costumes derived from previous flopped shows, had a successful summer in Philadelphia and then toured for a year. Once it opened on Broadway the brothers become the toast of the town. Right before the debut, they returned to the Schubert Crescent Theater in April, 1924 with the new show.
After I’ll Say She Is – with the brothers on the crest of a wave – Groucho insisted that their next Broadway show should not be a revue but should have an actual plot and story. George S. Kaufman, Morrie Ryskind and Irving Berlin wrote the Marxes a musical, The Cocoanuts, which opened on Broadway and ran for eight months, closing on August 7, 1926. This was the first time they worked with their Brooklyn-born foil, Margaret Dumont who would later appear in seven films with them.
In April 1927 the brothers performed The Cocoanuts at the Werba Theater at 409 Flatbush Extension, at Flatbush Avenue and Fulton Street. Their next Broadway show was Animal Crackers, which ran on Broadway for six months starting in October, 1928. in which Groucho introduced his theme song, “Hooray for Captain Spaulding” as well as “Hello, I Must Be Going.”
As they were about to film The Cocoanuts for Paramount at the Astoria, Queens studio they accepted a big money offer to return to vaudeville, which was luring big stars in a last gambit to compete with sound movies and legitimate theater. They agreed to play the Palace Theater in April, 1929 and perform highlights from Animal Crackers. One week after Animal Crackers closed on Broadway, they tested this truncated version on April 13, 1929 at the Madison Theater at 1410 Broadway in Brooklyn’s Bushwick section.
As the brothers were about to film Animal Crackers, they were once again enticed, now with the biggest salary ever paid in vaudeville, to perform a show consisting of highlights from their three recent shows. The brothers concocted The Schweinerei, which in German means all the scraps from the slaughterhouse floor from which hot dogs and sausage are made. This consisted of stitched together sequences from I’ll Say She Is, The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers. In order to try out the show prior to playing The Palace, they did a split week during the first week of October, 1930 at The Keiths Theater in Flushing and then The RKO Albee Theater at 1 DeKalb Avenue. On October 4, the opening afternoon at the Albee, the brothers participated in an early radio broadcast from the theater on WBBC and WCGU.
The brothers concocted The Schweinerei, which in German means all the scraps from the slaughterhouse floor from which hot dogs and sausage are made. This consisted of stitched together sequences from I’ll Say She Is, The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers. In order to try out the show prior to playing The Palace, they did a split week during the first week of October 1930 at The Keiths Theater in Flushing and then The RKO Albee Theater at 1 DeKalb Avenue. On Oct. 4, the opening afternoon at the Albee, the brothers participated in an early radio broadcast from the theater on WBBC and WCGU.
Zeppo Steps Away
In the fall of 1931The Marx Brothers took “Napolean’s Last Waterloo,” one of the biggest and most successful sequences in I’ll Say She Is, and expanded it into a full vaudeville show called Napolean’s Return. Groucho was Napolean and Lotta Miles, the Kelly- Springfield tire girl, was Josephine. The tour ended in January 1932 at the Albee. Zeppo never performed with The Marx Brothers on stage again. By this point, Zeppo had wanted to leave The Marx Brothers because he felt had been under-utilized. He was also on salary and not splitting the large paychecks with his brothers.
Napolean’s Return was the last stage performance of the Marx Brothers as a quartet, although Groucho. Harpo and Chico would later go on occasional tours as the Marx Brothers. Henceforward, they concentrated their energies on movies. On Dec. 10, 1941, Groucho returned to Brooklyn to appear at the Brooklyn Federation of Jewish Charities luncheon at The Hotel St. George at 111 Hicks Street.
Chico Strikes Up the Band
In January, 1942 Chico realized his vision of forming a big band when, with assistance from jazz band manager Ben Pollack, he launched The Chico Marx Orchestra. Chico fronted the band at the piano. The officially advertised world premiere engagement was from January 15 to 21, 1942 at the Flatbush Theater, although the band had already played in Elko, Nevada at The Commercial Hotel in December, 1941. Kitty Carlise, co-star of A Night at the Opera, was on the bill in Brooklyn. Later on, Mel Torme joined the band as singer and drummer.
A Brooklyn Daily Eagle clipping dated January 14, 1942, heralding Chico’s concert, said, “Chico Marx and his band, billed ‘Chico and his Ravellies,’ opens at the Flatbush tomorrow, marking Chico’s debut as an orchestra leader. With Chico ‘shooting the keys’ technique, you can expect almost any antics. He roams all over the stage, occasionally darting into the orchestra to nab a fleeing blonde, just as his brother Harpo does. Often, he has to be restrained from turning piano solos into hour-long recitals. Even dressed in tails, Chico remains one of madcap Marx Brothers.” Chico’s Flatbush engagement was the last instance of any of the Marx Brothers playing in Brooklyn.
As Brooklyn grew after the 1898 consolidation, it provided, in turn, a springboard for the Marx Brothers to hone their extraordinary talents, from their earliest vaudeville days to their 1923 breakthrough, which began at the Premier Theater and beyond. Here is where Groucho and Gummo developed their skills, where Harpo made his debut, Zeppo left the act and Chico triumphantly led his dream band. Owing to Robert Bader’s dedication we may fully grasp, to paraphrase “Hello, I Must Be Going,” “all their deeds so glowing” in Brooklyn.
While Animal Crackers was on Broadway, The Brooklyn Daily Eagle was running a recurring column posing the question, “What’s Wrong with the Theater?” Prominent stage personalities were asked to offer a reply. The January 13, 1929 edition featured The Marx Brothers’ droll response.
