I’ve been reading Robert Bader’s Marx Brothers biography, Four of the Three Musketeers, serially, a chapter at a time every couple weeks or so. I’m up to chapter nine.
Bader’s focus is on the brothers’ years as vaudeville and stage performers, before they went to Hollywood and broke through as movie stars. Four of the Three Musketeers is a thick book, very dense and exhaustively researched but also beautifully written, fun and funny.
Bader addresses all the myths and contradictions in the brothers’ history and, like any good historian, when a contradiction can’t be resolved conclusively based on the evidence at hand, he leaves it at that. It’s quite possibly one of the best biographies I’ve ever read, and, along with Richard Anobile’s Marx Brothers Scrapbook, the best book I’ve read about them.
The book is packed with great stories, and one of my favorites, which I posted on Facebook a while back, was the story about 9-year-old Gummo’s vaudeville debut in an act with his uncle, Harry Shean. Harry was the brother of Al Shean, who was a successful vaudeville performer; Gummo’s older brother Julius (Groucho) had already succeeded on the stage, so perhaps someone was thinking that success runs in the family.
Unfortunately, Uncle Harry was nearly deaf, and Gummo had a bad stammer. So what was the act they chose to take onstage? A ventriloquist act, of course, with Gummo acting as a fake dummy, “stuffed into a hollow ventriloquist’s dummy with a papier-mâché head.”
According to Gummo, “I operated the mechanical part as well as speaking. Uncle Harry just stood there.”
As Bader writes, “A deaf ventriloquist with a stammering fake dummy wouldn’t seem to have much chance for success.” And a fake ventriloquist would get booed off the stage, so, to “prove” to the audience that the dummy was “real,” Gummo put both legs down into one pantsleg of the dummy; the other leg was stuffed with sawdust, and Uncle Harry would jab a long pin into the stuffed leg. When the dummy didn’t scream or jump, the audience would know that it was “real.”
So one night, early in the act’s history, Uncle Harry raised the pin and jabbed it down into the dummy’s leg… except… he jabbed it into the wrong leg.
Gummo screamed and jumped from his uncle’s lap.
And that was the end of their ventriloquist act.