Chico Marx

Last updated

Chico Marx
Chico Marx - signed.jpg
Chico, c. 1930
Born
Leonard Joseph Marx

(1887-03-22)March 22, 1887
DiedOctober 11, 1961(1961-10-11) (aged 74)
Burial place Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery, Glendale, California, U.S.
Other namesLeo Marx
Occupation
  • Comedian
  • actor
  • bandleader
Years active1910–1960
Height5 ft 6 in (168 cm)
Spouse(s)
  • Betty Karp
    (m. 1917;div. 1940)
  • Mary De Vithas
    (m. 1958)
Children1
Parent(s) Sam "Frenchie" Marx
Minnie Schönberg
Relatives Harpo Marx (brother)
Groucho Marx (brother)
Gummo Marx (brother)
Zeppo Marx (brother)
Al Shean (maternal uncle)
Lobby card for Monkey Business (1931) with Chico (left) and Harpo (right) Monkey Business lobby card 1931.JPG
Lobby card for Monkey Business (1931) with Chico (left) and Harpo (right)

Leonard Joseph "Chico" Marx ( /ˈɪk/ ; March 22, 1887 – October 11, 1961) was an American comedian, musician, and actor. [1] He was the oldest brother and a member of the Marx Brothers (with Groucho Marx, Harpo Marx, and Zeppo Marx). His persona in the act was that of a charming, uneducated but crafty con artist, seemingly of rural Italian origin, who wore shabby clothes and sported a curly-haired wig and Tyrolean hat. On screen, Chico is often in alliance with Harpo, usually as partners in crime, and is also frequently seen trying to con or outfox Groucho. Leonard was the oldest of the Marx Brothers to live past early childhood (first-born Manfred Marx had died in infancy). In addition to his work as a performer, he played an important role in the management and development of the act in its early years.

Contents

Early years

Chico (pronounced as Chicko) was born in Manhattan, New York City, on March 22, 1887. [1] [2] His parents were Sam Marx (called "Frenchie" throughout his life), and his wife, Minnie Schoenberg Marx. Minnie's brother was Al Shean. The Marx family was Franco-German Jewish. His father was a native of Alsace who worked as a tailor and his mother was from East Frisia in Germany. [3] [4] [5]

Billing himself as Chico, he used an Italian persona for his onstage character; stereotyped ethnic characters were common with vaudevillians. His non-Italian-ness was specifically referred to twice on film. In their second feature, Animal Crackers , he recognizes someone he knows to be a fish peddler impersonating a respected art collector:

Ravelli (Chico): "How is it you got to be Roscoe W. Chandler?"
Chandler: "Say, how did you get to be an Italian?"
Ravelli: "Never mind—whose confession is this?"

In A Night at the Opera , which begins in Italy, his character, Fiorello, claims not to be Italian, eliciting a surprised look from Groucho:

Driftwood (Groucho): "Well, things seem to be getting better around the country."
Fiorello (Chico): "I don't know, I'm a stranger here myself."

A scene in the film Go West , in which Chico attempts to placate an Indian chief of whom Groucho has run afoul, has a line that plays a bit on Chico's lack of Italian nationality, but is more or less proper Marxian wordplay:

S. Quentin Quayle (Groucho): "Can you talk Indian?"
Joe Panello (Chico): "I was born in Indianapolis!"

There are moments, however, where Chico's characters appear to be genuinely Italian; examples include the film The Big Store , in which his character Ravelli runs into an old friend he worked with in Naples (after a brief misunderstanding due to his accent), the film Monkey Business , in which Chico claims his grandfather sailed with Christopher Columbus, and their very first outing The Cocoanuts , where Mr. Hammer (Groucho) asks him if he knew what an auction was, in which he responds "I come from Italy on the Atlantic Auction!" Chico's character is often assumed to be dim-witted, as he frequently misunderstands words spoken by other characters (particularly Groucho). However, he often gets the better of the same characters by extorting money from them, either by con or blackmail; again, Groucho is his most frequent target.