“Everyone seems to be agreed that the theater is in a worse way this season than ever before. But it seems to us that trying to ascribe its troubles to any one cause is as foolish as taking a man with pneumonia, galloping consumption, two broken legs and concussion of the brain and saying he’d be all right if he only didn’t have a cold. One or ever two of these troubles at once might not be so bad, but all the theater’s ailments seem to have come to a head at once.”
“From our way of looking at it, it may be that all the different things which are blamed for the bad state of the show business, such as ticket speculation, too many theaters, and so forth, are only signs that something is wrong, rather than the causes of the trouble. We have a hunch that the theater is just now going through the same after-the-war depression which hit most businesses in the three or four years following the armistice and which, for some reason it would take better heads than ours to figure out (cries of ‘No, no”), has been postponed until now. The theater is always slower to react than other businesses, anyway. It is only recently, for instance, that unionization has really affected the theater, whereas most other industries have been unionized for 20 and 30 years.”
“Since we believe that the theater is sound at bottom, supplying a need which the public will always feel, it can be trusted to go through the process of deflation and be all the better for it. But by that time we’ll probably have starved to death.”
- Marx Brothers in Brooklyn Timeline (courtesy of Robert Bader)
- Vaudeville Period
- Julius (Groucho) solo:
- June 18-23, 1906 – Gus Edwards Messenger Boys – Dreamland, Coney Island
- April 8-13, 1907 – Ned Wayburn’s Side Show – Hyde & Behman’s Theatre
- Julius (Groucho), Milton (Gummo):
- October 27, 1907 – Ned Wayburn’s Nightingales – Dewey Theatre (2 Sunday shows)
- Julius (Groucho), Milton (Gummo), Arthur (Harpo):
- June 1-6, 1907 – The Four Nightingales – Henderson’s Music Hall (This is the professional debut of Harpo Marx)
- February 26-28, 1912 – The Three Marx Brothers in Fun in Hi Skule – Loew’s Fulton
- February 29- March 2, 1912 – The Three Marx Brothers in Fun in Hi Skule – Loew’s Liberty
- March 7-9, 1912 – The Three Marx Brothers in Fun in Hi Skule – Loew’s Bijou
- Julius (Groucho), Milton (Gummo), Arthur (Harpo), Leonard (Chico):
- March 8 -13, 1915 – The Four Marx Brothers in Home Again – Bushwick Theatre
- March 29 – April 3, 1915 – The Four Marx Brothers in Home Again – Orpheum Theatre
- April 5 – 10, 1915 – The Four Marx Brothers in Home Again – Prospect Theatre
- March 5-11, 1917 – The Four Marx Brothers in Home Again – Orpheum Theatre
- March 19 – 24, 1917 – The Four Marx Brothers in Home Again – Bushwick Theatre
- Julius (Groucho), Arthur (Harpo), Leonard (Chico), Herbert (Zeppo):
- June 16 – 21, 1919 – The Four Marx Brothers in ‘N’ Everything – Henderson’s Music Hall
- July 7 – 12, 1919 – The Four Marx Brothers in ‘N’ Everything – Orpheum Theatre
- July 14 – 19, 1919 – The Four Marx Brothers in ‘N’ Everything – Bushwick Theatre
- January 26 – 28, 1920 – The Four Marx Brothers in ‘N’ Everything – Prospect Theatre
- August 30 – September 4, 1920 – The Four Marx Brothers in ‘N’ Everything – Brighton Coney Island Theatre
- September 5, 1920 – The Four Marx Brothers in Sunday Concert – Orpheum Theatre
- October 4 – 6, 1920 – The Four Marx Brothers in ‘N’ Everything – Keith’s Prospect Theatre
- November 15 – 20, 1920 – The Four Marx Brothers in ‘N’ Everything – Keith’s Bushwick Theatre
- November 22 – 27, 1920 – The Four Marx Brothers in ‘N’ Everything – Moss’ Flatbush Theatre
- May 2 – 7, 1921 – The Four Marx Brothers in On the Mezzanine Floor – Moss’ Flatbush Theatre
- May 9 – 14, 1921 – The Four Marx Brothers in On the Mezzanine Floor – Keith’s Bushwick Theatre
- June 6 -11, 1921 – The Four Marx Brothers in On the Mezzanine Floor – Keith’s Orpheum Theatre
- July 11 – 16, 1921 – The Four Marx Brothers in On the Mezzanine Floor – Brighton Coney Island Theatre
- September 29 – October 1, 1921 – The Four Marx Brothers in On the Mezzanine Floor – Keith’s Boro Park Theatre
- December 18 – 24, 1922 – The Four Marx Brothers in The 20th Century Revue – Shubert Crescent Theatre
- December 28 – 31, 1922 – The Four Marx Brothers in On the Mezzanine Floor – Keith’s Boro Park Theatre
- Julius (Groucho) solo:
- Broadway Period
- April 15 – 18, 1923 – The Four Marx Brothers in On the Mezzanine Floor – Premier Theatre
- April 21 – 26, 1924 – The Four Marx Brothers in I’ll Say She Is – Shubert Crescent Theatre
- April 18 – 23, 1927 – The Four Marx Brothers in The Cocoanuts – Werba’s Theatre
- April 13, 1929 – The Four Marx Brothers in Scenes from Animal Crackers – Madison Theatre
- October 4 – 9, 1930 – The Four Marx Brothers in The Schweinerei – RKO Albee Theatre
- January 9 – 14, 1932 – The Four Marx Brothers in Napoleon’s Return – RKO Albee Theatre (Zeppo’s final performances)
- Later Period
- December 10, 1941 – Brooklyn Federation of Jewish Charities luncheon – Hotel St. George (Groucho appeared with other stars)
- January 15 – 21, 1942 – The Chico Marx Orchestra – Flatbush Theatre
- Vaudeville Period
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