the many Texas boasts that we now enjoy and/or endure, let us humbly submit another:
the Marx Brothers weren’t funny at all until they came to Texas.
They didn’t know what funny is until they got to Texas,
or if they did they didn’t have sense enough to do anything about it. |
weren’t known as the Marx Brothers when they toured Texas in 1912 as part of a
vaudeville act. Some sources say they were known at the time as the Four Nightingales
and the group consisted of Groucho, Harpo, an older brother named Gummo and a
female singer billed as Miss Jane O’Reily. Or they may have added the brothers’
mother and aunt by that time and were performing as the Six Mascots. Either way,
all sources agree that they took to the stage at the Opera House in Nacogdoches
one summer night as serious singers, musicians and actors. Thespians, as it were.
The Nacogdoches audience
was less than enthused with the acts’ classical music and dramatic readings. That
was made clear when someone on East Main Street hollered “Runaway! Runaway!” This
must have seemed preferable to the entertainment on stage because the theater
emptied as everybody went to see the mules. Really, who
wouldn’t want to see runaway mules, other than the obvious exception of the person
who might be standing in their path?
Some modern accounts have it that
just one mule was on the loose in Nacogdoches
that night, not a whole team. The old timers, like former District Attorney Bob
Murphey, always said it was a team of runaway mules that caused the commotion.
The mules (or) mules were eventually caught and the patrons returned to
the theater but it was a hard act to follow, these runaway mules, none with even
a smidgen of classical training.
The appalled thespians, especially Groucho,
were none too pleased with an audience so fickle and inattentive that it could
be lured away from a performance of high art by a bunch of mules, or even one
mule. Groucho made up a little impromptu verse to express his feelings:
City of Nacogdoches
Is full of cockroaches…”
Groucho called the audience
“damn Yankees” and opined that "the jackass is the state flower of Texass.”
If there is one thing Texans can generally appreciate it is somebody who is ticked
off and doesn’t mind letting you know about it. That’s what Groucho did just that,
and the Nacogdoches audience
just loved it.
“Probably the Marxes didn’t realize it then but they were
working a true vein of Texas humor,’ Dallas
columnist Frank X. Tolbert wrote of the incident many years later. “Other Texas
theater managers heard of the hit the Marx Brothers made as impudent comedians,
and the troupe got a raise to $75 as they moved on to Denison
on the Red River.”
So while we’re not claiming the Marx Brothers as Texans,
we don’t mind taking credit for setting them straight and helping them find their
true calling as comedians. And let’s not forget to give those mules (or that mule)
some credit too.
Along with a good-natured Texas audience, they gave the
Marx Brothers their start in comedy.
© Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas"
April 1, 2009 Column
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