Chico Marx playing cards with himself; taken at Rockaway Beach, New York, c. 1909 Chico Marx 1909.jpg
Chico Marx playing cards with himself; taken at Rockaway Beach, New York, c. 1909

Chico was a talented pianist. He originally started playing with only his right hand and fake playing with his left, as his teacher did so herself. Chico eventually acquired a better teacher and learned to play the piano correctly. As a young boy, he gained jobs playing piano to earn money for the Marx family. Sometimes Chico even worked playing in two places at the same time. He would acquire the first job with his piano-playing skills, work for a few nights, and then substitute Harpo on one of the jobs. (During their boyhood, Chico and Harpo looked so much alike that they were often mistaken for each other.)

In the brothers' last film, Love Happy , Chico plays a piano and violin duet with 'Mr. Lyons' (Leon Belasco). Lyons plays some ornate riffs on the violin; Chico comments, "Look-a, Mister Lyons, I know you wanna make a good impression, but please don't-a play better than me!"

In a record album about the Marx Brothers, narrator Gary Owens stated that "although Chico's technique was limited, his repertoire was not." The opposite was true of Harpo, who reportedly could play only two tunes on the piano, which typically thwarted Chico's scam and resulted in both brothers being fired.

The Marx Brothers, from top: Chico, Harpo, Groucho, and Zeppo Marx Marx Brothers 1931.jpg
The Marx Brothers, from top: Chico, Harpo, Groucho, and Zeppo Marx

Groucho Marx once said that Chico never practiced the pieces he played. Instead, before performances he soaked his fingers in hot water. He was known for 'shooting' the keys of the piano. He played passages with his thumb up and index finger straight, like a gun, as part of the act. Other examples of his keyboard flamboyance are found in A Night at the Opera (1935), where he plays the piano for a group of delighted children, and A Night in Casablanca (1946), where he performs a rendition of "The Beer Barrel Polka".

Chico became the unofficial manager of the Marx Brothers after their mother, Minnie, died in 1929. [1] As manager, he cut a deal to get the brothers a percentage of a film's gross receipts—the first of its kind in Hollywood. Furthermore, it was Chico's connection with Irving Thalberg of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer that led to Thalberg's signing the Brothers when they were in a career slump after Duck Soup (1933), the last of their films for Paramount.

For a while in the 1930s and 1940s, Chico led a big band. Singer Mel Tormé began his professional career singing with the Chico Marx Orchestra. Through the 1950s, Chico occasionally appeared on a variety of television anthology shows and some television commercials, most memorably with Harpo in "The Incredible Jewelry Robbery", a pantomime episode of General Electric Theater in 1959.

Pronunciation and origin of name

Chico was the star of a 1950 ABC television comedy, The College Bowl. He played the role of a campus malt-shop owner who dispensed both sodas and advice to the students. Chico Marx The College Bowl 1950.jpg
Chico was the star of a 1950 ABC television comedy, The College Bowl. He played the role of a campus malt-shop owner who dispensed both sodas and advice to the students.

His nickname (acquired during a card game in Chicago in 1915) was originally spelled Chicko. It was changed to Chico but still pronounced "Chick-oh" although those who were unaware of its origin tended to pronounce it "Cheek-oh". Numerous radio recordings from the 1940s exist where announcers and fellow actors mispronounce the nickname, but Chico apparently felt it was unnecessary to correct them. As late as the 1950s, Groucho was happy to use the wrong pronunciation for comedic effect. A guest on You Bet Your Life told the quizmaster she grew up around Chico (California) and Groucho responded, "I grew up around Chico myself. You aren't Gummo, are you?" Groucho is heard in videos pronouncing it "Chicko", as in a Dick Cavett episode with Groucho talking to Dan Rowan.

