He sounded like a terrorist on the phone. "Groucho is going to die tonight," he said, feeling as utterly ambiguous about that
prognosis as I did. It was August 18, 1977 and he was wrong. Groucho didn't die until the following day.
The caller was a friend who shared my fascination and interest in the man born Julius but known ubiquitously as Groucho Marx. And
this was no fanatic, faddist cult we were part of, not a chance. We were but two of the many who have seen and relished Marx Brothers movies
and come away, able to parrot, verbatim, chunks of Groucho patter.
We were all saddened at the cessation of Groucho, though perhaps not with the timing. Those of us who saw the man in his later
years were saddened by his deterioration. Old age is poignant in many ways but it was notably sorrowful in a man famed for his rapier
wit. Always so quick, always so clever, the words now came slowly and painfully for Groucho and they were usually words uttered before and with
(Is there no spectacle more woebegone than a great man within spitting distance of being declared Past Tense? Stan Laurel, in his
declining years, wisely eschewed public appearance in the face of exorbitant offers. He wanted the last remembrance of Stan Laurel to be of the
vague little man, eyes epoxied half-shut, juxtaposed with Oliver Norvell Hardy, not of an old man who couldn't recognize the time to get off the
Groucho's death was, of course, expected. Earlier that same week, not so expected, Elvis Presley had died. When Elvis
expired, all three TV networks quickly cobbled up "Man and the Legend" specials to air that very night. If you tuned in any (they were all the
same) you heard people who were fourteen when "Heartbreak Hotel" hit — or perhaps sixteen for "Return to Sender" — talk about how Elvis
had changed their lives.
Okay, so maybe he did. Then Groucho died and all us Marx fans waited for similar specials. Surely, considering the number
of times he had recently been shunted to and from hospitals, there were documentaries all racked up to go: Reels of career retrospect to be aired
along with celebrity reactions and details of the passing. So we waited.
The Tonight Show started right on time despite the fact that John Davidson was guest-hosting and delaying him a half-hour
scarcely needs much of a reason. A week or two later, ABC — with no advance ballyhoo at all — trotted out a quickie with Dick
Cavett hosting old clips.
(Though I suppose we should be satisfied; when each of the original Three Stooges died — not that they're in quite the same
category as Groucho — the networks took no note at all. One of the Los Angeles stations, upon the death of Larry Fine, did a little
mini-obit within its regular newscast in which they interviewed Moe Howard. Moe was in tears, his lower lip trembling as he spoke of how he had
lost his best friend, Larry. They cut directly from this to a vintage clip of Moe smashing crockery in his best friend's face and ripping
handfuls of hair from his best friend's head. A few months later when Moe died, they simply replayed both segments. Grisly.)
It was all a bit disconcerting, I suppose, because Groucho Marx had meant a lot in a lot of our lives. What follows are a few of
his intersections with mine.
Let's change her name to Pauline because I've never known a girl named Pauline. She was very, very pretty in a way that could set
your gonads registering Ten on the Richter scale. And I wanted to go out with her. Boy, did I want to go out with her. She had been
seated next to me in my Physiology class back in High School and I'd had a hard time learning anything because of the proximity of Pauline's
And now here it was a few years later and we were both in college, though not — for the good of my academic standing — in
any of the same classes. I wasn't certain that she remembered me so it was hard to summon up the chutzpah to approach her on campus.
I had opportunities by the fleet rate: Every day, I saw her walking around, usually alone. It would be of little danger to just
stroll up to her, ever so nonchalantly, and strike up some wondrous reminiscence over our mutual frog-dissection. But still...
Has there never been the man with enough fortitude to risk failure even when he knows it won't hurt too badly? I mean, what was I
risking by striking up a conversation with the lady in question? A smidgen of my ego, already stockpiled in quantity? "What," I asked
myself, "is the worst that can happen?"
I thought for a second and answered myself: "She could scream and start throwing heavy objects at you." No, I didn't think that
was possible. Still, I was hesitant. Always, there's that mental leash that, as soon as you say I'll do it, says No, you
won't. Every time in my life that I've ignored that leash, no matter what it was preventing me from doing, and pressed onward, it has
turned out to the good for me. But it's there and sometimes we all let it restrain us.
That's why we love watching Groucho: There's nothing he won't do. He'll accost any woman with the most salacious of overtures and
the ones not worth accosting, he'll insult. In A Night at the Opera, when a pompous official is about to read what promises to be
pompous — and long — speech, Groucho merely steps up and makes confetti of it and that ends that. Wouldn't we all like the nerve to
be so brazen?
In Duck Soup, newly-installed as the President of Freedonia, he earnestly and openly promises to get the country into war, raise
taxes, and make certain that anything anyone enjoys will be promptly banned. Who, apart from Walter Mondale, has ever declared such a
platform? Before that, in Horse Feathers, he is a college dean who steadfastly vows to eliminate all vestiges of learning. No one
in all of moviedom ever got to a point so quickly.
Finally, I decided to lay my tremulous self-esteem on the line and approach the fair Pauline. The very next time I spotted her on
campus, I swallowed hard and advanced.
