Will B. Johnstone’s day job was as a brilliant political cartoonist for the New York World. The image of the “American taxpayer” as a naked man wearing a barrel on suspenders? That was created by him. His sideline was writing lyrics, and later books and lyrics, for B-grade Broadway musicals. His younger brother Tom composed the tunes. Joseph M. Gaites was a failed playwright who eventually found success as a producer of C-grade Broadway musicals. After one of his shows was inevitably savaged by the New York critics and closed after a handful of performances, he would put it on the road, cutting as many corners as possible in the cost of the production (it was said that the “M” in his name stood for “Minimum”). All he had to do was hype that the show was “direct from Broadway” and all the rubes from Tucson to Tulsa to Tampa Bay would line up in droves to see a “real Broadway musical.” Gaites would scrape his money back, and start all over again with a new show.
As a team, Johnstone and Gaites saved the Marx Brothers, who themselves were not far from wearing barrels on suspenders at this point.
Johnstone and Gaites first collaborated on Take It From Me. Out of the gate, it was their biggest success, getting halfway-decent reviews, and touring the sticks for a number of years thereafter. Next, Gaites signed up Kitty Gordon, once a major Broadway star who had left the stage for the lure of silent pictures. When she failed to make a cinematic impact after several years of trying, she announced a return to theater in late 1919. Johnstone was tasked with writing her big comeback vehicle. He came up with Love For Sale. Noah Diamond writes, “Johnstone’s idea was not, in itself, much of an idea. But get used to it: A bored heiress is looking for thrills, and each scene depicts an attempt to thrill her. In the end, she learns the greatest thrill is the thrill of love. It was a flexible revue plot, which could accommodate any kind of song, sketch, or specialty.” The bored heiress, identified as “the Beauty,” was wooed by a series of eight suitors, identified by the well-known bit of children’s doggerel — “Rich Man, Poor Man, Beggar Man, Thief; Doctor, Lawyer, Merchant, Chief” — each offering a unique thrill.
Love For Sale was a flat failure — it did not make it out of tryout performances in Detroit, but Johnstone and Gaites filed the idea away as they moved on to their next production, the modestly-successful Up in the Clouds. In 1922, they cut Love For Sale to tabloid length and re-titled it Gimme A Thrill…and put it on the Shubert vaudeville circuit, the very same ineptly managed money-hole that the Marx Brothers were currently touring — and circling the drain — with. Gaites ended up losing $10,000 on the endeavor.
With both Gimme A Thrill and the Marx Brothers’ Twentieth Century Revue dead in the water by the spring of 1923, everyone went back to New York to lick their wounds and ponder their future in live theater. At some point the Brothers, in pure desperation, contacted Ned Wayburn, the man who first put teenaged singers Groucho and Gummo into vaudeville as “Ned Wayburn’s Nightingales” back in 1907. The Brothers hoped their old mentor could set something up for them. The best Wayburn could do when put on the spot was introduce them to the Johnstone brothers, and hope for something to spark. Will B. agreed that the Marx Brothers might be a good act to write something for.
At almost the exact same time, Philadelphia businessman James P. Beury, heir to a coal-mining fortune, pulled the name of Joe Gaites out of his lengthy list of contacts to see if there was anything Gaites could provide to put on at the Walnut Street Theatre for the normally-dormant summer season. Beury had bought the Walnut Street Theatre as a sound investment. Musical theater was having a strong run in Philly in the early ‘20s, and the Walnut Street Theatre had historical significance. It was (and remains) the oldest continuously operating theater in the United States, running shows since 1808. Beury had installed air conditioning during his recent renovation, and wanted to capitalize on it. (In those days, “air conditioning” meant blowing massive fans over equally massive blocks of ice.)