During Groucho's live performance at Carnegie Hall in 1972, he states that his brother got the name Chico because he was a "chicken-chaser" (early 20th century slang for womanizer). [6]

Gambling

Harpo and Chico in "The Incredible Jewelry Robbery", a 1959 episode of General Electric Theater Harpo and Chico Marx General Electric Theater 1959.JPG
Harpo and Chico in "The Incredible Jewelry Robbery", a 1959 episode of General Electric Theater

As well as being a compulsive womanizer, Chico had a lifelong gambling habit. His favorite gambling pursuits were card games, horse racing, dog racing, and various sports betting. His addiction cost him millions of dollars by his own account. When an interviewer in the late 1930s asked him how much money he had lost from gambling, he answered, "Find out how much money Harpo's got. That's how much I've lost." Gummo Marx, in an interview years after Chico's death, said: "Chico's favorite people were actors who gambled, producers who gambled, and women who screwed." Referring to Chico's love life, George Jessel quipped, "Chico didn't button his fly until he was seventy." [7]

Chico's lifelong gambling addiction compelled him to continue in show business long after his brothers had retired in comfort from their Hollywood income, and in the early 1940s he found himself playing in the same small, cheap halls in which he had begun his career 30 years earlier. The Marx Brothers' penultimate film, A Night in Casablanca (1946), was made for Chico's benefit since he had filed for bankruptcy a few years prior. Because of his out-of-control gambling, the brothers finally took the money as he earned it and put him on an allowance, on which he stayed until his death.

Chico had a reputation as a world-class pinochle player, a game he and Harpo learned from their father. Groucho said Chico would throw away good cards (with the knowledge of spectators) to make the play "more interesting". Chico's last public appearance was in 1960, playing cards on the television show Championship Bridge . He and his partner lost the game.

Personal life

Chico was married twice. His first marriage was to Betty Karp in 1917. Their union produced one daughter named Maxine (1918–2009). His first marriage was plagued by his infidelity, ending in divorce in 1940; he was very close to his daughter Maxine and gave her acting lessons. [8]

Chico's second marriage was to Mary De Vithas. They married in 1958, three years before his death. [1]

Awards and honors

In the 1974 Academy Awards telecast, Jack Lemmon presented Groucho with an honorary Academy Award to a standing ovation. The award was also for Harpo, Chico, and Zeppo, whom Lemmon mentioned by name. It was one of Groucho's final major public appearances. "I wish that Harpo and Chico could be here to share with me this great honor," he said, naming the two deceased brothers (Zeppo was still alive at the time and in the audience). Groucho also praised the late Margaret Dumont as a great straight woman who never understood any of his jokes. [9]

Death

Crypt of Chico Marx Chicograve.jpg
Crypt of Chico Marx

Chico died of arteriosclerosis at age 74 on October 11, 1961, at his Hollywood home. [1] He was the eldest brother and the first to die. [2]

Chico is entombed in the mausoleum at Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California. Chico's younger brother Gummo is in a crypt across the hall from him.[ citation needed ]

Portrayals

Many actors have portrayed Chico in stage revivals of Marx Brothers works, including Peter Slutsker, and Matt Roper.

Related Research Articles

Groucho Marx American comedian (1890-1977)

Julius Henry "Groucho" Marx was an American comedian, actor, writer, stage, film, radio, and television star. He is generally considered to have been a master of quick wit and one of America's greatest comedians.

Marx Brothers American comedy troupe

The Marx Brothers were an American family comedy act that was successful in vaudeville, on Broadway, and in motion pictures from 1905 to 1949. Five of the Marx Brothers' thirteen feature films were selected by the American Film Institute (AFI) as among the top 100 comedy films, with two of them, Duck Soup (1933) and A Night at the Opera (1935), in the top fifteen. They are widely considered by critics, scholars and fans to be among the greatest and most influential comedians of the 20th century. The brothers were included in AFI's 100 Years... 100 Stars list of the 25 greatest male stars of Classical Hollywood cinema, the only performers to be inducted collectively.

<i>Animal Crackers</i> (1930 film) 1930 film

Animal Crackers is a 1930 American pre-Code Marx Brothers comedy film directed by Victor Heerman. The film stars the Marx Brothers, Groucho, Chico, Harpo, and Zeppo, with Lillian Roth and Margaret Dumont. It was based on their broadway musical of the same name, in which mayhem and zaniness ensue when a valuable painting goes missing during a party in honor of famed African explorer Captain Jeffrey T. Spaulding. A critical and commercial success upon its initial release, it was filmed at Paramount's Astoria Studios in Astoria, Queens; it was the second of two films the Brothers would make in New York City.

