Stars of Bedlam: The Rise & Fall of the Marx Brothers (Part 3)

Minnie “Palmer” — “Chicago’s only lady producer”

As Minnie “Palmer” Marx began expanding her vaudeville production empire, Leo took more direct control of the Brothers’ act.

In 1911, a new fad was reinventing the face of vaudeville — the tabloid musical, or “tab” as they were quickly dubbed by the trade papers. In the words of Robert S. Bader, tabs were “truncated versions of popular Broadway and touring shows, reduced by cutting much of the dialogue, removing non essential characters, and leaving the musical numbers and just enough of the plot to maintain some semblance of the original idea of the show.” The more respectable vaudeville houses began clamoring for shows consisting of a couple of classy tabs, rather than a low-rent, crazy-quilt collection of short, unrelated acts. And fewer acts on a bill meant fewer salaries had to be paid and more profit for the theaters. When the craze got too popular, Broadway producers began cracking down on copyright violations. Even with vaudeville companies legitimately paying for the material, demand outweighed supply. This led to the creation of more tabs featuring original material.

And that’s what put the light bulb on in Leo’s head when he and his erstwhile performing partner George Lee joined forces with the Three Marx Brothers in the late summer of 1912. Leo decided that the school act could be polished, tweaked, and refined into a tabloid musical. They could then hire a few supporting acts, and sell the whole thing as a self-owned, self-contained package.

In its new form, the two parts of Fun in Hi Skule (the classroom and the recital) would be condensed into the first act. A newly-minted second act (created with a little help from Uncle Al) would be more comedy and music in the form of a ten-year-class reunion in honor of the retirement of Julius’ teacher character, now named Mr. Herman Green. Arthur kept his Patsy Brannigan character. The dim-witted class disrupter of the first act had grown into the local garbage man by the second. (“Patsy Brannigan the garbage man is here.” “Tell him we don’t want any.” When and where this big laugh-getting line was first used is yet another element of the early days that is awash in contradictory stories.) He also continued to refine his costume, which was growing less Irish stooge and more tramp-like clown. But despite “Patsy” no longer being explicitly Irish, ethnic stereotypes were still firmly entrenched in the world of vaudeville. Leo became the Italian student, Tony Saroni. George Lee, with his bigger performance style and firmer command of Yiddishisms, took over the role of the Jewish student, now named Ignatz Levy. Milton dug the name “Hans Pumpernickel” out of retirement, and became the German student in a pageboy/”Hansel”-style wig. Paul Yale remained as his “nance” character, but toned down the more overt homosexual mannerisms and became more of a prissy “mama’s boy” (the audience would gasp, then crack up when Yale, in his knee pants and heavily-rouged cheeks, opened his mouth and sang in a deep, manly baritone.) The main support act was the dancing Harris Brothers. And the “schoolgirl” chorus had expanded to fifteen young women, still including the trouper Dot Davidson, who had been with them since the end of 1910, possibly due to her passionate attachment to Yale. 

The schoolroom act still comprised the first half of the revised show. Julius is at the center, apparently delivering a harsh lecture to Dot Davidson, while the schoolgirl chorus on the left points and laughs. Arthur, on the right, is also getting in on shaming Davidson. New cast member Leo is in the background, bullying the Harris Brothers. In front of them is “sissy” Paul Yale and Milton as the updated version of “Hans Pumpernickel”

The whole shebang was titled Mr. Green’s Reception, and it was the first time the Four Marx Brothers shared a stage. It ran a full forty minutes, and the Marx Brothers touring company now included a stage carpenter and property manager in addition to its cast, supporting acts, and chorus line. The cast appeared in white-tie evening dress for the second act. As was the case with most mid-level vaudeville acts, they did not tour with musicians (apart from those in already in the cast), but carried sheet music for all of their numbers, arranged for anything from a four-piece to a full dance orchestra, depending on the size of the theater and its resident house band. 