Gaites agreed to come up with something. He got in touch with Johnstone, and thriftily pushed him for a resurrection of the pre-existing Love for Sale/Gimme A Thrill book and songs, mostly as a way to get some use out of the scenery and costumes he had been storing. Johnstone admitted with a little polish and a few additions, they might be onto something. One of the additions could be the Marx Brothers, but Johnstone wasn’t quite sure. It turns out that Will B. Johnstone may have been the only human being in the tri-state area who had never seen the Marx Brothers perform. The Brothers made a quick deal with the Premier Theatre in the outskirts of Brooklyn, hastily rustled up a Sunday afternoon audience, and played a one-off show (without a chorus) specifically for Johnstone on April 15, 1923. They passed the audition. Johntsone figured they could easily be worked into the show. (Stories of Chico setting up the show with Beury and/or Gaites over a poker game, or through running into Johnstone randomly in front of the Palace Theatre, appear to be — guess what? — totally apocryphal. The story of a besotted Beury wanting a show that summer to put his mistress, an aspiring dancer, into is also pretty dubious.)
The show was a revue. The Marx Brothers would be a segment of a much larger cast, incorporating several other comedic and musical acts, including an onstage jazz band, the Yerkes Happy Six. There was also a “sister” act — the Melvin Sisters. The Brothers were initially billed only as “featured performers.” Officially they were cast as Lawyer, Poor Man, Beggar Man, and Merchant (later Doctor). You can probably sort out who was who. The longest-running actress in the part of Beauty was the aptly named “Lotta Miles” (her stage name came from her tenure as a model for Kelly-Springfield Tires — her real name was Florence Reutti). The rest of the cast was filled out mostly by performers who had been in Up in the Clouds. (Reliable old Ed Metcalfe reprised his role as a Theatrical Agent/“Rich Man” as soon as the show hit the road.)
The show’s official book has not survived, but there is a 23-page typescript summary with some dialogue that has been preserved, and allows us to piece things together. After the big opening musical number, the show would start with the Brothers’ sure-fire Theatrical Agent’s Office sketch, and two new bits of original business were created to showcase their comedy — a “courtroom” sketch that would be the centerpiece of Act One (with an additional built-in poker routine from On the Balcony), and would once again feature Harpo dropping silverware from his sleeve, and the big Act Two closer — a sketch entitled “Napoleon’s First Waterloo.”
Co-written by Johnstone and Groucho, who at last was elevated to the long-desired level of Professional Writer, the sketch depicts Napoleon (Groucho) bidding farewell to Josephine/Beauty multiple times and leaving her room…then returning on some pretense, sending her three suitors (the other Brothers) scrambling for a hiding place. Both the courtroom sketch and the Napoleon sketch strayed pretty far afield from the “give the heiress a thrill” plot, but no one cared — it was just a revue. (All right, if you must know, the courtroom sketch was slotted in as part of Beauty’s thrill of being a criminal, and the Napoleon sketch came from Beauty’s thrill of…well, being put in a hypnotic trance and made to believe she is Josephine. See how flimsy these revue plots were? Just an excuse to have a courtroom sketch and a Napoleon sketch.) As indicated, Beauty realizes love is the biggest thrill, and ends the show after the last big musical number in the arms of the various handsome male leads who assayed the role of the Chief during the show’s run (including, briefly, Chico’s old partner Arthur Gordoni). What he was supposed to be the Chief of is never really explained. The harp and piano numbers were mixed in there somewhere, too. The show ran two hours and forty minutes on a fast night.
The revamped show received its third title — I’ll Say She Is — and was initially created to play a summer season at a specific theater in Philadelphia, but everyone knew what was at stake — everyone had their sights on the Great White Way. Nothing about it elevated it above the type of stuff they had been doing in vaudeville since 1911 except budget and running time…and the location where it was hoped to be performed in the near future. I’ll Say She Is was really nothing more than “Vaudeville Storms Broadway.” (The new title was the proper response to the question “Isn’t she a beauty?”) Robert Bader: “I’ll Say She Is was truly a salvage project — with story lines, scenery, and costumes from four different shows and a quartet of blacklisted stars who couldn’t work anywhere else.” The director was Eugene Sanger, and the choreographer was Vaughn Godfrey, neither of whom merited much mention in the reviews or in the Brothers’ memories. “This was an age in which theater directors functioned mostly as traffic cops,” explains Noah Diamond. “The producer had the creative vision; the director told the cast where to stand.”
