Saturday, July 12, 2014


Yesterday my buddy John McElwee posted a gorgeous vintage newspaper ad from the pre-Chico era of The Marx Brothers in vaudeville on his terrific blog, asking "if there are any earlier newspaper ads with Marx imagery."  I've not seen originals, of course, but have plumbed the depths of newspaper databases, mainly for my own entertainment but also with one eye toward a possible Marx tome.  Here's a sampling of what emerged:

This is from the Atlanta Constitution of Valentine's Day 1909; a mere 105 years ago, when the three Marxes were the Four Nightingales.  That's Gummo, Lou Levy, Groucho and Harpo in the lower right photo.  

Just ten months earlier they were two Marxes (sans Harpo) and Three Nightingales, here advertised in the Fitchburg (NY) Sentinel of  April 16, 1908.  Apparently, and despite the legend, comedy was a fixture of their act early on, hence the sub-billing as "The Merry Funsters"... or is it "Punsters"?  (Probably not; no Chico yet.)

The titles listed at top were not acts, but the ditties to be featured in the "illustrated songs" portion.  (If not for that last one, I would've been at a complete loss.)

In Harpo Speaks, the "silent" brother's massive autobiography, an otherwise forgotten vaudevillian named Mons Herbert makes a cameo appearance.  Mr. Herbert was evidently prone to wager his meager salary at the card table, which delighted Harpo as the poor fellow had a habit of tipping the quality of his hand by the number of gold teeth he'd flash.  Onstage, according to Harpo, Herbert "blew up a turkey until music came out of its ass."  This, as you can see, is barely hinted at in an ad for Waterloo Iowa's Orpheum bill of March 14, 1911.  (Note too that in this early stage Fun in Hi Skool was also tltled "Skool Goils and Boiz.")

As is well known among Marxologists, Groucho - Julius, actually - was the first of the brothers to appear on stage.  One of his earliest gigs was in support of Lily Seville in something called The Lady and the Tiger.  This ad is from the San Antonio Gazette of January 6, 1906. Although their act is touted as "direct from Paris," Miss Seville and 15-year-old Master Marx are listed among the extra attractions at bottom, just before the illustrated songs and "Kinetograph Views," a pretentious term for "flickers."

My own favorite discovery comes from much later, when the Four Marx Brothers that we're used to seeing traveled to England in May 1922 - a journey that got them blackballed from big time vaudeville because they didn't clear it through the Keith-Orpheum booking office, which itself led indirectly to I'll Say She Is and Broadway stardom. has yielded the brothers' passport photos.  Chico and Groucho are each accompanied by the missus (evidently wives didn't get their own passports in 1922), while bachelors Zeppo and Harpo - the latter looking like he'd been out all night partying before sitting for his picture - are solo.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Revisiting HOOTENANNY in Detail

When it comes to popular culture, I tend to go in cycles.  After completing two books back-to-back about Harry Langdon and Charlie Chaplin, I put aside silent comedy for a spell and went back (or ahead) to the folk era, my first musical love, which naturally led into TV's HOOTENANNY.

Better Living Through Television has visited this series before, and it wouldn't take an analyst too long to discern my fascination with it.  Apart from being one of my earliest TV memories, the music is catchy, the artists are among my favorites in popular music, and it was really the first music series aimed at teens and young adults.  The audience, after all, were undergraduates.  Anyway, in the years since, I've traded audio and video with other collectors.  Having mastered enough of Audacity to speed-correct the digital copies of my dad's audio tapes of the show, as well as combine them with those of a fellow enthusiast, I've been listening to the results while driving to and from work/church/etc.  The more I listen, the more I want to share them with the world.

So now comes a new blog: THE HOOTENANNY CHRONICLES. In this I'll be detailing all 43 episodes, backed up with (mostly) audio clips and a few legal YouTube videos, courtesy of current rights holders.  Its purpose is to settle once and for all the program's legacy.  Was it strictly a showcase for meaningless pap? Did it ever try to say something culturally or politically important (a key component of folk music)?  Did Pete Seeger over-react to Allen & Grier's "Work Song" (a.k.a. "Counterman") when he labeled them "the most tasteless folk act I have ever seen"?

Over the coming months, I'll be addressing those and other questions.  Feel free to check in from time-to-time.