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The Marx Brothers were a popular team of sibling comedians who appeared in vaudeville, stage plays, film, and television.
Born in New York City, the Marx Brothers were the sons of Jewish immigrants from Germany. (Plattdeutsch was their mother's first language). Their mother, Minnie Schönberg, was from Dornum in East Frisia, and their father Simon Marrix (whose name was anglicized to Sam Marx) was a native of Alsace, now part of France, and worked as a tailor. The family lived in the then-poor section of New York City's Upper East Side in an area called Yorkville, between the Irish, German and Italian Quarters.
One evening in 1912, a performance at the Opera House in Nacogdoches, Texas was interrupted by shouts from outside about a runaway mule. The audience hurried outside to see what was happening. When they returned, Groucho, angered by the interruption, made snide comments about the audience, including "Nacogdoches is full of roaches" and "The jackass is the flower of Tex-ass". Instead of becoming angry, the audience laughed. The family then realized they had potential as a comic troupe.
The act slowly evolved from singing with comedy to comedy with music. Their sketch ("Fun in Hi Skule"), featured Groucho as a German-accented teacher presiding over a classroom which included students Harpo, Gummo, and Chico. The last version of the school act, titled Home Again, was written by Al Shean. About this time, Gummo left to serve in World War I,saying "Anything is better than being an actor!" Zeppo replaced him in their final vaudeville years, the jump to Broadway, and then to Paramount films.
During World War I, anti-German sentiments were common. and the family tried to conceal their German origin. Groucho discontinued his "German" stage personality.
By this time "The Four Marx Brothers" had begun to incorporate their unique style of comedy into their act and to develop their characters. Both Groucho and Harpo's memoirs say their now famous on-stage personas were created by Al Shean. Groucho began to wear his trademark greasepaint moustache and to use a stooped walk. Harpo began to wear a red fright wig, carry a taxi-cab horn and never speak. Chico talked with a fake Italian accent, developed off-stage to deal with neighborhood toughs, while Zeppo adopted the role of the romantic (and "peerlessly cheesy," according to James Agee) straight man.
The on-stage personalities of Groucho, Chico, and Harpo were said to have been based on their actual traits. Zeppo, on the other hand, was considered the funniest brother offstage, despite his straight stage roles. As the youngest and having grown up watching his brothers, he could fill in for and imitate any of the others when illness kept them from performing. "He was so good as Captain Spaulding [in Animal Crackers] that I would have let him play the part indefinitely, if they had allowed me to smoke in the audience," Groucho recalled. (Zeppo did impersonate Groucho in the film version of Animal Crackers. Groucho was unavailable, so the script was contrived to include a power failure, which allowed Zeppo to play the scene in near-darkness.)
By the 1920s the Marx Brothers had become one of America's favorite theatrical acts. With their sharp and bizarre sense of humor, they satirized institutions such as high society and human hypocrisy. They also became famous for their improvisational comedy in free form scenarios. A famous early instance was when Harpo told a chorus girl to run across the stage in front of Groucho during his act with him chasing to see if Groucho would be thrown off. However, to the audience's delight, Groucho merely reacted by calmly checking his watch and commenting, "First time I ever saw a taxi hail a passenger". When Harpo chased the girl back the other direction, Groucho adlibbed, "You can always set your watch by the 9:20".
Under Chico's management, and with Groucho's creative direction, the brothers' vaudeville act had led them to become stars on Broadway, first with a musical revue, I'll Say She Is (1924-1925), followed by two musical comedies, The Cocoanuts (1925-1926) and Animal Crackers (1928-1929). Playwright George S. Kaufman worked on the latter two shows and helped to sharpen the Brothers' characterizations.
The stage names for four of the five brothers were coined by monologist Art Fisher during a poker game in Galesburg, Illinois, based both on the brothers' personalities and Gus Mager's Sherlocko the Monk, a popular comic strip of the day which included a supporting character named "Groucho". The reasons behind Chico's and Harpo's are undisputed, and Gummo's is fairly well established. Groucho's and Zeppo's are far less clear. Arthur was named Harpo because he played the harp, and Leonard named Chico (pronounced "Chick-o") for his affinity with the the ladies ("chicks").
In his autobiography, Harpo explains that Milton became Gummo because he crept about the theater like a gumshoe detective. Other sources report that Gummo was the family's hypochondriac, having been the sickliest of the brothers in childhood, and therefore wore rubber overshoes, also called gumshoes, in all kinds of weather. Zeppo was supposedly fond of a style of men's shoe called a "zeppelin," popular when the brothers were young.
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