Mr. Green’s Reception started its run in Chicago on September 5, 1912, and was eagerly booked by the WVMA circuit for the entire 1912-1913 vaudeville season. The big-time beckoned, tantalizingly near. But they had yet to attain name recognition. They weren’t stars quite yet. They would come to town, get the audiences roaring (Leo’s piano-playing, Arthur’s ever-improving harp solos…and the Harris Brothers’ clogging…were all considered highlights), earn decent reviews in the local paper, and then were forgotten about as soon as the act left town. Not for much longer.

From the Burlington, Iowa Hawkeye, Dec. 20, 1912: “Judge W.S. Winthrow cut short his luncheon period yesterday to unite in marriage Mr. S. Paul [Yale] and Miss Margaret [Dot] Davidson, two young people who are playing at the Garrick Theatre this week. The thespians secured a marriage license at 11 o’clock and asked if they might see the judge…”

Time was of the essence, as Dot was six weeks pregnant. It was at that same Garrick Theater where the Brothers had several run-ins with a particularly nasty theater manager. (The story goes he paid the company’s salary in pennies. Hate to burst the anecdote bubble yet again, but this would have been pretty much impossible. Remember the size of the Marx Brothers’ company? And have you seen a few thousand dollars in pennies?) As their train pulled out of town, according to Marxian legend, Arthur stood on the back platform of the last car, shook his fist at the receding town, and yelled “You lousy sonofabitch, I hope your goddamn theater burns to the ground!” “The next day, it did,” Julius always loved to recall. “And that’s why we decided not to let Harpo talk.” (As with any legend, there’s a kernel of truth — Arthur may very well have cursed the theater as he left town, and the Garrick Theatre really did burn down, but not until two months later. And Arthur continued speaking onstage for at least another year-and-a-half.)

By the time the Garrick had been reduced to ashes in February of 1913, Mr. Green’s Reception was playing in South Bend, Indiana. South Bend was experiencing record low temperatures, and the St. Joseph River was choked with ice.

The Mr. Green’s Reception company, in costume — Julius as Mr. Green is in the back row with the girls. Milton, Leo, and Arthur are front and center. Paul Yale is on the far right, his arm around a Harris Brother, with George Lee on the far left. Looks like the other Harris Brother volunteered to take the picture

A scrapbook clipping from the local South Bend paper (name & date unknown): “Mr. [Arthur] Marx was on the bank of the stream in the rear of the Orpheum Theatre with others of the Orpheum troupe when one of the women…bet him 50 cents that he was afraid to take a swim. ‘I’ll bet you another 50 cents.’ ‘And I another,’ answered two others. Before taking the plunge, Mr. Marx said: ‘That’s a dollar and a half when I get out, ain’t it?’ He then dove from the ledge of ice, clothes, hat, and all. He came to the surface with chattering teeth, exclaiming, ‘It’s not so bad.’”

Jumping into icy rivers was only one way to pass the time. Stories of the Brothers’ affairs with the chorus girls that came and went from their show, and their necessarily brief dalliances with local women, fill their biographies and autobiographies and are at this point impossible to verify, but it seems sex on the road was very much part of their routine. Sometimes, when it came to the local whorehouses, it was almost too easy. “The girls used to come watch us at the theater,” said Julius. “And if they liked us, they’d send a note backstage inviting us over after the show.” Presumably, the services were discounted or maybe even gratis.

Raising a stein at the curtain call for Mr. Green’s Reception — l. to r. Paul Yale, Leo, Arthur, Julius, Milton, George Lee

The company also had the novel idea of forming a baseball team, and when not performing, rehearsing the house orchestra, or pursuing women, took on local college teams — and usually lost big. (For the curious: Catcher — Julius. First base — Paul Yale. Second base — George Harris. Shortstop — Arthur. Third base — Leo. Left field — Milton. Center field — stage carpenter Fred Browning. Right field — George Lee. Pitcher — Victor Harris.) The uniforms proudly had “MARX BROS.” printed across the chest.

