Stars of Bedlam: The Rise & Fall of the Marx Brothers (Part 4)

Zeppo, 1912

It’s time to introduce our Fifth and Final Marx Brother, Zeppo. 

Herbert Marx always felt like an afterthought. Born several years after his other siblings, he stayed home while they (and his mother) endlessly toured the country. Frenchie was also not the most hands-on parent, and too soft-hearted to be much of a disciplinarian. So it shouldn’t be surprising that Herbert became something of a juvenile delinquent, skipping school and roaming the streets of Chicago unsupervised, the way his brothers did in New York back at the turn of the century. Only instead of sneaking rides on streetcars and playing dice, Herbert was running with a genuine street gang, stealing cars and carrying a pistol.

When Minnie could spare him a thought, she despaired of his future. She felt the best way of saving him was to groom him for the family business as soon as possible. When they played Joliet in May of 1914, they were joined for a couple of performances by the adolescent Fifth Marx Brother, who in addition to being a heat-packing car thief, also had a passable “boy tenor” voice, and was quite happy to warble a few songs onstage when his mother asked. He also did a short tour of Michigan with the act in the summer of 1915. The chicken farm Minnie bought in 1917 to keep the older Brothers out of the draft had the added benefit of keeping her youngest off the mean streets…briefly. 

It was during his sojourn on the farm that he finally earned his “o” nickname. Every Brother has his own story of where the name “Zeppo” came from, and none of them hold much water. The truth is, the older boys had been calling Herbert “Zip” for some time. Here’s why:

According to a story revealed many years later by Harpo’s son Bill, the label “Zip” came from a man suffering from microcephaly, and displayed at sideshows as a “freak” called Zip the Pinhead. His deformity included a deeply-receded forehead and a large, wedge-shaped nose that sloped straight into it, without the usual indentation between the eyes. Herbert also had a very distinctive nose bridge and slightly receding forehead. Nowhere near the point of deformity, but just different enough to be sensitive about as a young teen with self-esteem issues. And just the sort of thing that four much-older comedian siblings would delight in mercilessly teasing a little brother about. The taunting nickname “Zip” became “Zippo” to match his brothers’ names, and eventually evolved into “Zeppo.”

By the time he was seventeen, he had dropped out of school and was working as a mechanic for the Ford Motor Company (he demonstrated a remarkable aptitude for engineering and working with machinery from an early age). A steady job did not keep him out of Chicago pool halls and gambling dens. Like eldest brother Chico, Zeppo loved “action.” He had a head for numbers and a passionate love for playing cards and pursuing girls. “I’d have ended up in jail,” he confidently predicted. Minnie intervened to prevent that fate.

June 5, 1918…the phone rings in the Ford mechanic shop somewhere in Chicago. An insistent voice demands to speak to Zeppo. Zeppo is summoned, and wipes the grease off his hands, perhaps anticipating what is coming. “My mother called me…[and] said come home immediately,” remembered Zeppo. “I said, well I’m working. She says, well quit your job and come home immediately…And I said okay, so I came home…She says, your brother Gummo just joined the Army…you go and get packed and get on the train. Here’s the fare and go to Rockford, Illinois and join your brothers. You have to take Gummo’s place because I want the name of the Four Marx Brothers intact…So I acquiesced and joined the boys in Rockford, Illinois. I got right on, right on the stage. Didn’t know what the hell to do.”

Zeppo Marx, former auto mechanic and small-time Chicago hood, bravely faked his way through the last performances of Home Again ever staged (well, not quite — read on). “When I stepped out, Zeppo stepped in,” said Gummo. “I must say, though, that he was the only actor who ever had less talent than me.” The big question was what to do next. 

