runaway mule in Nacogdoches
helped change American entertainment history.
No one has ever pinned down the exact date, but it happened at some
point before World War
One, with 1914 being the most-mentioned year. A vaudeville troupe
from New York, touring small towns across the South, hit Nacogdoches
for a gig at the opera house. Calling themselves “The Four Nightingales,”
the four brothers wore white duck suits picked by their manager,
their mother Minnie, and sang to the accompaniment of a variety
As the audience
sat politely if unenthusiastically listening to the quartet, someone
burst throughthe front doors of the theater and yelled, “There’s
a runaway mule!”
At that, the
house emptied as surely and as energetically as if someone had yelled
Sure enough, a mule had gotten loose from a hitching post only to
wildly stampede its way Ben Hur-style down Main Street. One version
has the crazed critter overturning the wagon it had been pulling,
but the exact details of the wreck have been lost to time.
Once all the
excitement died down, most of the patrons filed back inside the
opera house for the rest of the performance. After all, the audience
had paid a dime apiece to hear the Nighingales do what their avian
namesake is famous for – singing sweetly. But when they got settled
into their seats, the Texans found the four young men from New York’s
Jewish community in a bit of a snit. Having been cut off in mid-song,
the traveling musicians were not pleased to have been upstaged by
Brother Julius was particularly steamed. How dare these Texas
hicks walk out on him just to see a mule!
So instead of acting like nothing had happened, which is what professional
performers have been trained to do since Shakespeare first started
puting on plays, Julius walked to the edge of the stage and let
loose with a double-barrel blast of sarcasm about Nacogdoches
and Texans in general.
Julius expected boos and calls of “Get a hook!” Instead, his wisecracks
netted explosions of laughter. These Texans thought his disparaging
ad-libbed remarks were funny. Just to make sure he wasn’t misjudging
the crowd, he piled on more shoot-from-the-hip insults. And the
audience loved it even more.
When he finally did start singing again, he managed to work in this
extra line to the lyrics: “Nacogdoches
is full of roaches.”
Later that day, maybe while cooling his heels in jail after getting
arrested for betting on a game of euchre at the hotel across the
street, a singularly bright light bulb suddenly illuminated itself
across his mind’s marquee: Maybe he was a better comedian than musician.
that incident in Nacogdoches,
Julius and his brothers reshaped their act into a mixture of music
and comedy and eventually transitioned into straight comedy. Not
only did he change his act, by 1920 he had adopted a stage name.
He was Groucho, Groucho Marx. His brothers were Harpo, Chico and
The Marx brothers went on to star in 14 movies, including the classics
“The Cocoanuts” and “Animal Crackers.” In 1949 Grocho moved to the
new medium of television and flourished as the mustachioed, ad-libing,
cigar-smoking, eyebrow-raising host of “You Bet Your Life,” a quiz
show that ran through 1961.
mule story seems almost too good to be true, reading suspiciously
like a total fabrication on the part of some whiskey-swilling if
creative Hollywood press agent. But there’s evidence that Groucho
and his brothers really did get upstaged by an East
First reported in a widely published 1930 newspaper story with a
New York dateline, “Runaway Mules Gave Marx Bros. Cue to Comedy,”
Groucho later told the tale himself in his memoir.
“Our act was so lousy,” he recalled, “that when word passed through
the audience of numbskull Texans that a mule had run away, they
got up en masse to go out and see something livelier. We were accustomed
to heckling and insults, but that made us furious, so when those
guys wearing ten-gallon hats over pint-sized brains came back, we
let them have it.”