Mr. Green’s Reception toured another full year, and exhaustion was beginning to set in by the spring of 1914. The grind of the road and the close quarters caused tempers to grow short. George Lee, whom many reviewers had indicated was the “principal comedian” of the act, and also their best singer, had already found another job as a solo act for the following season, and would be leaving the Marx Brothers company at the end of the tour. With only a couple of months left to go, Lee demanded a raise. Not seeing the sense of giving more money to someone who was just going to be taking off soon, the Brothers refused. “As the size of his head grew, he decided his salary should grow with it,” said Julius. Lee abruptly quit in early April of 1914. Paul Yale and Dot Davidson took the opportunity to leave the act at the same time. They formed their own song-and-dance duo, Yale & Davidson, and occasionally worked as a supporting act for the Brothers through 1916.

Mr. Green’s Reception company out of costume. Milton is top center, with Paul Yale to the right. Just below them is Julius. Arthur and George Lee kneel in the foreground. Leo is off to the left

The Brothers hired some replacements, and the company finished out the season, but the situation left Julius with a realization:

“For the first time in our career we realized we could succeed as an act without any outside help. We didn’t need any more extraneous singers, dancers, and feeble comedians. We were now a unit. We were the Marx Brothers…we had finally freed ourselves from always having some outsider along to put us over, and from then on we were able to steam on under our own power.”

And it was during those closing days of the final Mr. Green’s Reception tour that Something Momentous happened…

It was the very beginning of the Platinum Age of Comics. When the newspaper hit the front step, many adult readers would flip right to the “funny pages,” skipping the depressing headlines to enjoy the adventures of the Katzenjammer Kids, Maggie and Jiggs, Mutt and Jeff, and Krazy Kat. In 1904, artist Gus Mager created a series of comic strip characters called “monks,” after their vaguely monkey-like faces. All the monks had names ending in “o.” For a brief period, these characters featured in a strip called Sherlocko the Monk, in which the title character solved mysteries. Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle threatened a lawsuit, and in 1913 the title of the strip was changed to Hawkshaw the Detective (and the characters redesigned to look a little more human). But the impact of “Sherlocko” and his fellow monks remained. Vaudeville and popular culture in general went through a fad of nicknames ending in “o.”

This is said to be the only picture in existence of all five brothers and their parents together. Outside the theater in Joilet, Illinois, April 30, 1914

The Brothers always agreed it happened in Galesburg, Illinois, which would make it mid-May of 1914. They were sharing a bill with a someone named Art Fisher. Over a round of backstage poker between shows, Fisher and the Brothers were idly discussing the “o” nickname phenomenon. As Fisher dealt the cards, he assigned each Brother an “o” name. “He named me Gummo,” said Milton, “because I had holes in my shoes and I’d wear rubbers, or gumshoes, over them even when it wasn’t raining.” 

Arthur became “Harpo” for obvious reasons. 

Leo became “Chicko,” because of his reputation for “chasing the chicks.” It was always intended to be pronounced as “Chick-o,” but at some point the “k” was dropped from the spelling, rendering it as “Chico” and resulting in many people pronouncing it “Cheek-o.” Although the Brothers used the original pronunciation, when people called him “Cheek-o,” the man himself never bothered to correct them. He happily answered to both. 

There is some speculation that Julius’ new name — “Groucho” — may have come from the fact that he kept his cash in a “grouch bag,” which was a small drawstring pouch worn around the neck to prevent the petty theft that was a fact of life in a vaudeville touring company. But more likely, as even Julius admitted, it was because he was often in a surly mood and had a cynical overall attitude. 

Art Fisher had made his impact on entertainment history, and promptly vanished. No researcher has ever been able to dig up exactly who he was or what became of him. (The blog From the Marxives has identified a vaudevillian named Art Fisher performing a “cowboy mimic” act, but he pretty much disappears from the record after 1912.)

