Interview with Groucho Marx (1949) 🇺🇸
He's Made His Marx
Groucho's a quiz kid now and goes to the head of the class. Better yet, he proves that he's still one of the funniest men alive.
Groucho Marx has been combining comedy and questions for some time now on his quiz program — but nobody's ever bothered to quiz Groucho. To correct this tempting oversight, Radio Mirror dispatched Fredda Dudley Balling to turn the tables on Groucho. Here are the questions Mrs. Balling asked — and the answers she received.
Q: I understand that your name is Groucho Marx. Why?
Groucho Marx: I was named after my brothers, Chico and Harpo.
Q: There doesn't seem to be much connection, except for a family insistence on the letter 'o'.
Groucho Marx: They were born first, so you see I was named after my brothers, Chico and Harpo.
Q: Is Groucho your real name?
Groucho Marx: No; my real name is Julius. I was So called because my mother mistakenly thought my Uncle Julius had a lot of money hidden away. The idea was that when he passed to his reward, he would be so pleased at having a namesake that we all would receive a rich inheritance.
Groucho Marx: Uncle Julius lived with us, board and room free, for thirty years. When he finally departed, he still owed my father. $38.00. This came as quite a shock to my mother.
Q: How did you acquire the name Groucho?
Groucho Marx: From a juggler who appeared on the same vaudeville bill with my brothers and me. He started at the foot of the family and worked up: he called Gummo by that title because he always wore his rubbers, rain or shine, and in those days rubbers were called 'gum shoes'. Harpo played the harp. Chico was a chicken fancier, and I don't mean the chickens you keep in coops. Zeppo, the youngest, was named after a clown we saw one time. They called me Groucho because I was supposed to be grouchy. This is a lie, of course.
Q: What are some of the other names you've been called?
Groucho Marx: To what age group are we addressing this interview?
Q: This is a family magazine, Mr. Marx.
Groucho Marx: Then I'll omit some of the names I've been called. However, in the movies and on the stage I've been known impressively as Professor Wagstaff, Rufus T. Firefly, Otis B. Driftwood, Dr. Hackenbush, Attorney Loophold, J. Quentin Quale, Wolf J. Flywheel, Lionel Q. Devereaux, Julius B. Fritewiff, and Emil Kreck. That last guy got in through a Kreck in the script.
Q: Now, Mr. Marx, let's have some vital statistics. For example, how old are you?
Groucho Marx: That's not a vital statistic, that's a chemical formula. Besides, I'd rather avoid the question on the grounds that I can't remember; it's been years since I had my rings counted.
Groucho Marx: New York.
Groucho Marx: Five feet, seven.
Groucho Marx: Yes.
Q: I meant, what color is your hair?
Groucho Marx: Early nubian, or Beverly Hills black.
Groucho Marx: Two — both brown.
Q: As for your mustache, Mr. Marx — true or false?
Groucho Marx: Like love in the soap operas, it started out false but as time wore on it became true. In movies, my mustache was a generous smear of burned cork. In radio, I was persuaded by my producer to let my mustache grow. A week later I was persuaded by my wife to shave it off. One week on, one week off. Somebody had to weaken. It was my wife; she let me keep the mustache.
Q: Weight, Mr. Marx?
Groucho Marx: Sure. As long as you like, baby.
Q: I mean, how heavy are you?
Groucho Marx: Last time I lifted myself, the hand on my suspenders stopped at 155, which was probably the address of the manufacturer. Besides, it was my hand and it was holding up my pants at the time.
Groucho Marx: Yes, to Kay Gorcey... blonde, lovely and a lousy strudel maker. Do you know where I can find a good strudel maker?
Q: Sorry, I can't help you there.
Groucho Marx: It's my wife needs help. If I need your help. I'll ask for it.
Groucho Marx: Yes — three. Arthur, twenty-eight, is a film writer and tournament tennis player, two nice rackets. Miriam, twenty-two, is a senior at Bennington College, in Vermont; a handy girl with a typewriter, she assures me that some day she is going to be a great writer. She's doing all right so far — has taken in one hundred dollars a word for some of her writing.
Q: That is terrific pay for writing. What was the literary effort, article, short story, or a novel?
Groucho Marx: A five-word telegram to me reading, 'Please rush five hundred dollars'.
Q: Tell me about your third child.
Groucho Marx: Melinda is three; at present, she is specializing in being a little girl.
Q: How did you meet your wife?
