How the Marx Brothers Got Their Nicknames
Today I found out four of the five Marx brothers got their nicknames during a poker game.
The famed Marx family comedy act was made up of Julius, Adolph, Leonard, Milton, and Herbert Marx. But to all of us who know and love this delightful comedy group, we know these five characters better as Groucho, Harpo, Chico, Gummo, and Zeppo Marx, names four of the five were given one fateful night in 1915.
The boys got involved in a poker game in Galesburg, Illinois with monologist Art Fisher. It was a popular fad around this time to give everyone and anyone a nickname that ended in “o”. For instance, common nicknames were things like “Jingo” or “Bongo” or “Ringo” or “Typo” or “Cheerio”. (You get the idea.)
In this poker game, Fisher was dealing out the cards to the four Marx brothers and he gave them each their nicknames in rapid fire. “First, here’s a card for ‘Harpo’.” Harpo was the easiest, Adolph Marx played the harp.
“Here’s one for ‘Chicko’.” Leonard Marx was a notorious ladies’ man and, in those days, women and girls were often referred to as “chickens”. (Later, as now, the slang term became “chicks”, which had actually previously referred to children since the 17th century.) As Groucho later said, Chico got the nickname as he was a “Chicken chaser”.
You might be wondering at this point, why it was later “Chico” instead of “Chicko”. Supposedly, a typesetter accidentally left the “k” in “Chico” out in one town the brothers were performing in, and his name became “Chico” instead. This typo gave rise to the misconception that his name should be pronounced as “cheek-o”, when in fact the correct pronunciation is actually “Chick-o”. Although, Chico rarely corrected people when they pronounced it wrong, even show hosts who’d interview him.
Next to be dealt a card was Julius, “and here’s a card for Groucho”. As to why this nickname was picked, there are two popular explanations and one that for a long time was put forth by Groucho, which few believe. The first is that the name derived from Julius’ not-so-friendly demeanor. Julius denied this for most of his life. The second popular theory is that it had to do with an item he commonly carried with him, a big pouch-type container, popular at the time, called a “grouch bag” (a.k.a. a small purse that goes around your neck and under your shirt), where Groucho kept his money.
The origin story Groucho himself often put forth was that he got the nickname after “Groucho the Monk” from the Knocko the Monk comic strip. However, shortly before he died, Groucho said that he hadn’t been entirely honest about the origin of his name and that Al Fisher had given him the nickname because of a propensity towards moodiness. However, it isn’t clear if this is any more accurate than his “comic strip character” origin story.
The fourth and least-known Marx brother was Milton, “and here’s a card for Gummo”, Fisher said, as he dealt the final Marx brother his card. This one has two popular theories behind it, but the one the family (excepting Harpo) states is correct is that Milton often wore gumshoes (rubber soled shoes), hence the “gummo” moniker. The alternate origin put forth by Harpo is that Gummo was sneaky and would creep up on people like a gumshoe detective. In both cases, the origin is related to the rubber soled gumshoes (where gumshoe detectives got their name).
As to how the fifth Marx brother got his name, that one’s completely up for debate. A few years later, the new straight man and the youngest of the five brothers entered the act, replacing older brother, Gummo. Herbert Marx somehow became the infamous “Zeppo” Marx. Harpo said Zeppo was named in honor of a wild monkey who played on the bars and ran around named “Zippo”. Groucho, on the other hand, said in 1972 that Zeppo was named after the Zeppelin airships.
Bonus Marx Brother Facts:
- There was originally a sixth Marx brother, Manfred or “Mannie”, that would have been the oldest Marx brother, but he died when he was just three months old. His official cause of death was listed as “entero-colitis” (inflammation of the small intestine and colon) with “asthenia” (lack of bodily strength).
- Harpo Marx never got past the second grade, which he attempted twice before dropping out during the second year in that grade. His reasons for leaving were not because he was dumb or the family needed him to make some money, but rather due to bullying. He stated in his autobiography that he was frequently picked on for being the only Jew in the class and was even thrown out the window of the classroom several times by other students when the teacher wasn’t looking, before he decided to drop out of school and began looking for work.