Zeppo on board, 1918

From the Chicago Daily Tribune, Sept. 22, 1918: “The Four Marx Brothers, residents of this city, propose to eschew vaudeville, in which they are eminent, and take up musical comedy. At Grand Rapids September 28  [the show actually opened in Benton Harbor on the 26th] they will begin a career in The Street Cinderella, whose words are by Jo Swerling, once a good reporter for The Tribune…

They decided to make an attempt at a “real” musical comedy. They commissioned an eager young scribe named Jo Swerling to write them an original self-contained show with a genuine plot and real characters. Gus Kahn and Egbert van Alstyne would provide the songs. Uncle Al would direct. Ads began to appear in Michigan newspapers for The Street Cinderella — “Minnie Palmer presents…a new farce comedy in three acts…beautiful girls, beautiful music, beautiful love story…”

The title went back and forth between The Street Cinderella and The Cinderella Girl, and it seems they settled on the latter at the last minute. No one remembers the plot, something about a romance between two “street singers.” No one remembers the characters the Brothers were supposed to play (presumably variations on their already established personas). When the curtain rose and the overture began playing at the Bell Opera House in Benton Creek, Michigan on September 26, 1918, the Four Marx Brothers stared out at a half-filled house. Deliberately half-filled. In a sight that would become depressingly familiar just over a hundred years later, every other seat was empty. Every other row was empty. The audience all wore masks over their noses and mouths.

The Marx Brothers’ newest show — meant to lift them out of the vaudeville ghetto and into legitimate theater — opened the same week as the deadly Spanish influenza epidemic hit the Midwest.

There was another problem: “It was a terrible act and we realized we couldn’t play it successfully,” said Groucho. It limped through two performances. Both times, according to Marx biographer Kyle Crichton, the Brothers did not bother to finish the storyline, going into their familiar Home Again material instead. All future bookings of The Cinderella Girl were cancelled, and it was written off as an expensive mistake. By mid-October, the flu epidemic had closed most of the country’s theaters anyway. The only thing that was salvageable from the experience, according to Groucho, was that actor Ed Metcalfe (who had the thankless role of “the policeman” in Home Again and also appeared in Cinderella Girl) introduced him to the works of Gilbert and Sullivan around this time. Groucho became possibly the world’s biggest G&S fan, obsessively listening to their comic operas, and collecting their material and memorabilia for the rest of his life.

Chagrined, the Brothers trudged back into vaudeville, and got themselves booked for the truncated 1918-19 season on the Keith-Albee Circuit. They sat down with Uncle Al, made a few updates to the old Home Again material, threw in some of the better Cinderella songs (not wanting to waste what they had spent good money on), and called the “new” show ‘N’ Everything. 

Betty Marx had joined the act’s chorus, probably to keep an eye on Chico. One night as she was exiting the stage after a big musical number, Harpo spontaneously stretched out a foot and tripped her. She was sent scooting across the stage on her stomach as the audience roared. After the curtain, she took her hurt feelings to her brother-in-law, who did not exude sympathy. “What the hell are you complaining about?” said Harpo, scrubbing off his make-up. “You got a laugh, didn’t you?” You had to be tough to be a Marx. 

Zeppo practiced diligently to replicate Gummo’s old “whirlwind dance.” His partner was initially Gene Maddox. When she left the act, one of the chorus girls, Ruth Johnson (sometimes rendered as “Johnstone,” and billed as “Ruth Tyrell”) was randomly promoted to take her place. She and Zeppo began casually dating…but Groucho had his eye on her. He bided his time, then pounced, stealing the shapely, strawberry blonde, snub-nosed chorus girl away from his little brother. You had to be tough to be a Marx.

The company re-upped with Keith-Albee for the first half of the 1919-20 season, and most of the bookings were on the east coast. Tired of Chicago, the Marxes took this as a sign that they should return to their home city. In November of 1919, exactly ten years after they left, the Marx family returned en masse to New York. The difference now was that they all established their own households rather than living collectively. Gummo, out of the service, was also back in the Big Apple, listed in the 1920 census as a “freelance salesman.” He had just received a patent for a “laundry-wrapping device,” which would automatically size a cardboard box to match the amount of folded clothing going into it. He eventually moved into the garment industry, manufacturing dresses, and moves out of our story for the time being.