Groucho Marx: The first time my wife saw me, I was on the screen. So she opened the door and let me in. The next time was on a ferry boat, when she gave me the slip. But if you're still interested in how I met my wife, it was while we were making 'Copacabana'. This proves the adage, 'Movies are dangerous weapons in the hands of a pretty blonde'.
Q: Mr. Marx, what do you consider your biggest mistake to date?
Groucho Marx: On a sunny Thursday afternoon in October of 1929, Max Gordon, the Broadway producer, and I were playing golf at a swanky Long Island country club. We were smoking five dollar cigars and rolling in wealth, all gained from our Wall Street speculations. We were making around twenty-five hundred dollars per day. We spent some time that sunny afternoon plotting ways to boost the take to three thousand per day. The next morning the telephone rang and Gordon's voice moaned, 'The jig's up. Wall Street has crashed and we're on the bottom layer.'
Q: So that was your biggest mistake — dabbling in the stock market?
Groucho Marx: Six hundred thousand dollars is not dabbling; that's swimming in deep water. That was bad enough, but the biggest mistake was playing golf with Gordon. He beat me out of three bucks and a tomato surprise.
Q: For thirty years, Mr. Marx, you've been one of the world's favorite comedians. Tell me, how did you get started in show business?
Groucho Marx: I was a boy soprano until my voice changed in Denver and I got fired. That's one story. Actually it goes back farther than that. My mother, Minnie, was the daughter of a German magician who toured Europe for fifty years. I think my mother was thoroughly indoctrinated in show business long before I was born. She came to New York and married an East Side tailor, Sam Marx, but she never got used to the idea of being a housewife. Her vigorous interest in show business was given the jet treatment when her brother became a star; he was Al Shean, of the team of ‘Gallagher and Shean’. Mother decided that if Al could do it, so could her boys. She hornswoggled Chico into learning piano; Harpo she introduced to her mother's ancient instrument; me, she trained as a singer and dancer. At the age of thirteen, I went to work with the LeRoy Trio as a female impersonator. This ended when my soprano became a baritone in Denver.
Q: How did the Marx Brothers become an act?
Groucho Marx: Mother again. As fast as we boys grew up, she shoved us onto the stage. When Gummo finally reached his teens, Mother tied the two of us together, added a girl singer and dubbed us 'The Three Nightingales'. We earned twenty dollars a week.
Q: What was Harpo doing?
Groucho Marx: He was a bellhop at the Hotel Plaza. On the spur of the moment one night, Mother decided that it was time for Harpo to make his debut. She took a cab to the Plaza, collared Harpo, and dragged him to the theater where Gummo and I were appearing. He had no lines to speak, no song to sing, no dance to do and no harp to play, but Mother shoved him out onto the stage with us. Since he had nothing to do or say, he just stood there looking dumb. He's been a success at it ever since. To this day he's never said a word in public, and he still looks dumb.
Q: That accounts for three of the Marx Brothers. How about the fourth?
Groucho Marx: After World War I, Gummo left our act and went into business, so Mother kidnapped Chico and pushed him into the duo of Harpo and Groucho to make us a trio. Zeppo was old enough to graduate from high school by this time, so he was added to the act. That made four of us.
Q: The Four Marx Brothers on the stage made theatrical history. What brought you to Hollywood?
Groucho Marx: The Union Pacific railroad.
Q: I mean, why did you come to Hollywood?
Groucho Marx: To make money, same as everybody else.
Q: You're making this very difficult, Mr. Marx.
Groucho Marx: Making money is very difficult.
Q: Well, then — what particular reason did you have for coming to Hollywood?
Groucho Marx: To make a film version of our stage hit, 'Cocoanuts'. A satisfactory number of people paid their money and swallowed 'Cocoanuts' so we stayed on to make Animal Crackers, 'Monkey Business', 'Horse Feathers', Duck Soup, A Night at the Opera, 'A Day at the Races', 'A Day at the Circus', A Night in Casablanca so we should have made one called 'Time Stood Still', but we worked in 'The Big Store' and 'Go West' instead. I did a solo in 'Copacabana' (during which I met Kay), and in my new picture for RKO, 'It's Only Money'. In this one I'm a different Groucho: kindly, warm and bumbling. It proves that I'm an actor.
Q: Are the Marx Brothers going to make any more pictures together?