Even though it was intended as a momentary card-game joke, the Brothers were delighted with their new names, and began using them among themselves immediately. It was pretty funny for an afternoon. Then the days stretched into weeks and months. They persisted in using the names. Friends and family shrugged and began calling them by those names as well (even Minnie, who did not seem too bitter that her sons enthusiastically ditched the names she gave them). It would be ten years before the Marx Brothers used their new names as their professional stage billing, but to themselves and everyone who knew them, they were now and forever Chico, Harpo, Groucho, and Gummo. And that’s who they’ll be in these essays from this point forward. (Family members tended to drop the “o”s — to relatives and spouses they were Grouch, Chick, Harp, and later, Zep. Gummo remained “Gummo” in all cases. I guess calling someone “Gum” just sounded too odd.)

The act was ready for another update. As always, they didn’t quite start from scratch, but reformatted pre-existing elements. All of the “school” portions were dropped (school acts were outdated by then), and the “reception” became the focal point. And instead of relying on Uncle Al to provide a little uncredited script doctoring as they had for Mr. Green’s Reception, they hired him to write the whole thing, start to finish. 

What came from Uncle Al’s pen was called Home Again, and it had the most staying power of any of the Brothers’ vaudeville acts. As with their earlier shows, there is no surviving script. We have to rely on reviews from the newspaper archives, the Brothers’ memories, and future New Yorker writer (and future Marx Brothers screenwriter) S.J. Perelman, who attended the show as a twelve-year-old, and many years later published an essay full of his reminiscences about seeing the Marx Brothers in this early form.

The Brothers toured with Home Again for the better part of four years. The plot, as usual, was merely a skeletal framework on which to hang their jokes and songs (the former now far outnumbering the latter). The first act of Home Again was the main comedy portion, and depicted the arrival on the New York docks of Mr. Henry Schnieder (Groucho) after a long sea voyage. Schnieder is described as “a plain German who loves his stein — and the ladies.” Accompanying him, among others, are his long-suffering wife and bored daughter, his smart-aleck son Harold (Gummo), and a pair of “cronies” he had met on board (Chico and Harpo). A little subplot intrigue was provided by a policeman investigating the theft of some silverware from the ocean liner’s dining room. What passed for the main plot was the lecherous old Mr. Schieder, having met a lovely young woman during the voyage, trying to figure out a way to spend more time with her. In desperation, he did this by inviting everyone on the dock (including the shifty and undesirable Chico and Harpo) to a “welcome back” party at his home. The climax of the first act was a flood of purloined silverware pouring from Harpo’s coat sleeve. The party comprised the second act (“without any tiresome logical transition” noted Perelman), and featured the Brothers’ musical turns and some more comedy. This was really just a reworking of the second act of Mr. Green’s Reception, featuring some new jokes–and plenty of old jokes from the previous show that they knew were guaranteed laugh-getters. Gummo even got to show off his impressive footwork skills by performing “a whirlwind dance” with a female partner (he ended by tossing her to Harpo, who carried her off, Dracula-style). 

Home Again still had a full chorus and a supporting cast (including Schnieder’s wife and daughter, the policeman, and various party guests), but this time around it was clear who the stars were, and there would be no scene-stealing by the likes of Paul Yale or George Lee. Groucho retired the “Herr Teacher/Mr. Green” bald wig, and appeared with a full head of hair (artificially gray), but retained Mr. Green’s comfy, plaid-lined jacket. He still had his old “Dutch comic” German accent, although that would soon change. Gummo’s character, the spoiled son Harold, had pretensions of being a “swell,” and wore white gloves and carried a fancy cane. Chico seemed to have no distinctive costume — just the ever-present Italian accent. Harpo retained the final version of his “Patsy Brannigan” costume — loudly-patterned shirt, patched trousers and raincoat (both of which grew more torn and decrepit with each new Marx show), curly red wig — but now had a whole new persona. 