Gummo’s patent, October 1919

Minnie decided that she was retired. She would certainly still offer advice (solicited and unsolicited), but Chico would now be in charge of most business decisions, and the William Morris Agency would handle their bookings.

Ruth Johnson

The very modestly-talented Ruth Johnson may have been a worse dancer than Zeppo Marx, if such a thing is possible. One day, Harpo suggested she ought to be let go. “The girl stays,” said Groucho. “I’m marrying her.” He did just that on February 4, 1920. Jo Swerling was his best man (no hard feelings over Cinderalla Girl). 97-year-old Opie responded to the nuptials by dying two weeks later.

‘N’ Everything closed out the season on the Orpheum Circuit. Betty was promoted from the chorus to the role of the beautiful woman (“the Soubrette” as she was described in the cast list) that Groucho’s character, now called Henry Hammer, chases after. 

The Marx Brothers were well aware that vaudeville was slowly dying, and were still looking for an entry point to legitimate musical theater. Since they were back home in New York, why not aim for the top? They set their sights on Broadway. With their well-meaning but not-always-astute mother in retirement, Chico made a deal with successful Broadway producer Charles Dillingham, hoping to have a musical comedy in place for the fall of 1920. However, finding or creating a suitable vehicle for the eccentric Brothers took more time than expected. 

Jo Swerling

While the Brothers waited for Dillingham to put them in a Broadway smash, another thought occurred to them. If vaudeville was losing its audience to the movies, why not make a movie? It was an interesting idea, but presented a challenge — except for Harpo, the Marx Brothers were an entirely verbal/musical act, and sound would not come to the movies for almost another decade. They decided to abandon their established personas and play entirely new characters. Not wanting to wait on offers from the big movie studios (who were not exactly falling over themselves to sign the Brothers up), they gathered some investors, formed their own production company called Caravel Comedies, and put the redoubtable Jo Swerling to work writing a scenario.

And if they were going to have to stick with vaudeville for the time being, they figured they could at least do it with a new show. They had been touring with essentially the same act for over six years. Reviewers who had caught the show every time it passed through their town were so familiar with it they began to complain when the Brothers didn’t ad-lib enough and stuck to their script. The final performance of ‘N’ Everything was at Keith’s 81st Street Theatre in New York on January 22, 1921. 

The previous October, the Marx Brothers shared a bill with a comedian named Herman Timberg, whose comedy partner was his sister, Hattie Darling. Both played violin and specialized in quick-paced banter, often rhyming. He had risen to fame as one the original cast members of Gus Edwards’ School Boys and Girls, which had launched a thousand vaudeville “school acts” in its wake, including the Brothers’ own Fun in Hi Skule. Timberg’s and the Brothers’ paths had crossed many times, but this time was different. The Marx Brothers were looking for a new show. Timberg was looking to retire from the stage in favor of full-time producing and writing. (Groucho often said this was his dream as well, but was too fond of the applause to ever realistically consider giving up performing.) Hattie’s boyfriend Benny Leonard was the current lightweight champion of the world, a big Marx Brothers fan, and looking for a big-time show in which to invest his copious earnings…and put his beloved Hattie into as leading lady. It was the perfect storm. Timberg got down to writing, and the Marxes regretfully cut themselves loose from the Dillingham contract (no Broadway just yet) and signed with the newly-minted Herman Timberg Producing Company.   