- Harpo played numerous instruments, including the harp. Despite being a very good harp player, Harpo never actually learned to play the harp the correct way. When he got his first harp, nobody in the town he lived in knew how to play one, or even how to tune it. So he just taught himself how to do it, including tuning the strings incorrectly. Once he became famous, he attempted to learn to play the harp correctly, including hiring instructors, but he’d been playing it with the incorrect tuning for so long and had developed a somewhat unique style of playing that in performances, he stuck with his original self taught tuning and method.
- While Harpo’s real name was Adolph, he had it officially changed to “Arthur” in 1911 as he hated the name Adolph. This name change (minus the date he changed it on) has since given rise to the myth that he changed it due to Adolph Hitler.
- Harpo stated in his autobiography that he once tried to paint a nude female model, but couldn’t do it, which resulted in the model trying to teach him the proper way to paint her. Before the session was up, the still nude model painted a portrait of the fully clothed Harpo.
- Another little known Harpo Marx fact is that he is a member of the Croquet Hall of Fame (Yes, there is one). He was inducted into that illustrious institution in 1979, 15 years after his death following open heart surgery.
- The Marx brothers were originally not a comedy act, but rather a music and performance act. In their early days, their mother and Aunt Hannah were also a part of their musical act, titled “The Six Mascots”. They started to realize they could do comedy after a particular performance where supposedly the show was interrupted by a runaway mule outside, which caused the audience to leave briefly. When they came back, the brothers started ad libbing jokes about the incident. The audience was more enthusiastic about the jokes than the Marx brothers’ musical act, and from there the group started to integrate comedy into their show.
- The Marx brothers got their start largely with the help of their mother Miene “Minnie” Schoenberg and her brother Adolph Schoenberg (a.k.a. Al Shean) who was a successful vaudeville performer himself. Minnie and Al’s father had also been a performer, a magician.
- Groucho Marx claimed that occasionally when his uncle Al Shean would visit, before knocking on the door, he’d throw a handful of coins on the ground near him if there were children about. The kids would then run towards him and so when the door was opened, it would appear as if he was being chased by fans.
- In order to try to get her sons out of being drafted for WWI, Minnie supposedly bought a chicken farm as she’d heard that farmers couldn’t be drafted.
- Groucho wasn’t just a jokester when in the spotlight, but also in his own life. For instance, his son Arthur once stated that during one vacation, Groucho listed his occupation as “smuggler” on a customs form. Needless to say, the customs people found this about as amusing as security people at airports would find stating you were a “bomb maker” and they reacted about as you’d expect from his little joke.
- Groucho Marx originally played a completely different character than the one he’d become best known for. In the early days of their comedy act, he’d do a stereotypical German character. Around 1915, his character started to get booed, so he instead developed a quick talking smart Alec type character that he’d continue to use for the majority of his career. (Incidentally, if you’re interested: The Origin of the Term “Smart Alec”)
- Groucho’s famous walk was actually based off a walk that was popular in the late 19th century among well to do youth. In this walk, the person puts their right hand behind their back near their spine. They then turn their body slightly to the side with the left shoulder angled inwards. Next, they’d lean forward and then while they’d walk, they’d swing their left arm. As comedic as this sounds, even Teddy Roosevelt was known for doing this walk in his early days in politics. Groucho simply exaggerated this style of walk to an extreme degree for his on-stage persona.
- Groucho Marx never found out his brother Gummo died before him. When Gummo died in April of 1977, Groucho was going down hill fast and the family worried that if they told Groucho his brother had died, it might kill him. In August of 1977, Groucho kicked the bucket still never having been told his brother was dead.
- The last of the Marx brothers to die, Zeppo, did so in 1979 of lung cancer. Zeppo was never nearly as famous as most of the rest of his brothers, but made millions anyway as he was a great businessman and engineer. Among his many business accomplishments, he designed a wristwatch heart monitor for patients which would set off an alarm if their heart rate slowed to critical levels or stopped. His company was also the one to design and build the clamps that held the Fat Man atomic bomb when it was being delivered aboard the bomber, among many other wartime materials.
- Chico Marx not only was a notorious womanizer, but also couldn’t get enough of gambling, causing him to lose millions of dollars throughout his life and resulted in him having to continue to perform regularly in order to keep a living, even late in his life. The situation became so dire for him that after declaring bankruptcy, the brothers had to get together to make A Night in Casablanca, so that Chico would be able to support himself. In order to make sure that he didn’t waste his earnings anymore, they also took over management of his finances and gave him a regular allowance to assure he’d always be able to support himself.
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