When Harpo read through Uncle Al’s first draft, he was miffed to discover he only had three lines. When he complained, Uncle Al picked up his pencil and crossed out what little there was of Harpo’s dialogue. “He wasn’t the greatest talker,” said Groucho. “Uncle Al did him a favor. He told Harpo he shouldn’t even have those three lines, and should do everything in pantomime.” 

Still resistant to the idea, Harpo went ahead and did his three lines in addition to his mostly-speechless performance in the tryout runs of Home Again in a few small Illinois towns. Harpo finally accepted the inevitable. “I simply couldn’t out-talk Groucho or Chico, and it was ridiculous of me to try,” he said. “I went silent. I never uttered another word, on stage or in front of a camera, as a Marx Brother.” (He went on to say it was a negative newspaper review that prompted him into silence, but that review has never been unearthed.)

And that’s how one of the greatest comic characters in stage and cinema history was created. Harpo became not just a pantomime artist (if what he does even counts as “pantomime” as the term is usually understood), but a Force of Nature, a gleeful dervish with a vacant, otherworldly look in his wide eyes, who broke the laws of polite society (and sometimes the laws of physical reality) for his own mysterious purposes. “Harpo doesn’t become pleased,” wrote Marx biographer Joe Adamson. “Every muscle, tendon, and ligament in his soul arches into a static paroxysm of glee. He never gets annoyed: His entire existence crystallizes itself into a sullen nucleus of resentment. When he isn’t exaggerating the familiar, his actions have no explanation at all. And they don’t want one.” And although he performed with no dialogue, he was far from truly silent — he fired off a cacophony of whistles, claps, snaps, foot stomps, furniture-thumps, and a series of honks from an old taxicab horn he had attached to a walking stick.

The official debut of Home Again was once again in their adopted hometown of Chicago, on September 7, 1914. 

A clipping saved from an unknown Chicago newspaper: “The Four Marx Brothers have been one of Chicago’s best bets for a long time and after successful periods in medium vaudeville and tabloid have turned to bigger things…in a 55-minute act, which is pretentious in every respect [it seems this was a compliment at the time — ed.] and puts them in direct order for the big-time…Leo Marx, who plays an Italian youth probably scores the biggest with his piano playing, although Arthur Marx and his harp do so well that there is difficulty in picking a biggest hit. Jules [sic] Marx as an old man with a disposition to stay young, displays histrionic talent not suspicioned by his most intimate friends. Milton Marx is better cast than ever before and contributes a nice bit to the general success.”

And they were off and running…They now had name recognition among fans and journalists. They were stars. The Marx Brothers had finally made it to big-time. They played the centerpiece, the pinnacle, of big-time vaudeville, New York’s grand Palace Theatre, on February 22, 1915.

Groucho, Chico, Harpo, and Gummo — publicity photo for their appearance at the Palace, 1915

Joe Adamson: “It was a wild, bounding, boundless, violent, disordered, post-adolescent act…it sent Chico running up and down the aisles, Harpo riding up and down with curtain, and everybody climbing up and down the backdrop; it consisted of kicking, slapping, fighting, shouting, funny lines, unfunny lines, elaborate shenanigans, simple slapstick, and music, music, music…Harpo and Chico hit sour notes, labored through chord progressions, kicked the harp, fussed with the piano stool, and gave all impressions they couldn’t play their instruments, and audiences went nuts every time they found out they could. Often they violated their written material in deference to hilarious improvisations, and often they violated their written material in deference to pretty dull improvisations…Witnesses swear that they destroyed props, backdrops, costumes, and sometimes promoted physical damage to the theater.

“What the brothers did was simply set up a situation and then, without bothering to provide any reason, destroy it…They became the type of characters whose motivations we never understand and whose actions make perfect sense. Their mother kept telling them they shouldn’t do anything that hadn’t been written for them. But we all know how young men react to what their mother tells them.”

