Sunday, January 18, 2015

Speaking of the Marx Brothers...

TONIGHT: America After Dark (NBC, Jan-July 1957) is pretty much regarded as one of television's great disasters.  After Steve Allen and Ernie Kovacs gave up their respective hosting duties of the original TONIGHT! at the end of 1956, NBC's Pat Weaver tried turning it into a nocturnal TODAY show, with news, interviews and on-the-spot reporting of the country's night life, from coast-to-coast.  Unfortunately, most of America had little interest in seeing what celebrities were up to while the rest of us working stiffs prepared to turn in.  Ratings plummeted, and the network opted to get back to the original format of variety and talk, tapping Jack Paar to host.  America After Dark went to that cathode ray graveyard where few have mourned it since.

One segment, however, is hotly desired by classic comedy fans.  Chico Marx of the Marx Brothers had been touring in a play, Sylvia Regan's The Fifth Season, and he and the stock company would appear in Los Angeles beginning Monday evening, February 18.  His four younger brothers, Harpo, Groucho, Gummo and Zeppo, would be in the audience, and NBC arranged for cameras and one of their emcees to be in Chico's dressing room for an informal post-performance reunion.

To date, a kinescope has failed to turn up; all that exists are these five photographs taken during the course of the segment (or perhaps just before/after its telecast).  Considering its plugging by newspaper TV columnists, who ordinarily had no interest in this show, it's entirely possible that someone, somewhere has a reel of audiotape with the soundtrack.  Check your archives, folks!



Frank Cullen said...

I saw a matinee of Fifth Season when it played Boston (c. 1958) at (I think) the theatre in Liberty Mutual Hall on the corner of Boylston & Clarendon Streets at Copley Square. I was about 23 at the time. That night I returned with a postcard-sized photo I had of Chico and Harpo and a short bio from The Boston Globe's entertainment features editor. Of course I was a Marx fanatic and never felt Chico was recognized for his work as a comedian in his own right, as straightman to Harpo and foil to Groucho. Chico's work with his brothers unified the stage relationships. I think Barry Sullivan was part of the truck & station wagon tour. Earlier, while waiting,m I committed a memorable faux pas. Anxious to gab with someone about Chico and the play, I spoke to a fairly young eoman with a dog who was also waiting. She was polite but not interested. A little knowledge is a curse. I knew Chico's daughter was named Maxine. So I asked the pretty woman if she were Maxine. The answer was "no." Embarrassed, I realized it was Mary his second wife. Chico was the last to come out onto the sidewalk, and by then most of the electric light were off. I handed Chico both the photo and the bio sketch and asked him to sign them, explaining he was my favorite comedian. "I don't sign nothing I don't read." He scanned them in the dim light, then said something nice I've forgotten. I watched as she and Mary walked toward the Copley Plaza Hotel, where I presume they were staying. About 70 and not well, Chico had give two fine performances that day (he was an excellent actor; and he spoke in a Yiddish accent). He must have been tired but I didn't know at the time he had arteriosclerosis that made he veer side to side a bit like a chimpanzee.

Anonymous said...

Frank, what a terrific story! Thank you for sharing it here, and I'm sorry it took this long for me to see it!