<i>Duck Soup</i> (1933 film) 1933 Marx Brothers film by Leo McCarey

Duck Soup is a 1933 pre-Code comedy film written by Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby, with additional dialogue by Arthur Sheekman and Nat Perrin, directed by Leo McCarey. Released theatrically by Paramount Pictures on November 17, 1933, it starred the Marx Brothers and also featured Margaret Dumont, Louis Calhern, Raquel Torres and Edgar Kennedy. It was the last Marx Brothers film to feature Zeppo and the last of five Marx Brothers movies released by Paramount Pictures. Groucho plays the newly installed president of the mythical country of Freedonia, and Zeppo is his secretary, while Harpo and Chico are spies for the rival country of Sylvania. Relations between Groucho and the Sylvanian ambassador deteriorate during the film, and they go to war at the conclusion.

<i>A Night at the Opera</i> (film) 1935 Marx Brothers film directed by Sam Wood

A Night at the Opera is a 1935 American comedy film starring the Marx Brothers, and featuring Kitty Carlisle, Allan Jones, Margaret Dumont, Sig Ruman, and Walter Woolf King. It was the first of five films the Marx Brothers made under contract for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer after their departure from Paramount Pictures, and the first after Zeppo left the act. The film was written by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind from a story by James Kevin McGuinness, with additional uncredited dialogue by Al Boasberg. The film was directed by Sam Wood.

Harpo Marx American comedian

Arthur "Harpo" Marx was an American comedian, actor, mime artist, and musician, and the second-oldest of the Marx Brothers. In contrast to the mainly verbal comedy of his brothers Groucho Marx and Chico Marx, Harpo's comic style was visual, being an example of both clown and pantomime traditions. He wore a curly reddish blond wig and was silent in all his movie appearances, instead blowing a horn or whistling to communicate. Marx frequently employed props such as a horn cane constructed from a lead pipe, tape, and a bulbhorn.

Zeppo Marx American entertainer and businessman

Herbert Manfred "Zeppo" Marx was an American actor, comedian, theatrical agent, and engineer. He was the youngest and last survivor of the five Marx Brothers. He appeared in the first five Marx Brothers feature films, from 1929 to 1933, but then left the act to start his second career as an engineer and theatrical agent.

Gummo Marx American comedian

Milton "Gummo" Marx was an American vaudevillian performer, actor, comedian, and theatrical agent. He was the second youngest of the five Marx Brothers. Born in Manhattan, he worked with his brothers on the vaudeville circuit, leaving the act when he was drafted into the US Army in 1918 during World War I and replaced by Zeppo. He had no taste for the theatre and became a successful businessman.

Minnie Marx Mother and manager of the Marx Brothers

Minnie Marx was the mother and manager of the Marx Brothers, a family of vaudevillains, Broadway and film actors and was also the sister of comedian and vaudeville star Al Shean.

<i>Horse Feathers</i> 1932 film

Horse Feathers is a 1932 pre-Code comedy film starring the Marx Brothers. It stars the Marx Brothers, Thelma Todd and David Landau. It was written by Bert Kalmar, Harry Ruby, S. J. Perelman, and Will B. Johnstone. Kalmar and Ruby also wrote the original songs for the film. Several of the film's gags were taken from the Marx Brothers' stage comedy from the 1900s, Fun in Hi Skule. The term "horse feathers" is an American euphemism for "horseshit," meaning "nonsense," originating in the late 1920s.

<i>Monkey Business</i> (1931 film) 1931 Marx Brothers film

Monkey Business is a 1931 American pre-Code comedy film. It is the third of the Marx Brothers' released movies, and the first with an original screenplay rather than an adaptation of one of their Broadway shows. The film also features Thelma Todd, Harry Woods and Ruth Hall. It is directed by Norman Z. McLeod with screenplay by S. J. Perelman and Will B. Johnstone. Much of the story takes place on an ocean liner crossing the Atlantic Ocean.

