The funniest and zaniest comedians who ever got on stage were certainly
the Marx Brothers. They were very good in vaudeville, sensational on
Broadway, quite successful in the movies, but they never made it big on
Most of the American public can easily name three of them, some of us know there were at least four in the entertainment business, but there were actually six Marx brothers. The oldest, Manfred, died in infancy. Leonard (who became Chico) was the next in line, followed by Adolph, who changed his name to Arthur (and later Harpo.) The fourth son born was Julius who we know as Groucho. Number five was Milton (Gummo) and the baby was Herbert (Zeppo). The five living sons all had some part in show-biz, but only three were to go on to immortal fame.
They descended from poor Jewish immigrants; their mother, Minnie, came to the U.S. when she was 15. Her family settled in New York City and she soon married a tailor with few prospects. Her parents had been in the European version of vaudeville; her father was a magician and her mother was a harpist. Minnie became the ultimate stage mother and took her teen-aged boys out of school (where they were doing poorly anyway) and shoved them on to the stage.
The four (Leonard, Arthur, Julius and Milton) were billed as singers, although most of their songs were funny ones, as opposed to serious harmony. From roughly 1907 to 1923, the boys played to not very appreciative audiences wherever they could get a booking. The act gradually phased out the singing and concentrated on comedy. While they got better at what they did, their salaries were never very impressive.
Finally in 1924, they mounted their own stage play, fortified by material supplied by an uncle, Al Shean of "Shean & Gallagher." Their first play on Broadway, "I'll Say She Is" was a huge success, and the reviews and the ticket sales were gratifying to the Marx Brothers, now ranging in age from 26 (Milton) to 33 (Leonard).
Proving their Broadway debut was no fluke, they followed with "The Coconuts" in 1925, which was even better received. They finally closed it in New York City and took it on tour; their fame and future now relatively secure. By the time their third Broadway show opened in 1928, "Animal Crackers" offers were coming in from Hollywood.
Their film careers began with two movies based on their prior stage hits, "The Coconuts" in 1929 and "Animal Crackers" in 1930. For nearly twenty years, they continued to star in motion pictures, finally ending with "Love Happy" in 1949. It was in Hollywood that they acquired the nicknames that would become more familiar than their birth names. Milton (Gummo) dropped out of the act and was replaced by Herbert (Zeppo). Since the fourth brother was the straight man, the roles were largely interchangeable.
The radio careers of the five Marx Brothers is largely restricted to only two of them. Gummo and Zeppo had virtually no radio time at all. Harpo, despite the fact that his entertainment persona was that of a mute (he could speak in real life, of course) got more microphone time than Gummo and Zeppo. But the lion's share of the radio time logged by the Marx Brothers was solely the province of Groucho and Chico.
Their first network radio show was part of a series called "Five Star Theater" which was sponsored by Esso Gasoline, and featured a different program each weekday evening, including "Charlie Chan" and a light opera show. The Monday night entry was "Beagle, Shyster, and Beagle, Attorneys at Law" starring Groucho and Chico. By the fourth episode, a lawyer whose real name was Beagle, threatened a libel suit if the title was not changed. Accordingly, episodes 5 through 26 were named "Flywheel, Shyster and Flywheel". This series aired from 11/28/32 to 5/22/33.
The show was a mediocre success and Esso did not renew it the following season. Only two of the twenty-six episodes have survived in audio form and both Groucho and Chico seem ill at ease reading from scripts. All of the scripts are now available, thanks to the scholarship of Michael Barson, who found them and published them in book form in 1988, under the title of "Flywheel, Shyster and Flywheel". Shortly thereafter, the BBC recorded all the shows (with British actors, of course) and some OTR dealers have these copies for sale.
In late 1936 or early 1937, Groucho and Chico recorded an audition disk of a new show, casting themselves as Hollywood agents. They created a mythical sponsor, the Hotchkiss Packing Company, and this audition is now known by that name. It is actually rather well done, but was not picked up by any network.
Two years later Groucho and Chico made another foray into network radio, this time in one of the strangest variety shows ever aired. It was sponsored by Kellogg's Corn Flakes, was titled "The Circle" and featured some of Hollywood's most expensive film actors. But the total package simply could not hang together.
"The Circle" was on the air for only seven months, from January to July 1939. Only one episode has survived but listening to it makes it clear why the show flopped. Ronald Colman was the head of "The Circle" a mythical club into which celebrities could be inducted. Colman recites in a formal manner and seems uncomfortable with the zany Brothers Marx. Cary Grant sings a lengthy song by Noel Coward and Carole Lombard delivers a pro-feminist speech . To top it off, the inductee is Jose Iturbi, a classical pianist whose command of English at that time was rather shaky.
Despite their popularity on the silver screen, it would be thirteen years before a Marx Brother got a network show again. The series was "Blue Ribbon Town" and Groucho lasted only three months on the show before being replaced by Kenny Baker. It was expected; Groucho was less funny on this show than his guest stars. His regular cast included Leo Gorcey (of the Bowery Boys) and Virginia O' Brien, who had been in the the Marx Brothers' 1941 film, "The Big Store."
Baker was a little more successful than Groucho and this series, which began in March 1943, went off the air in August 1944. Two copies are in trading currency today and Jack Benny is the guest star in one of these.
Despite his lack of success in promoting Blue Ribbon Beer, Groucho was a regular guest star (frequently teamed with Chico) on many other shows during World War II. You can hear either or both popping up for spots on: G.I. Journal, Philco Radio Hall of Fame, Command Performance, Chase and Sanborn Show, Kraft Music Hall, Birds-Eye Open House, Mail Call, etc. In fact, one dealer compiled a four volume LP set of these Marx Brothers' appearances which totals four hours of network radio.
This is not to imply that the "mute" Harpo was absent from radio, but his roles were much less frequent. He made some appearances on the quiz show, "Information Please" (one honk for yes, two for no), played a rumor detective on the "Burns and Allen Show" and got other bit parts on comedies.
Groucho had a near miss with radio fame when he optioned the original version of "Life of Riley", hoping to star in it himself. However the network chose William Bendix for the role and Groucho had to wait in line again.
Finally a bright producer, John Guedel, (who would go on to a brilliant career in television) realized that putting a script into the hands of Groucho was responsible for the lack of success. The comedian was the best ad-libber in the business and Guedel came up with the format of a pseudo-quiz show he called "You Bet Your Life." Groucho was very reluctant to accept another radio job since he was very conscious of his mediocre track record in broadcasting. Guedel persevered and eventually got Groucho to star after agreeing to have the unscripted show run at least sixty minutes, all on tape, and then edit each show down to the best of 25 minutes. By letting "Groucho be Groucho", this series was an immediate smash hit, first on radio and later simulcast on television.
The show aired on ABC radio for two years beginning 10-27-47 and then CBS grabbed it. It ran for a year on that network when NBC bought it and simulcast it on both radio and TV. The radio version ended it September 1956 and the TV show ran another five years. The residuals from this network show brought Groucho enormous profits (it's still in syndication) and gave him the financial security which had eluded him in earlier days. (And because it was transcribed, nearly 300 episodes have survived.)
The only other program that featured a Marx Brother was one called "The Little Matchmaker". It starred Chico in the title role, with other West Coast actors, including Sheldon Leonard in his cast. The show never reached the airwaves and only the audition show (August 1952) has survived. It's a weak imitation of "Life With Luigi" and listening to it once will prove it had no chance.
Harpo and Chico both died at age 70 in the early Sixties. Groucho was 82 when he passed away in 1977. Their fame will continue to rest upon their stage and film careers, with their radio work just a pleasant diversion.