Groucho Marx: 'Love Happy', out this year, is our last as far as I know. Of course, if someone should come along with a good story, we would do another picture together; there's no hard and fast rule about it, like who's going to make the next six passes at Las Vegas.
Q: Millions of fans all over the world will go into deep mourning if the Marx Brothers should stop making movies together. Remember what Alva Johnston once wrote about you: 'The Marx Brothers are engaged in a war to free the mind from the domination of reason and judgment, to overthrow sanity, logic and common sense, and to give the brain a chance to develop. They're efficient madmen, having taken polished nonsense and combined it happily with the loud noise and bodily harm tradition of vaudeville. Their comedy is high, low, broad, refined, raw, old-fashioned and futuristic.' That's what Mr. Johnston wrote.
Groucho Marx: 'Raw! Old-fashioned!' That's me — Groucho Marx.
Q: So now we come to your radio career, Mr. Marx.
Groucho Marx: You're pretty late. I came to it years ago, but maybe we can still find you a seat.
Q: Let's settle one point immediately: do you agree with many of your critics that you're wasting your talents on a quiz program?
Groucho Marx: I certainly don't agree. My current show, 'You Bet Your Life', has caused more favorable talk and has been far more successful than anything I've ever done on the air. Last season we won the Radio Editors' poll as the best quiz show on the air. Even more gratifying than that, we won the coveted Peabody Award for presenting the best comedy show on the air. That sort of thing has never happened to me in the past, but I feel we've only begun to win honors and acclaim.
Q: To what do you attribute this success? After all, the air is cluttered with quiz shows.
Groucho Marx: Let's face it, 'You Bet Your Life' is a good program. I like it because it has provided my first opportunity to be myself. I walk out on stage and patter with my contestants, say what I want, do what I want, and have a wonderful time. The listener absorbs some of that feeling of genuine fun and has a good time, too.
Q: The natural, spontaneous humor on your program is quite apparent, Mr. Marx. I suppose you appreciate the fact that you're producing a change in radio comedy.
Groucho Marx: Yes, we're well aware of the new field of humor we've developed. There's nothing artificial about the jokes on our show; they are authentic, home-spun comedy.
Q: I don't quite understand. What do you mean by 'artificial'?
Groucho Marx: Well, on the usual comedy show, the straight man creates an artificial situation and the comedian makes a joke. We'll say, for instance, that the comedy situation is built around a plumber. The comedian pretends he's the plumber and makes a lot of jokes about plumbing. The listener knows the whole thing is a frame-up because the actor is not a plumber; he may not even smoke a pipe. On our show, when we make jokes about a plumber, the comedy has the ring of truth because I'm actually talking to a plumber... or to a tree surgeon... or to a dentist, or a cowboy, or a department-store Santa Claus. We don't have to create situations in order to make jokes; the situations are already there. When we had a shoe salesman who was married to a lady chiropodist on our program, it was obvious for me to ask, 'How did you meet — did your arches fall for each other?'
Q: Do you attempt to have some sort of pattern for every broadcast?
Groucho Marx: Yes. We always look for particular types of individuals in our audiences before we go on the air. You'll notice that we always have a romantic couple as contestants; newlyweds, older people who've just been married, a pair of youngsters who'd like to get married, or a bachelor teamed with an old maid.
Q: Apparently you also attempt to secure people with interesting occupations as contestants.
Groucho Marx: Yes, but only if the occupations are familiar to everyone. We've discovered a peculiar point; if a contestant's occupation is too interesting, the audience won't laugh. They become too engrossed in what the contestant has to say. On one broadcast, we had a chemist who prattled merrily on about the atomic age. It was fascinating stuff, but nobody laughed. After all, we're running a comedy show, so we have to get guffaws. We tried a fashion designer and the same thing happened. Nowadays we try to stick with everyday occupations which have a solid basis for potential humor, such as the butcher, the grocer, the insurance man, the home demonstrator, the bank clerk.
Q: I've noticed that you usually manage to have a happy housewife...
Groucho Marx: Is there any other kind?
Q: ... Is this by design, Mr. Marx?
A: Yes, it is. Before the show, we ask for housewives in the audience to volunteer. The volunteers are sent to the back of the house and their stories are heard by members of our staff. If they have something Interesting to say, and insist on saying it, we put them on the show. A timid, shy, or boring contestant would be disastrous. The whole thing is like a party: the good eggs have fun and the wallflowers sit it out.
Q: As a quizmaster, what would you say was the most unusual thing that ever happened to you?