<i>The Big Store</i> 1941 Marx Brothers film by Charles Reisner

The Big Store is an American comedy film starring the Marx Brothers released in 1941, with Groucho, Chico and Harpo wreaking havoc in a large department store. Groucho appears as private detective Wolf J. Flywheel.

Flywheel, Shyster, and Flywheel is a situation comedy radio show starring two of the Marx Brothers, Groucho and Chico, and written primarily by Nat Perrin and Arthur Sheekman. The series was originally broadcast in the United States on the National Broadcasting Company's Blue Network beginning November 28, 1932, and ended May 22, 1933. Sponsored by the Standard Oil Companies of New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Louisiana and the Colonial Beacon Oil Company, it was the Monday night installment of the Five-Star Theater, an old-time radio variety series that offered a different program each weeknight. Episodes were broadcast live from NBC's WJZ station in New York City and later from a sound stage at RKO Pictures in Los Angeles, California, before returning to WJZ for the final episodes.

<i>Hawkshaw the Detective</i> Comic strip character

Hawkshaw the Detective was a comic strip character featured in an eponymous cartoon serial by Gus Mager from February 23, 1913 to November 12, 1922 and again from December 13, 1931 to 1952. The name of Mager's character was derived from the common American slang of the time, in which a hawkshaw meant a detective—that slang itself derived from playwright Tom Taylor's use of the name for the detective in his 1863 stage play The Ticket of Leave Man.

<i>Ill Say She Is</i>

I'll Say She Is (1924) is a musical comedy revue written by brothers Will B. Johnstone and Tom Johnstone (music). It was the Broadway debut of the Marx Brothers. A revival of I'll Say She Is, as "adapted and expanded" by the writer-performer Noah Diamond, was seen Off Broadway at the Connelly Theater in 2016.

Gregg Marx is an American actor known mainly for his work on daytime soap operas.

Sam Marx American vaudevillian

Samuel Marx was the father of American entertainment group (the) Marx Brothers, stars of vaudeville, Broadway and film, and the husband of Minnie Marx, who served as the group's manager.

Marx is a Germanised form of the Jewish family name Mordechai. It is also possibly derived from Marcus.

<i>The Cocoanuts</i> (musical)

The Cocoanuts is a musical with music and lyrics by Irving Berlin and a book by George S. Kaufman, with additional text by Morrie Ryskind.

Deputy Seraph was an unfinished pilot for a television series in 1959 featuring the Marx Brothers: Groucho, Chico, and Harpo. The title was a pun on seraph and sheriff, reflecting the Western shows that were popular on TV at the time.

References

  1. 1 2 3 4 5 "Chico Marx, Stage and Film Comedian, Dies at 70. Oldest of 5 Brothers Took Role of Italian Piano Player. Team Business Manager". New York Times. October 12, 1961. p. 29. Retrieved August 12, 2016.
  2. 1 2 During his lifetime, his year of birth had commonly been given as 1891 instead of the true year of 1887. As a result, obituaries reported his age at the time of his death as 70 rather than 74
  3. La famille paternelle des Marx Brothers (in French)
  4. "Mrs. Minnie Marx. Mother of Four Marx Brothers, Musical Comedy Stars, Dies". New York Times. September 16, 1929. Viewed August 21, 2007.
  5. "Samuel Marx, Father of Four Marx Brothers of Stage and Screen Fame". New York Times. May 12, 1933. p. 17. Retrieved June 27, 2008.
  6. Groucho Live At Carnegie Hall
  7. Bader, Robert S., Four of the Three Musketeers: The Marx Brothers On Stage, Northwestern University Press, 2017, pg. 132
  8. Evanier, Mark (September 20, 2009). "News from me". Archived from the original on September 24, 2009.
  9. "Groucho Marx receiving an Honorary Oscar®". Oscars.org. November 24, 2009. Retrieved August 17, 2018.