Excerpts from the Napoleon sketch as they appeared in Noah Diamond’s off-Broadway reconstruction/revival of I’ll Say She Is
After a shakedown run in Allentown, I’ll Say She Is opened at the Walnut Street Theatre on June 4, 1923 and it was a sensation. It played through the end of August. (It may have helped that the newly air-conditioned theater was the only open theater in town during the dog days of summer, but love for the show from critics and audiences seemed genuine.) For the show’s extended national tour through the rest of 1923 and into 1924, the Marxes had to hold their noses and deal with the Shubert Company again, who owned many of the theaters in which they would be appearing. Their “o” nicknames began cropping up some of the reviews (as they had sporadically since 1917), but were mentioned as being their onstage characters (no one paid much attention to the “Lawyer, Merchant” nonsense) rather than the actors themselves.
Just in case there’s some nugget of truth to the Beury-and-the-Showgirl story (Harpo and Groucho both told it in print several times — still no guarantee of veracity), I’ll relate this anecdote: Right before I’ll Say She Is kicked off its tour, it needed another $10,000 for various expenses and re-tooling. The company went to James Beury with their hands out. There were two complicating factors regarding Beury’s darling chorine (known as “Ginny”), and they needed to be dealt with at this point: 1) Ginny had also been sleeping with Harpo that whole summer, and 2) she was a worse dancer than even Groucho’s wife, Ruth. (“Ginny got more laughs than we did,” said Groucho.) Harpo was talked into breaking it off with her for the good of all involved, but the second situation was not so easily remedied. Groucho semi-facetiously suggested hiring someone to break her legs. Chico responded that she danced as if she had at least one leg broken already. Ginny solved the situation herself by telling Beury she’d fallen in love with a Walnut Street Theatre house musician, and considered her relationship with Beury to be at an end. Now Beury threatened to withhold the $10,000 unless Ginny was fired. The Brothers pretended to be very sad at the situation, while secretly rejoicing at their good fortune.
The show proved its worth on a grueling tour, and after a triumphant return residency at Walnut Street in April 1924, I’ll Say She Is was prepped for the big jump to Broadway. Gaites stepped aside, and handed total control of the production of Beury, formerly just the financier. Beury pumped the kind of money into the production that “Minimum” Gaites never would — costumes and scenery were refurbished or replaced, and the onstage jazz band was upgraded to the classy Nat Martin and His Orchestra. Both Groucho and Harpo confessed to last-minute jitters. “We’re not good enough,” Groucho told Chico. “We wouldn’t be a hit on Broadway. We’re vaudeville actors.” “I was a realist,” wrote Harpo in his memoirs. “I kept hearing the words: Sorry, boys — you’re shut. But what the hell…it was going to be fun while it lasted.” Only Chico remained cheerfully optimistic, as usual. Maybe Zeppo did too, but nobody asked him, as usual.
Publicity photo for the Marx Brothers’ Broadway debut, 1924.
I’ll Say She Is officially put the Marx Brothers on Broadway on May 19, 1924. The road show proved beyond a doubt that the show’s draw was the Brothers. They were no longer “featured players.” The were now billed above the title — their name literally in lights, but still as “JULIUS, ARTHUR, LEONARD and HERBERT — THE MARX BROS. in I’LL SAY SHE IS.” The “Four” had been dropped, perhaps indicating Zeppo was already getting restless as fourth banana. The theater was the Casino, on the corner of Broadway and 39th Street. Built in 1882 and owned by the Shuberts, the 1,300-seat Moorish theater boasted the first electric lights in a New York theater, the first public roof garden, and the first chorus line. By 1924, however, it had seen better times. The Brothers later referred to it as “a dump.” (The Casino met the wrecking ball in 1930.)