Groucho Marx: We had a nervous young fellow on the show, picked from the audience because he was very close to initial fatherhood. His wife was in the hospital at the time and he was momentarily expecting the big news. Naturally, his mind wasn't on what he was doing up there with me. I had some by-play planned to try on him. I was going to ask if he'd like to win a new refrigerator, a new car, and a new home. He was supposed, of course, to say, 'Yes'. Then I was supposed to say, 'All right, just answer one question correctly and you will win all those prizes'. Whereupon I was going to inquire, 'Who is the President of the United States?'. When he answered, 'Truman', I was going to be very funny and say, 'That's right. Now here is the question: What is his social security number?' At that, the audience was supposed to go into gales of laughter. Well, here's what happened: the young fellow, sweating profusely, said, 'Yes, I'd like to win all of those prizes'. 'Just one question', I began, 'and you get them. Who's the President of the United States?' At this point the boy's mind went completely blank. He stammered and fidgeted and wiped his forehead and laughed nervously and gibbered. But, for the life of him, he couldn't recall the name of the President of the US.
Q: You couldn't have cooked that one up with a prepared script.
Groucho Marx: I'll say you couldn't. I'm not going to try. Incidentally, who is the President of the United States?
Q: How about guest stars? Do you ever have them on your show?
Groucho Marx: Art Linkletter is the only guest star we have ever had. Aside from Art, we established a policy about guest stars; the best way to explain that is to cite an example. Last spring one of the most famous and best comedians on the air telephoned me at home and volunteered to serve as a contestant — for nothing, except the fun of it.
It was with genuine regret that I had to inform him that the regular people from our audience were better comedians than he is. It broke his heart, but he agreed.
Q: What is the most embarrassing experience you ever had before the microphone?
Groucho Marx: Me? Embarrassed?
Q: Forgive me. Mr. Marx, I know you have a staff working for you. If the entire show is spontaneous, what does your staff do?
Groucho Marx: A: You'd be surprised at the complicated mass of detail connected with a simple show like ours. There's the quiz, for instance. All those quiz questions have to be gleaned from research books, checked and doubled-checked. We have a complicated bookkeeping system which provides for the payoff to our winners. We have a lot of herding to do for the contestants after they're picked, and, of course, the normal production problems associated with any broadcast must be handled. My partner and producer, John Guedel, is the guiding genius behind the whole show. It was he, by the way, who first decided that I could handle a quiz show like this one, and he's guided me expertly ever since. Please note that the old, brash, impudent Groucho is no more. Now I'm a kindly, warm old character, sympathetic and understanding. Just an old shoe, that's me. But don't be misled, there's still a little kick in the old boot!
Q: In reviewing your two years as a quizmaster, which contestants would you describe as your most interesting?
Groucho Marx: To me, every contestant is interesting. However, I'd say Harry MacDermott, an Irishman with a brogue as thick as a mattress, was outstanding. He said he was a good Irish Catholic, but that didn't stop him from being head of the maintenance department of a Jewish Synagogue, and proud of it. He was an admirable old man, the kind of a contestant you run across every seventy-five years. I also enjoyed an ex-Wac who had married a French bathing suit salesman from Paris. They made a wonderful team. Last spring we had a Hungarian Baroness and a Baron on the show. They were outstanding. Another contestant I won't forget was Etta Rue, an old maid who topped everything I said.
Q: What are your present plans for television?
Groucho Marx: What are yours?
Q: Not to be completely satisfied with it, Mr. Marx, until I can see You Bet Your Life.
Groucho Marx: I'll say this: many people have been fooled by television, and I don't want to be one of them. I know it is an extremely sensitive and intimate medium. It requires tremendous thought and preparation to do a thirty-minute show. Basically, I believe we could use the same format for television as we're using now: just me talking to people from the audience, but we'll need some careful planning to give the show the extra kick that is so necessary in this field. We are making plans to try television sometime within the year, but as yet we have no definite starting date.
Q: Will you be smoking that same big black cigar on your television show, Mr. Marx?
Groucho Marx: Nope. By then I hope to be able to afford a new one.
Q: Thanks, I imagine, to your fine new time and network time on CBS on Wednesday night, just ahead of Crosby?
Groucho Marx: Lady, You Bet Your Life.
Groucho Marx show can be heard on Wednesdays beginning September 28 at 9:00 P.M. EST on CBS.
Source: Radio and Television Mirror, October 1949