Benny Leonard

Their all-new show, titled On the Mezzanine Floor, opened on Valentine’s Day 1921 at Poli’s Capitol Theatre in Hartford, Connecticut. The opening scene takes place in front of the closed curtain — the audience used its imagination to picture a theatrical agent’s office. The Agent (Ed Metcalfe) copes with the antics of the Four Marx Brothers who are each auditioning for a part in his play in their own distinctive (and disruptive) way. The dialogue is fired off in Timberg’s trademark rapid-fire rhyming patter. After several minutes of this, one of the “actors” (Zeppo) pulls a play from his own pocket, saying it would be “perfect” for the three weirdos he’s just encountered. This begins the play-within-a-play. The curtain opens, revealing the elaborate set depicting a posh hotel lobby, with two sweeping staircases on either side leading from the floor to the mezzanine. The plot revolves around Henry Hammer (Groucho) scheming to get his layabout son Bobby (Zeppo) married off to the wealthy hotel owner’s daughter (Hattie Darling). The girl’s mother insists her daughter can only marry someone with musical talent, which Bobby does not possess. Hammer contacts the Musician’s Union and hires two down-on-their-luck musicians (Chico and Harpo) to coach (or at times impersonate) the clueless Bobby. Hijinks ensue. 

The show got good reviews, with Variety noting “The boys do not always stick to the book, which probably upsets Herman Timberg, the author, but seems to please the audience.” For the first six months of its run, On the Mezzanine Floor stayed pretty close to the New York area. Sometimes the show was lengthened a little when Benny Leonard decided he wanted in on the fun. When a man who makes a very good living with his fists and who also paid for your fancy, two-level set wants to get in on the act…you let him in. To everyone’s delight, no one had cause for embarrassment — Leonard turned out to be a pretty adept performer, doing some brief comedy dialogue with Groucho, then putting on a boxing demonstration. (After his retirement from the ring, he made a few movies and was in demand as an after-dinner speaker.) Also, Hattie’s relationship with Leonard resulted in her being the one female member of the cast and chorus that Chico made a point of ignoring.

The Theatrical Agent’s Office sketch became a reliable long-time favorite. It was grafted onto their next two stage shows, and was even filmed in 1931 for a Paramount Pictures promotional compilation film called The House That Shadows Built. 

The Theatrical Agent’s Office sketch was put on film in 1931. The material (in Herman Timberg’s trademark rhyming patter) dates from a decade earlier, and represents our only glimpse of what “early Marx Brothers” would’ve looked like

Not long after their big New York opening, the Brothers started production on the movie — titled Humor Risk — that Swerling had concocted for them. Very little is known for sure about the film, since it never got a release, and all prints (if there was ever more than one) have vanished. As a result, Humor Risk has been the subject of much uncertainty (even to the point of what year it was produced) and speculation, almost all of it unverifiable at this point.

On the Brenton Film website, Marx scholar Matthew Coniam did a superlative job putting together everything that is known about (or at least reasonably certain about) the film. It was filmed in late March and/or early April of 1921, almost certainly at Victor Studios at 645 West 43rd Street. Not only conveniently close to the Theatre District, but Victor was advertised as the “cheapest studio in New York.” No details about the plot have survived. It’s been vaguely described as a “comedy mystery” about a detective, and a “silent film that spoofs silent films.” (It’s title is a pun on the 1920 melodrama Humoresque.) Harpo played the love interest, and Groucho was the villain. Some location work may have been done in Fort Lee, New Jersey, just across the river from Manhattan. The leading lady was Jobyna Ralston. Ruth Marx appears to have had a small role. The director was a guy named Dick Smith, who was also an actor. (In fact, Matthew Cobian speculates Smith may have been the actual lead in the film, with the Brothers providing comedic support. He kind of convinced me that was the case. Check out his article for details.) 

The biggest mystery regarding the film is why, exactly, it went unreleased, or if it was even completed. The story the Brothers tell is that they gave the footage one test screening at a theater in the Bronx, and were so horrified by its quality that they junked the whole thing and walked away, Cinderella Girl-style. A good story, but one that doesn’t take into account that there were several other people who had a financial stake in the film’s release. How bad could it have been? Although still a novice, Jo Swerling was already building a solid reputation as a writer (he would go on to write things like Guys and Dolls). Dick Smith was an experienced director-performer of the era. The Marx Brothers were the Marx Brothers. What went so wrong? The answer will likely never be known.

