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The Long Road to The Big Time: The Marx Brothers Play The Palace

This is the second in a series about the Marx Brothers in New York. See the first post A Walk in the East 90s: At Home with the Marx Brothers and "the Brownstone People."

Before their debut on Broadway and success in the movies and television, the Marx Brothers spent years on the road in the vaudeville circuit. Run by powerful impresarios such as B. F. Keith, E. F. Albee, the Shuberts and later Martin Beck of the Orpheum, the circuits ran their diverse groups of acts through towns big and small across the country. "Small time" acts played several times a day in converted theatres and for little money while "medium time" acts played for more money and in more established venues. The pinnacle of success was to play in large theaters in the big cities and for big money contracts. Theater managers watched the audiences respond to the acts, and if the performers proved popular and met success at the box office, they would promote the entertainers to better theaters and better pay. Playing the big theaters in the big cities was considered hitting "the big time."

In the spring of 1907, Minnie Marx, a classic stage mother with aspirations to the big time, sent her boys Julius (Groucho) and Milton (Gummo) to Ned Wayburn's College of Vaudeville at 143 West 44th Street in New York. Wayburn, a performer turned producer and teacher, had already established a successful dancing school. A reporter for the New Jersey Sun attended an evening performance at the new vaudeville school, calling all the performers "perfectly fine." The review mentioned the presence of "the Marks boys" as well as "the Astaire children" (Fred, 8, and his sister Adele, 10). The two brothers, along with a girl, sang in Atlantic City as Wayburn's Nightingales, but soon thereafter Minnie assumed the management of her boys' careers, and thus began a seemingly endless remaking of musical and comedy acts. Additional non-family personnel would come and go. Over his protestations that he couldn't sing, Harpo soon joined them. In October of 1909, Minnie decided to move the boys and her husband and sister (excluding her wayward eldest Chico, who had gone into vaudeville on his own, playing piano in a duo and apparently adopting an Italian persona) to Chicago. The family would live away from New York for ten years, but they would return for visits.

Essentially ripping off the idea of a Broadway musical titled School Days that had opened in 1908, the Marx Brothers created a production called Fun In Hi Skule. The show represented a shift away from a music-centered act toward one that played up the comedy. Groucho portrayed Herr Teacher, a strict school master with a heavy German accent, and the show made much hay out of every available ethnic stereotype. Over time, Fun In Hi Skule evolved into Mr. Green's Reception, with Chico joining Harpo and Gummo as students in the schoolroom. Groucho's turn as a professor in these "tabs" or tabloids would influence many more famous skits to come. The Marx Brothers took the ever-changing school room routine on the road for seven years, playing to increasingly enthusiastic audiences in Boston, Tusacaloosa, Ann Arbor, Denison, Ada, Youngstown, or wherever they found themselves.

In 1914 their uncle Al Shean wrote a new review for his nephews titled Home Again. Requiring a large cast of 15, the musical comedy was structured in two acts and set in New York. The first act was set on the piers of the Cunard Line, and the second at the villa of the main character (Henry Schneider, played by Groucho) on the Hudson River. The script of Home Again has not survived, though there's every indication that the comedy was not scripted much at all, benefiting from improv, sight gags, and the brothers' general gift of anarchism. Though Uncle Al had given him only a few lines, Harpo nevertheless stayed on stage without saying much, making most of his mute presence.

Home Again provided the ticket to the big time. Opening at the RKO Royal Theatre (423 Westchester Avenue at 3rd Avenue, demolished in 1962) in the Bronx in February of 1915, the show was a hit. A review published in Variety had praise for each of the brothers, especially for "Arthur" (born Adolph): "This Arthur Marx is marked as a comedian for a Broadway show, just as certain as you are reading this." A week later, Home Again opened as the beginning of a vaudeville program at the Palace Theatre in Times Square. Within the week, the act moved up the bill, so that by the end of the week, they were closing the show. Billboard noted in its review of February 22, 1915 (by that date they were in the 4th position), "Their tabloid ran forty minutes, and during that time the audience was either rocking with laughter or electrified with applause."

At any rate, the Marx Brothers were playing New York City's Palace Theatre, the premier venue of the Keith-Albee vaudeville circuit. They were back home in New York and playing the Palace. They had hit the big time. In 1919, four years later, the family moved back to the city. Broadway would come next.

This is the second in a series about the Marx Brothers in New York. See the first post A Walk in the East 90s: At Home with the Marx Brothers and "the Brownstone People."

Images: top: lobby lights, The Majestic Theatre, New York; middle: the former location of Ned Wayburn's College of Vaudeville (143 West 44th Street), demolished, now the Millennium Broadway Hotel; bottom: Times Square and The Palace Theatre (if you can find it!) at 1564 Broadway. The Palace was built in 1913 (same year as the demolished Royal Theatre in the Bronx) by Martin Beck, but Beck lost control of the theater before it opened. In its vaudeville days, the Palace ran two shows per day at $2 per show. Many consider the death of vaudeville to date from 1932 when the Palace converted into a movie theatre.

To see other posts in this special Marx Brothers in New York series, follow this link.





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