(A young Harpo, Zeppo, Chico and Groucho Marx)
You can blame this whole thing on Randy Baumann.
I can’t even remember, honestly, how DVE’s Randy Baumann and I got on the topic of our mutual love for Barry Manilow.
Wait. That’s not right.
I mean our mutual love for The Marx Brothers.
My adoration of those geniuses stems from my father, who would spend each New Year’s Eve putting on a Marx Brothers Movie Marathon in the basement for me and my sisters. No, we weren’t going out to party until midnight. No, we weren’t dealing with the drunks on the road. Instead, we five girls were safely tucked on the couch, wrapped in blankets, eating popcorn he popped on the stove, and we were watching Duck Soup (I think I saw that one a dozen times), A Day at the Races, or, my favorite, The Big Store.
And we would laugh. Uproariously. My father would do that silent, wheezing, red-faced laugh.
Harpo continuously handing his leg to unsuspecting people who would look down to find themselves holding it at the knee.
Groucho’s low-walk and eye-rolling.
Chico’s pointing and shooting of the high notes on the piano.
THE ROLLER SKATING.
So yeah, we were dorks who never partied on New Year’s Eve, but I guarantee those evenings spent with my father, my sisters, and The Marx Brothers were just as memorable as anything you’ve done on January 31 of any year.
Randy sort of reignited the Marx Brothers spark in me. Suddenly I was watching Marx Brothers movies again, except instead of viewing them on a VHS tape played on a rented Giant Eagle VCR, I was streaming them from Amazon. And I’m reading about these guys too. Three books right now. Two about Harpo, and one about Groucho.
My point is … my latest obsession is my renewed love for the Marx Brothers.
So for some reason today, a reason I will never know, I Googled “Marx Brothers Pittsburgh.”
And SHUT. UP.
In 1907 Chico Marx at the age of 20 was transferred to Pittsburgh by the Shapiro and Bernstein Company to manage their music store at 302 Fifth Avenue near the corner of Wood Street. In the days before radio and phonographs popular songs were sold in the form of sheet music. To promote sheet music sales “song pluggers” sang the tunes for customers. Chico hired the song pluggers and accompanied them on piano. Downtown Pittsburgh music shopper were treated daily to the crazy piano antics of Chico Marx. — From Pittsburgh Music History.
Are you even kidding me?! Any shopper in 1907 could have wandered up Fifth and found themselves listening to 20-year-old Chico Marx pounding away at the piano?!
I sob for the lack of a time machine.
I was determined to find a picture of the music store via my usual history sleuthing methods, but I came up empty. This is where the store would have been:
Update! It looks the this would have been the storefront in this photo taken between 1900 and 1915 and found by @lls_1219 on Twitter:
Click here to go to the original photo and be sure to embiggen it for LOTS of awesome stuff to see.
This is from Chico’s 1961 obituary:
This this from a 1949 Post-Gazette story:
Not only all of that, but Chico’s wife was from Pittsburgh, and he met her here.
Chico joined the Marx Brothers in 1912. They toured the country in a play written by their uncle Al Shean entitled “Home Again.” Appearing in Pittsburgh in 1914 Chico was visited back stage by singer Sophie Miller who had worked for him as a song plugger at Shapiro and Bernstein’s music store. Sophie brought along her 16 year old friend Betty Karp. Chico flirted with the attractive young Betty until she agreed to go out with him that evening. Leary of the older musician, Chico was 27, she stood him up.
Three years later the Marx Brothers were playing a show in Brooklyn. Betty Karp, now 19, made her way back stage to visit her one time acquaintance Chico. On seeing Betty Chico said “You’re the little girl who stood me up in Pittsburgh”. Their romance blossomed quicky and they married on March 17, 1917.
Now, I get that some of you out there might not know much, or anything about the Marx Brothers.
So here is a classic:
And here is Chico’s unique style of playing the piano:
History. It’s so easy to put it to the side — to look at it as if it’s all marble statues and black and white photographs, or simply words that died on a page.
These are flesh and blood people who lived life in color and if you start looking at it that way, you too will want nothing more than a chance to stroll down Fifth Avenue in 1907 to happen upon a young Chico Marx entertaining a lunchtime crowd with “The Entertainer.”
Anyway, point of this post — Chico Marx was a Burgher.