The Humor Risk company, spring 1921. Director (and possible lead actor) Dick Smith is at the center, with Jobyna Ralston draped seductively on his shoulders. Groucho and Harpo each have an elbow on one of Smith’s knees. Chico, looking very natty in a checkered hat and coat (and his rarely-seen glasses), is to Ralston’s left. Zeppo is in evening dress to her right. Ruth Marx is to the left of Chico.

However it happened, the film was definitely shelved, then probably destroyed. There is a razor-thin chance it was sold off to an independent releasing company who put it out under another title. Either way, Humor Risk was forgotten. Later in life, both Groucho and Harpo offered substantial rewards (due to a mix of curiosity and nostalgia) if anyone ever came up with a print. The rewards went unclaimed, and Humor Risk remains a mystery. Caravel Comedies was quietly shuttered.

Ruth Marx stayed with the chorus of On the Mezzanine Floor as long as was practical, but she had to finally drop out when her pregnancy became visible. On July 21, 1921, she gave birth to her and Groucho’s son, Arthur Julius Marx (named in honor of Harpo). Groucho could be a difficult spouse (all three of his ex-wives agreed his nickname was more than earned), but he was a doting father who lavished attention on his new child. 

Around the time of the birth of his son, Groucho was becoming increasingly irritated by the fake facial hair he wore each night. Peeling it off after the show was a time-consuming, at times painful, experience. “It may have been just my imagination,” said Groucho, “but it seemed to me that, as time went on, my upper lip was becoming progressively thinner from the constant applying and removing of the fake moustache. I began fearing that if this gluing continued much longer I would eventually wind up the only man in vaudeville with nothing under his nose but a chin. I had been looking for a solution to this problem for some time and fate finally came to my rescue.” 

The most commonly-told story (which we know doesn’t mean it’s 100% true) was that Groucho was spending extra time lingering with his wife and newborn son at Lenox Hill Hospital on East 77th Street (“cracking jokes with the maternity nurses and filling the hallways with cigar smoke” according to Stefan Kanfer) and was very late for the start of the show at Keith’s Riverside Theatre across Central Park on West 96th. He dashed into the dressing room as the overture was playing. The spirit gum that held on his crepe hair mustache would not have time to dry, and the application would almost certainly fall off when he spoke his opening lines — one of the few laughs he didn’t want. In one of those seemingly small moments that would echo down the halls of entertainment history, Groucho grabbed a stick of black greasepaint and swiped it across his top lip.

The Marx Brothers in On the Mezzanine Floor, Fall 1921. Groucho and Chico haven’t quite dialed in the iconic costumes we all know (Groucho in a bowler hat?), but that’s definitely a greasepaint mustache on Groucho (the eyebrows would come soon)

When the final curtain dropped at show’s end, Groucho was confronted by the irate theater manager, who demanded Groucho wear a “real” fake mustache. Groucho said it didn’t seem to matter. The manager continued his rant — his customers had shelled out good money for the exact same show that had played downtown at the Palace the previous week, and that included a proper crepe mustache. Groucho pointed out he got the exact same laughs as he got at the Palace. The manager threatened to report him to E.F. Albee, the much-feared head of the Keith-Albee Circuit. Groucho told him exactly where E.F. Albee could stick the crepe mustache. The matter was dropped, and the greasepaint mustache became a permanent part of the “Groucho” costume, along with a matching set of hard-working greasepaint eyebrows (for maximum leering effect). 

