It was a dark and stormy night. Seriously.
If memory serves me right, it was December 1972. I was a senior in high school and a veteran Marx Brothers fan for oh, about four whole years. My love affair with Les Fréres Marx started in 1968 when my brother slipped a copy of the paperback edition of The Marx Bros. at the Movies by Paul D. Zimmerman and Burt Goldblatt into my Christmas stocking. It was our family tradition to dive into our stockings on Christmas Eve, saving the orgy of ransacking presents until the following morning. While I loved books (especially as presents!), I had no idea why this strange little book was a stocking stuffer. My brother told me to wait a bit and I would find out, and lo and behold I did. That night I was treated to both Duck Soup and A Night at the Opera on one of the New York City TV stations we got on cable TV. By the time Christmas Eve became Christmas Day, I was a confirmed, dyed-in-the-wool Marxist.
Numerous Marx movie marathons came my way and I eagerly grabbed every other Marx book I could find. One summer vacation trip to Atlantic City (pre-gambling Mecca), we bought Son of Groucho (by Arthur Marx), and script books for A Night at the Opera, A Day at the Races, and a twofer, Duck Soup and Horse Feathers, together in one book. Marx Brothers books in the early 1970s were a cottage industry onto themselves; they included Richard J. Anobile’s film photo collections featuring stills and dialogue from the actual movies, (Why a Duck? and Hooray for Captain Spaulding!) plus his Marx Brothers Scrapbook, which caused quite a stir because it featured a long interview with Groucho, who came off more like Dirty Old Man Groucho.
All of this caused a bit of a renaissance for Groucho, the only remaining brother. Chico and Harpo had both died in the early 1960s, and Zeppo had retired after Duck Soup to pursue a career as a Hollywood agent. Groucho flourished as a solo act in the 1950s and ‘60s with his TV game show You Bet Your Life and numerous appearances on talk shows such as The Tonight Show and The Dick Cavett Show. Buoyed along by this resurgence of interest in his career, eighty-something Groucho, along with a pushy new manager/ companion in his life by the name of Erin Fleming, embarked on a series of one-man shows where he reminisced about his career. The stage shows started in Ames, Iowa at Iowa State University on April 29, 1972, followed by an appearance at famed Carnegie Hall in New York City on May 6. He appeared again at the Masonic Auditorium in San Francisco on August 11, but had to cancel a Los Angeles appearance scheduled for September 24 because he suffered a stroke, a fact kept hidden by “manager” Fleming. The plan all along was to release an album of the one-man show, but the quality of Groucho’s appearances differed wildly from show to show, with the San Francisco one being deemed the best of the bunch. So the decision was made to produce an album that took the best bits from each show.
Now, back to that dark and stormy night. I don’t know how I found out about An Evening with Groucho, the album that eventually came out at the tail end of 1972 and that had the venerable movie, radio and TV star sitting in the Billboard Top 100 list for 15 weeks alongside contemporary pop stars such as Rod Stewart, Elton John, Cat Stevens, and the unbelievably talented Partridge Family. But I somehow knew about it and I called my hometown record store, House of Wax, late one evening, close to their closing time, and sure enough, they had a copy in stock. The weather outside was frightful: A major snowstorm was developing and temperatures were falling as fast as the winds were blowing. I remember my mother asking just where I thought I was going and I told her I’d be right back, I just wanted to run out and grab an album at House of Wax before they closed.
The storm was relentless and I remember thinking how incredibly stupid this was but it didn’t stop me. I made it the half-mile or so out to the record store, walking up Broad Street, Tamaqua’s main drag, and back, with my treasure—it cost, if I remember correctly—$5.99 (it was a double album), wrapped in a thin brown paper bag, nestled under my winter coat. Walking back home was even tougher as it was into the wind and the snow was starting to accumulate.
I made it home and went upstairs to listen to my new purchase on my brother’s stereo system and I was enthralled. This was a Groucho I had never heard before, telling stories from his 70-year career. Yes, he was old and feeble, and yes, you heard it in his voice. He was in the third part of what I have since called the “Three Stages of Groucho.” To be honest, there are more than three stages, but at the time I divided his life into “Movie Groucho,” “TV Groucho,” and “Old Groucho.” This was definitely the latter, but somehow it affected me the most. Maybe it was knowing his time on earth was bound to be limited at this point (he died five years later, in 1977, just days after Elvis Presley died at age 42 … I mention this because Groucho’s long slide into death—involving a particularly vicious fight over his care and estate between son Arthur Marx and the fore-mentioned Ms. Fleming—couldn’t compete, news-wise, with The King’s untimely death on the crapper). Maybe it was the fact that this Old Groucho was just a shadow of the original witty dynamo I had fallen in love with. Hell, at this point, he was a shadow of his early 1970s talk show appearances. But I loved this album and I played it to death.
Flash forward to now, no dark and stormy nights, no blizzards, at least not here in San Diego. I long ago had gotten rid of my vinyl copy of An Evening with Groucho, but everything old is new again. Vinyl is back, baby, and portable turntables are all the rage, so naturally I got one. I have a small collection of LPs, mainly soundtracks and some special editions. A couple of weeks ago, I listened to a podcast on An Evening with Groucho. For the most part it was less than enjoyable, but it got me interested in hearing the album once again, just to see how it compared with my memories and the less-than-stellar thoughts of the podcasters. I found a copy on eBay for a reasonable price—unopened since it was manufactured!—and bought it and I just listened to it the other day.
First off, Groucho sounds better than I remember. Sure, he’s old. He has a definite problem with time and dates. He talks about something that clearly took place during World War I and he refers to it as 30 years ago, which would place it during World War II from 1972. And he sounds most feeble when he sings, which is really a shame, since Groucho loved to sing. Some of the songs he sings on this album are total nonsense songs by the great Harry Ruby, My favorite is “Father’s Day”:
Today, Father, is Father’s Day.
And we’re giving you a tie.
It’s not much, we know,
It’s just our way of showing you
We think you’re a regular guy.
You say that it was nice of us to bother.
But it really was a pleasure to fuss
For according to our mother
You’re our father,
And that’s good enough for us.
Here’s Groucho himself singing it on The Dick Cavett Show.
On the album, Groucho is introduced by Dick Cavett (at the Carnegie Hall performance) and accompanied on the piano by Marvin Hamlisch, before he won Oscars for both The Sting and The Way We Were. Turns out he was Erin Fleming’s boyfriend at the time. Groucho chastises him a few times for little bits of showy music-making, but Hamlisch’s piano intro, before Cavett comes out, is masterful and worth listening to, since it combines a number of famous Marx movie songs.
Groucho tells stories in a weird sort of order, not in any sort of logical chronological progression, almost like he had a stack of index cards that somehow get mixed up. You can hear Erin Fleming singing the Margaret Dumont part in “Hello, I Must Be Going,” and she sounds like a giant show-biz ham. There’s a lot of controversy around Fleming, who disappeared after Groucho died. On one hand, she got Groucho out there, in front of the public and on the other hand, she got Groucho out there, in front of the public. Maybe it was time for Groucho to stay home when he was in his 80s. There were also rumors about elder abuse with a number of witnesses. Groucho’s final days became quite a mess, and that’s sad.
An Evening with Groucho is still a fun listen, and an important part of my teenage years, so I’m glad I reconnected with it. You can listen to the complete album on YouTube, just search “An Evening with Groucho,” if you’re interested. It runs about an hour and ten minutes.