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Sunday, May 19

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Airbags

The Marx Brothers were one of the greatest comedy troupes of the 20th century, but did you know they began their road to fame while living here in Chicago?

The brothers were born in New York, the sons of Minnie and Sam Marx. Leonard (Chico) was the oldest, born in 1887. Adolph (Harpo) followed in 1888, Julius Henry (Groucho) in 1890, and Milton (Gummo) in 1892. Herbert (Zeppo), the youngest, was born in 1901.

With their mother acting as their manager, the boys began performing onstage at a young age. However, the New York theater bookers told Minnie her sons would never make it big. As a result, she decided to uproot the family to try their luck in Chicago, which was then a center for several major vaudeville circuits.

The family moved to Chicago in 1910 and bought a house at 4512 Grand Boulevard (now Martin Luther King Drive). The neighborhood at that time was a thriving Jewish community.

They paid $1,000 down on the $25,000 home to a banker named Greenbaum, who apparently held little hope that he would ever see the rest of the money. Groucho recalled, in The Marx Brothers Scrapbook, that when his brothers and he would start goofing off onstage, Minnie would whisper from the wings, "Greenbaum!" This was their reminder to behave, lest their act be cancelled and the family not able to make their mortgage payments.

When war broke out in 1914, the Marx family bought a farm in LaGrange, IL in the belief that farmers would be less likely to be drafted. But the brothers didn't know anything about farming.

Groucho remembered, "When we first got the farm we made sure to get up every morning at four o'clock. After a while we got up at five o'clock, then six, then seven, then eight, and then Chico discovered that LaGrange was near the Chicago ballpark. We didn't farm anymore, but we made sure to catch the CBQ train to the ballpark to see the Cubs."

Threats of homelessness and attempts at farming aside, the Marx Brothers soon became a big success. They left Chicago to return to New York, performed on Broadway, and then moved to California to take their act to the movie screen. Animal Crackers, Duck Soup, A Night at the Opera, and A Day at the Races are just a few of their now-classic comic films.

But even after the Marx Brothers went on to become major Hollywood stars, they never forgot their Windy City roots.

In 1933, after the brothers pressed their hands into the sidewalk outside of Grauman's Chinese Theater in Hollywood, Groucho quipped, "There was no need to inform us of the protocol involved. We were from Chicago and knew all about cement."

Sources

Adamson, Joe. Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Sometimes Zeppo. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1973.

Kanfer, Stefan. Groucho: The Life and Times of Julius Henry Marx. New York: Knopf, 2000.

Marx, Groucho and Richard J. Anobile. The Marx Brothers Scrapbook. New York: Darien House, 1973.

Chicago Authors

"When I was in America twenty-two years ago, Chicago was the city that interested me least. Coming straight from San Francisco—which, in the eyes of a youthful student of Bret Harte, seemed the fitting metropolis of one of the great realms of romance—I saw in Chicago the negation of all that had charmed me on the Pacific slope. It was a flat and grimy abode of mere commerce, a rectilinear Glasgow; and to an Edinburgh man, or rather boy, no comparison could be more damaging. How different is the impression produced by the Chicago of to-day!"
--William Archer, America To-Day (London: William Heinmann, 1900)

The above selection was reprinted in As Others See Chicago: Impressions of Visitors, 1673-1933, edited by Bessie Louise Pierce (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004).

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Comments

amyc / August 26, 2004 8:10 AM

Cool! I seem to remember someone trying to get landmark status for the house on Grand recently -- any idea if that worked?

Pete / August 26, 2004 9:28 AM

Lest anyone think Groucho was geographically-challenged, the ballpark he was referring to wasn't Wrigley Field, but the old West Side Grounds at Polk and Wolcott, where the hospital campus is now.

http://www.ballparks.com/baseball/national/wstsid.htm

Alice / August 26, 2004 10:37 AM

Amy,
Not that I'm aware of. You can read about the issue here in an article in the Tribune last year: http://www.chicagotribune.com/features/chi-0301150213jan15,1,4018056.story

But the house is not listed on Chicago's official list of landmarks, which you can browse here: http://www.cityofchicago.org/Landmarks/

The house does have one of those "Chicago tribute markers" in front of it, but these confer no special protection. You can see the tribute marker page here: http://www.chicagotribute.org/Markers/Marx.htm

I didn't link to tribute marker in the column because of the appalling amount of wrong information on the page. (Groucho and Julius are spelled wrong and the birth and death dates for the brothers are nearly all incorrect.)

 

About the Author(s)

Alice Maggio is a real, live Chicago librarian. If you have topic ideas or questions you would like answered, send your suggestions to and it may be featured in a future column.

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