Helen Kane

Staying close to home and playing the multitude of theaters in the five boroughs and New Jersey was all very nice, but it was inevitable that the show had to hit the road on a national tour, starting with Dayton, Ohio in October of 1921. Increasingly, the show was performed and advertised as On the Balcony (maybe they suspected some rural audiences wouldn’t know what a “mezzanine” was?) Everything was going swimmingly…except the Brothers were getting a little perturbed that every glowing review seemed to credit Timberg as the production’s mastermind, and his name was always featured prominently in the show’s advertising. The situation was resolved to all parties’ satisfaction. The Marx Brothers simply paid the Herman Timberg Producing Company a flat fee of $10,000 and bought the whole show, lock, stock, and mezzanine. Timberg moved on to other projects, Benny Leonard had already pocketed a nice return on his investment, and everyone remained friends. Timberg’s name disappeared from the ads. The only downside was Hattie Darling dropping out of the show. Her parents forbid her from marrying a boxer, thus ending the relationship and, effectively, her stage career. Darling was replaced by the seventeen-year-old newcomer Helen Schroeder…who would go on to change her name to Helen Kane, have a huge hit song with the baby-voiced “I Wanna Be Loved By You” in 1928, and serve as the model for cartoon character Betty Boop. (She unsuccessfully sued over likeness rights.)

The On the Mezzanine Floor/On the Balcony tour concluded in Chicago in May of 1922. Following another week-long run at New York’s Palace, the Brothers and their cast and crew boarded the ocean liner Mauretania to take the show to Great Britain. The running time was shortened, and the show was slotted in among several other acts to give British audiences a taste of American-style vaudeville. The On the Balcony title change became permanent. 

The British shows in the summer of 1922 are famous in Marxian lore as a total disaster. The audiences were described as snobs who didn’t appreciate the Marxes’ very American style of humor. They booed, they hissed, they threw pennies — the ultimate insult in British theater. (“We came all this way,” Groucho said. “Couldn’t you at least throw shillings?”) But things may not have been that bad. The reviews in the London papers were almost entirely positive, and the trouble apparently stemmed from their early performances at the London Coliseum, where certain segments of the audience (yes, snobs) were upset that the act originally advertised as the closers — classy Russian ballet — was bumped to fifth on the bill, and the Marx Brothers closed the show. Some of the snobs arrived late and missed the ballet, and responded poorly to the Brothers’ American crudities.

Even if the hostility of some of the audience could be explained away, the Brothers felt the On the Balcony material still wasn’t getting quite the response they wanted. After the first week, they had a team huddle — and decided to go back to Home Again. It had the desired result, and for the remainder of their time in London (and some shows in Bristol and Manchester), the Brothers were a hit. But those rough couple of nights at the Coliseum cast a pall over the trip in their memories.

When they got back to the U.S., they encountered another problem. The dictatorial E.F. Albee was not happy that the Four Marx Brothers — very profitable big-timers — went to Britain without clearing it with him. He felt he had first dibs on their services, and if they wanted to work a summer season, it should have been on the Keith-Albee Circuit. He promptly blacklisted them. No respectable vaudeville circuit would touch them now.

The team had little choice but to sign on with the Shubert Advanced Vaudeville Company, the only noteworthy vaudeville company that would ignore Albee’s blacklist. The Shuberts competed with Keith-Albee only in a cynical attempt to get the bigger circuit to buy them out. The attempt failed. The show staged by the Shuberts was called The Twentieth Century Revue. The first half was a traditional vaudeville show with several different acts, and closed with the Marxes doing their Theatrical Agent’s Office sketch. The second half was all Marx — an expanded version of On the Mezzanine Floor, padded out with the best of the old Home Again routines. The Twentieth Century Revue toured from Buffalo to St. Louis as 1922 turned to 1923, and was a mess from the start. The Shubert Company incurred expenses they could not cover, and their performers were not getting paid. The Marxes were forced to buy control of the show from the Shuberts to keep things on the rails, but the whole debacle came to an embarrassing and ignoble end when the sheriff’s department shut them down for non-payment of debts in Indianapolis on March 3, 1923, confiscating props, costumes, and the box office receipts. 

On the positive side, the Brothers were finally free of the vaudeville grind. On the negative, they had nowhere else to go. They re-approached Charles Dillinghan, offering to appear in whatever dismal third-rate roadshow he could throw at them for a paltry $400 a week. They got nothing.

It looked like the end of the act. 

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