A little trick photography allows Mr. Henry Schnieder to converse with the 24-year-old actor playing him

The Brothers were bursting with confidence — riffing with the audience and ad-libbing up a storm. “What had been known by small-time acts for years was now a fact of life in the big-time,” wrote Robert Bader. “Following the Four Marx Brothers on a bill was the worst job in vaudeville.”

Offstage, the Brothers swanned around in three-piece suits, silk ties with pearl stickpins, and fashionably tight celluloid collars. Their wavy hair was pomaded into trendy five-inch high pompadours. Groucho developed a taste for expensive Cuban cigars. All of them bought cars (sensibly second-hand — they were comfortable, but not quite crazy rich just yet). 

World War I had broken out just a few weeks before Home Again opened. Although the U.S. was still neutral, Canada was officially at war with Germany when the tour reached Toronto. Groucho’s German Mr. Schneider was hastily reworked into a Jewish Mr. Schneider, and the German accent was replaced by a Yiddish one. By the time the act returned to the U.S., the civilian ocean liner Lusitania had been sunk by a German submarine, and anti-German sentiment was at a peak. Mr. Schneider remained Jewish, and Groucho’s “Dutch comic” voice was permanently shelved, another relic of a rapidly fading era. 

Home Again toured through the 1914-15 season, and the three subsequent seasons. The songs and some of the gags were swapped out for newer ones from time to time, but the act remained essentially unchanged. Ad-libs that got a laugh were written into the act. And they had a particular skill at making written material sound like ad-libs. Chico and Harpo added a “four-handed piano” piece, where the two of them played side-by-side (aided by constant horsing around, of course). Harpo began performing on clarinet as well as his harp.

Harpo & Groucho, c. 1916

At some point during Home Again’s lengthy run, the formerly clean-shaven Mr. Schnieder acquired a big, glued-on crepe hair mustache. (Many sources state the mustache came as soon as Groucho became Mr. Green, but this is not supported by the photographs in existence.) By the start of its final season, the Jewish Henry Schnieder had become the all-American Henry Jones, and Groucho was finally speaking in his natural New York-accented voice, where every girl was a “goil,” and incorporating the cigar he constantly puffed offstage as an onstage prop. He had also developed his trademark bent, prowling lope. “I was just kidding around one day and started to walk funny,” said Groucho. “The audience liked it, so I kept it in. I would try a line and leave it in too if it got a laugh. If it didn’t, I’d take it out and put in another. Pretty soon, I had a character.” 

Gummo, Groucho, and Harpo pose with good ol’ Uncle Julius, who Groucho claimed had briefly served as their manager around this time (I guess Minnie was busy with other projects), c. 1916

There were still a few tweaks to be made in his appearance as the character gradually de-aged, and the hair used less and less gray, but by the end of Home Again‘s time on vaudeville, Henry Jones was essentially the fast-talking “Groucho” wiseguy persona we all know.

Looming over all of this was the shadow of World War I, and the increasing likelihood that the U.S. would get involved and institute a draft. When this finally came to pass, in April of 1917, it cut short the Brothers’ vaudeville season. Minnie was trying to think of ways to keep her draftable sons out of the clutches of the Army. Not just because she feared for their safety, but also because she had stopped producing other shows and the Brothers’ act was the only thing putting food on the family table. The solution she came up with was pure Minnie — she bought a chicken farm on the outskirts of Chicago, and claimed her family was exempt from the draft because they were producing eggs to aid the war effort. 

When the Brothers filled out their draft cards in June of 1917, Harpo and Gummo both listed their occupation as “farmer” and crossed their fingers, but events moved too fast to know if the chicken farm ruse would have worked in the long run. According to newspaper accounts of the time, the Brothers dutifully submitted to physical examinations for the draft board. Groucho got off easy — he was growing increasingly nearsighted, and had begun wearing glasses onstage and off. Chico was also considered undraftable for miscellaneous health reasons (he also wore glasses — offstage only — and had missed several shows back in 1913 due to a mysterious illness and surgery*). Harpo (flat feet and albuminuria) and Gummo (unspecified) were rejected as well. At least, that’s what the newspapers said. Who knows what kind of strings Minnie had pulled, or if the exams had even happened. In any case, the Brothers were not selected for the draft’s first go-round that June. But it didn’t mean they were entirely off the hook. More draft rounds were coming.