The Casino Theatre
Still, they were on Broadway at the height of the Roaring Twenties. It was the culmination of Minnie’s dreams, and “of twenty years of scheming, starving, cajoling, and scrambling,” as Groucho said. The only thing that marred the big premiere was her tumbling off a chair on which she was standing to get fitted for her opening-night dress. The resulting fractured ankle was considered only a mild annoyance, and she was ceremoniously carried to her front-and-center seat by a team of ushers.
The costumed brothers pose with their mother, Minnie
The reviews hit the newsstands the next morning. They were an almost-universal smash. The chorus of approbation was led by the New York World’s distinguished top theater critic Alexander Woollcott, one of the most-quoted men of his generation. Woollcott praised the show in general, but reserved several lines of particularly fulsome praise for Harpo. This was not unusual for the era. Smartass Groucho is usually the modern viewer’s favorite, but at the time, his caustic wisecracks and non-sequiturs were often a little rough-edged for audiences to fully embrace. It was Harpo, the child-like silent clown and brilliant harpist who won the affection of the old-fashioned folks whose tastes were still rooted in the 19th century. In his review for Life magazine, Robert Benchley said “The pantomime of Mr. Arthur Marx…is 110 proof artistry. To watch him…at any moment of during the show, is to feel a glow at being alive in the same generation.”
Woollcott made his way backstage at the Casino after his second viewing of the show to meet Harpo. Woollcott, whose acid pen had gotten him banned from several Broadway theaters, was completely disarmed by Harpo. Groucho (and others) took things to their logical conclusion and flat-out stated that Woollcott was literally in love with Harpo. (Woollcott’s sexuality was certainly always a gray area, and their eventual friendship was very close, but it is unlikely Harpo reciprocated any romantic feelings.) Woollcott invited Harpo for a round of poker, and pretty soon, the semi-literate Marx Brother had a seat at the most literate place in the nation — the Algonquin Round Table.
The Algonquin Round Table was a daily lunch meeting at the Algonquin Hotel on West 44th Street among New York’s elite columnists, playwrights, and critics literary and theatrical. Although the group was informal, Woollcott, Franklin P. Adams, Robert Benchley, Dorothy Parker, Heywood Broun, George S. Kaufman, Harold Ross, Robert Sherwood, Marc Connelly, and Ruth Hale were considered the more regular members, and several others came and went (Herman “Mank” Mankiewicz was always welcome before he high-tailed it to Hollywood, and novelist Edna Ferber came on Saturdays.) The group met regularly throughout the 1920s, playing cribbage, sipping flasks of illegal booze, setting up collaborations with each other (Ross used the group’s talents as a springboard for his creation of The New Yorker magazine), and most fun of all…affectionately insulting each other in the wittiest ways possible. Woollcott remarked on Dorothy Parker’s newly-bobbed hair: “You look almost like a man.” Her reply: “So do you.” (Historical due diligence: this bit of repartee has been attributed to others. But we want so badly for it to be Woollcott and Parker.) After lingering over their fried oysters and barbed repartee for an hour or two, they would wander back to their Vanity Fair or newspaper offices to concoct some brilliant piece that would ripple through America’s intelligentsia.
Harpo was not much of an insulter (that was Groucho’s territory), but began taking more and more lunches with his new literary pals at the Algonquin, mostly just sitting quietly and listening, which definitely would have marked him as odd-man out. If you couldn’t keep up, you were phased out of the group. But Harpo seemed to get a free pass, and became a kind of serene mascot in the eye of the hurricane (or the “vicious circle” as the group was sometimes called). The New York papers picked up on his Algonquin association, and one even had the audacity to call Harpo “the brains of the Marx Brothers.” Groucho, furious (and perhaps a tad envious), responded that “there is no brains in the Marx family, and…if there was, it most certainly wouldn’t be Harpo.”Continue reading