I saw her walk into the campus cafeteria and the residue of Cowardice within me demanded that I make it look like a chance
encounter. Circling around to another door, I emerged into the seating area just as Pauline was coming out of the cafeteria line with a tray of
Jell-O and yogurt. "Well," said I through a Niagara of Flop Sweat, "Fancy meeting you here!"
She seemed to have no objection to my sharing her table so I sat down and launched into my wittiest repartee. She laughed at the
jokes. She even laughed at the straight lines. Today, I know better and shun such women as if they have bubonic plague. Back then,
I was eighteen and not so discerning.
One of the things she laughed at was when I mentioned the Alps and then said "And the lord Alps those that Alp themselves." Then,
giving credit where due, I added, "That's from Horse Feathers, with the Marx Brothers, of course."
"I've never seen the film," Pauline replied.
"Well," I said, "it may not be as good as A Night at the Opera, but it's certainly a good film."
"I've never seen that one, either."
"How about Duck Soup?" I asked.
"Never saw that one."
"Day at the Races?"
"Monkey Business?" I acted horrified at this life-pattern that was emerging. "Surely, you've at least seen Monkey
"I've never seen any Marx Brothers movie," she said.
I did about four minutes on how she was missing out on one of life's great experiences (I think I even added "besides me, of
course." I was really spreading the Bandini around that day). I finally got around to remarking, "Say, I think the Encore Theatre is
showing a couple of good Marx Brothers films this week."
I was still maintaining this conversation on a purely platonic plateau which, in addition to being tough to enunciate is also much
safer when you're not certain if she's married/engaged/dating a gorilla/whatever. I said, "Tell your boyfriend to take you to see them."
Then I began silently praying that she would say, "I don't have a boyfriend at the moment."
Pauline said, "I don't have a boyfriend at the moment." Heaven.
I wish I could give this whole story a happy ending, especially in light of how morose this article will be getting. Pauline and
I were an item for a few months but we didn't get married and have four kids named Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Zeppo. It would make a nice
ending but it just didn't happen. Sorry.
The Dorothy Chandler Pavilion is part of the Music Center complex in downtown Los Angeles and that's where Groucho performed his
one-man show (one man plus Erin Fleming and Marvin Hamlisch, it turned out). The gala event was scheduled for months earlier but Groucho took
ill and the whole soiree was delayed.
In the interim, we Marx fans waited — anxious at the notion of perhaps our only chance to ever see him in person. We
consoled ourselves by listening to the A&M recording of Groucho's show at Carnegie Hall in New York. On the record, Groucho sounded pretty
good; coherent, though a bit hoarse.
Then came the night of the December 11, 1972. I went to the theatre with my friend Robert Solomon, a soul of similar
Grouchomania. I did not take my then-current girlfriend Karen, whom I had roped with much the same ploy used on Pauline. Karen was not
pleased by my going with Robert.
The evening was a success and then it wasn't. Groucho received an endless cascade of ovations, usually standing. But the
audience, outwardly applauding, was inwardly cringing. Groucho was very old and his show consisted of him standing at a podium. Why he
wasn't sitting, I don't know, but his promoters sprang for exactly no scenery or props.
He stood there and read card after card of anecdotes, sometimes breezing from one to the next with no notice that a laugh was supposed
to come between stories. At one point, he read a card introducing a film clip, then continued right on into a story about something else.
His secretary-manager-companion Erin Fleming hustled out from the wings to force him into a chair, saying, "We're going to show A Night at the
Groucho muttered, "But I've already seen it," triggering an immense laugh at the one and only ad-lib of the evening.
Later, he stopped in mid-anecdote to request that his piano player (a then-unknown Marvin Hamlisch) do his Johnny Mathis
impression. Hamlisch was startled, but, realizing it was Groucho's way of asking for a break, he launched into the imitation. When Mr.
Marx tried to perform "Lydia, the Tattooed Lady," Hamlisch had to prompt him on many of the lines, helping him along the way a third-grade teacher
might coach a pupil who had blanked on the poem he was supposed to memorize and recite.
Since this song had been in Groucho's repertoire for more than thirty years, the audience couldn't help but feel cold chills at the
lapse. I think, if there had been a tactful way of stopping the show and polling those present on whether they wanted Groucho to continue or to
be taken home and put to bed, the vote would have been unanimous for bed.
Instead, we all pretended that nothing was amiss and applauded Groucho long and loud. It was the greatest bit of acting I have
ever seen performed by an audience.
During the show, movie cameras positioned throughout the star-packed house filmed Groucho's attempts and the audience
reverberations. The film was supposed to wind up as a special for television, we heard. But it never did and it's not hard to guess
On the way out, Robert and I glimpsed George Burns getting into a limousine. We noted that — and could understand why
— he was not lingering about, going backstage to congratulate the star. Years later, when I met Mr. Burns, I mentioned that evening to
"I'm known as a great liar," he said. "Everyone in show business knows it. I can see the worst show in the world and go
backstage and say, 'You killed 'em! You were terrific!'"
He paused and added, "But even I couldn't pull it off that night."
I thought at the time that was as close as I was ever going to get to the One, the Only Groucho...and, given his age, I guess I thought
the balcony of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion was close enough. But then one day, I was lolling around the brunch buffet at Hillcrest Country
Club and —
Oops. I don't have room to tell that story this week. Meet you back here in seven days for the conclusion.
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