Whether it was a way to double-cover himself with the draft board, or whether it was because 19-year-old Betty Karp was almost four months pregnant, Chico, the team’s most notorious playboy, became the first of them to marry. Chico and Betty tied the knot officially on August 3, 1917, but moved the reported date of their wedding back to March. Chico was “married,” but far from “settled down.” His favorite pastime — well, maybe second-favorite after gambling — did not slow down one bit, as Betty found out very soon and very repeatedly. (The gambling away of most of his earnings didn’t help their instantly-rocky relationship much, either.) Their daughter, Maxine, was born on January 13, 1918. Chico honored the good-natured Brother whom all the Brothers liked best by bestowing upon her the middle name of “Gummo.” 

Five months after Maxine Gummo Marx was born, the original Gummo Marx decided to leave the act, with a little prompting from Minnie, who was worried about the next draft round.

Pretending to be farmers, La Grange, Ill., 1917 — Harpo, Gummo, young Zeppo, and Groucho. Harpo looks miserable

“My mother and I were driving from [the farm] to Chicago,” recalled Gummo almost sixty years later. “She said, ‘Gummo, I must talk to you. There are five Marx Brothers, but Zeppo is too young to be drafted, and Chico is married. If Groucho or Harpo had to go into the service, it would break up the act.’ I said, ‘What do you suggest?’ She said, ‘I want you to go to the draft board, and if you are willing to go into the service, I can get the others out.’” Gummo credited his mother’s powerful local connections for her ability to make such a deal. “I said I’d be glad to go into the service. So she went to the draft board, and they agreed that if one of the five went in the service that would be sufficient. So I went. But I never told the other boys — not to this day — what my mother said to me driving into Chicago, that I was expendable. And I was!”

Gummo in uniform

There were also deeper, more complicated reasons for Gummo’s departure. Despite eleven years on the professional vaudeville stage, he had never been completely comfortable as a performer in the way his siblings were. He did it out of family obligation. He was a better singer (and dancer) than a comedian, and with comedy taking up more space in the act, his role became less defined. He still had an occasional stutter when he wasn’t singing, and fighting it as he recited his increased load of dialogue (most of it straight lines) made things extra stressful and took extra concentration. “[On one] Sunday in front of a tremendous audience. I was standing in the spotlight with Groucho so I could give him a feed line. Nothing came out! Groucho sensed this and he started to ad-lib until I could give him the line. That was when I decided I had to get out. I couldn’t live the rest of my life with a thing like that.”

“I went to war to get a little peace,” Gummo concluded.

He never actually went to war. By the time all the preliminaries and paperwork were squared away and Gummo was officially assigned a unit (“a supply unit with no supplies” as he recalled), it was October 31, 1918. The war would be over in eleven days. Gummo’s unit never left the Chicago area for the duration of his year-long enlistment. The chicken farm was put on the market, and the family trooped back to the Grand Avenue house (joined fairly often by none other than Gummo, whose Army duties could be generously described as “minimal” — mostly procuring chorus girls for his senior officers, and chauffeuring them in the Brothers’ fleet of second-hand cars.)

With an inward sigh of relief, Gummo was out. “I attribute [The Marx Brothers’] success entirely to me. I quit the act.” Enter Herbert. Or rather, Zeppo.

*Based on a little circumstantial evidence and what we know about Chico, Robert Ward speculates that Chico may have been shot back in 1913 by a protective father guarding his daughter’s virtue, and his unnamed surgery was to treat a gunshot wound.

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