|The Marx Brothers (from left) Chico, Zeppo, Groucho and Harpo|
I stumbled across this column looking for something else, and was surprised both by the facts it contained, and that I wrote it. Yes, 19 years is a long time. But usually, there is some glimmer ... this was all fresh. Plus it was 538 words long, 30 percent shorter than my column now, a reminder that while I rhapsodize the space of the past, that wasn't true when the column ran in the features section. When we had a features section. Anyway, I enjoyed this, and hope you will too.
The Palmer House is made of sandstone quarried in Berea, Ohio. I know that because I grew up in Berea, the former sandstone capital of the world.
It is one of the more touching human qualities that, so deep is our desire for status, we try to absorb accomplishment and glamor from the places that we live, or lived.
In Chicago, there is no need to scrounge for glory. Open the bag and glittering baubles tumble out, from the most famous man in the world (Michael Jordan) to the most beloved doll (Raggedy Ann, who made her debut in the windows of Marshall Field's, stitched together to tout the Johnny Gruel stories).
Though we do not need new ornaments to hang on Chicago's name, I feel obligated to report what I just learned about the vital role Chicago plays in the recent biography of . . . drumroll please . . . Groucho Marx and the Marx Brothers. Who knew?
After their bid for success in New York went cold, the brothers Marx decided to move, en masse, to Chicago, to test our Midwest waters.
"It would take a combination of bravado, faith and lunacy to trade New York for Chicago at this time," writes Stefan Kanfer, in his fine book, Groucho (Knopf, $ 30).
They end up at 4512 W. Grand, and in the years to come, many crucial developments that led to their magnificent success fall into place somewhere around Chicago.
They get their famous nicknames in Galesburg, during a poker game between shows. An obscure trouper named Art Fisher dubs them Groucho (for his mood), Harpo (for his instrument), Gummo (for his galoshes, or gumshoes) and Chicko, later Chico, for his eye for the ladies.
Harpo joined the act in Waukegan, in the middle of a show, creeping unannounced into the orchestra.
Harpo used to talk onstage, until one night when they appeared in Champaign-Urbana. A critic—and this must be the high-water mark for critics actually having an impact on the thing being criticized—noted that Harpo was a skilled pantomimist. "Unfortunately the effect is spoiled when he speaks."
He never spoke onstage again.
Groucho had his appendix out at Michael Reese Hospital. He married a Chicago girl, and hung out with Carl Sandburg and Ben Hecht.
I saved the best for last. With the United States entering World War I, their mother, Minnie, read that anyone involved with farming would be exempt from the draft.
"That was all Minnie needed to know," Kanfer writes. "She made immediate plans to acquire a farm."
The Marx brothers moved to a 27-acre farm in La Grange and began raising chickens. It sounds too incredible to be true, but apparently it is. My only regret is that they didn't base a film on their efforts which, inevitably, failed.
I couldn't help but wonder if the Marx legend lives in La Grange. I called Village Manager Marlies Perthel.
Anything the town is famous for? "Not really," she said. "The one thing we're known for is we do have a historic district."
Anybody famous live there?
Groucho Marx," she said, "many, many years ago."
That was a relief. At least La Grange-ites know they should hold their heads high. Do they?
"It's a little humorous," she said. "In staid, conservative La Grange."
Ah, a little humor. What else can you ask for in life?
—Originally published in the Sun-Times, May 30, 2000