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Marxmen: Remembering the Marx Brotherhood

I mostly remember the frozen streets. I lived in south Minneapolis, and the meetings were held in Murphy Hall on the University of Minnesota campus, so getting home meant a late-night bus transfer and, invariably, a long wait in an unheated bus shelter downtown. I’d pull my fingers in from their separate glove slots to warm them, do an occasional jig, pray that those headlights in the distance were the headlights of my bus, the 18G, then pray again that the man walking down Nicollet Avenue shouting to himself would keep walking—that he wouldn’t see me standing there alone, an Edward Hopper figure dressed by Dick Guindon, and mess with me. It was 1979. I was 16, and the fear of being messed with was all over my face: a beacon to crazies everywhere.

The irony was that I was coming from a gathering celebrating the craziest men ever put on film.

The Marx Brotherhood was formed in 1976 by Jay Hopkins, a junior at the University of Minnesota, to honor Groucho, Harpo, Chico, sometimes Zeppo, and once-upon-a-time Gummo—Minnie’s boys, vaudevillians who had conquered Broadway in the 1920s and Hollywood in the ’30s.

Initially Hopkins wanted to start a local chapter of the national Marx Brothers fan club; then he discovered there was no national fan club. So he started his own. In Marxian: He had a good mind to form a club and beat himself over the head with it.

That there was no fan club in the mid-1970s made some sense: The Marx Brothers’ film career ended with a whimper nearly 30 years earlier with Love Happy, their 13th movie. But it also made no sense. The Marx Brothers had never been more popular than they were in the ’70s, a decade in which their irreverent humor—authority mocked, girls chased—fit the mood of a country where the revolution was sexual and the president was Nixon. For a time, everyone from Hawkeye Pierce to the Jackson 5 to kids on McDonald’s commercials duckwalked and waggled an air cigar.

The first Marx Brothers movie I saw was one of the last they made, A Night in Casablanca, from 1946, which my older brother and I watched one Friday night on WCCO-TV’s “Comedy and Classics,” hosted by John Gallos. I was 10, and their appeal was immediate. The world was full of dull phonies and lousy schemers, then the Marx Brothers burst on the scene and upended everything. They popped the pretensions in the room. While most of the other characters looked normal but felt fake, the Marxes were obviously fake—a bewigged mute with a trench coat full of tricks (Harpo), a piano player with a two-bit Italian accent (Chico), and a wiseass with a greasepaint moustache (Groucho)—but they had an air of authenticity about them. They were always themselves.

So I was already a fan when my father, the movie critic for the Minneapolis Tribune, wrote about the Marx Brotherhood in March 1978 for the Sunday entertainment section. At the next meeting, honoring Chico’s 91st birthday, Dad was the club’s guest of honor, and I went with him to Murphy Hall. The brotherhood met in a small room filled with a dozen rows of metal folding chairs, a movie projector at one end and a collapsible movie screen at the other. When Jay Hopkins, in his prefatory remarks, complimented the article and introduced my father, who half-raised himself in his seat, acknowledging the applause with a held-up hand, I twisted myself into knots of embarrassment beside him.

Somehow I got my ninth-grade friend Nathan to join the group with me, and we became its only high school members.

Nathan was tall and skinny with thin, brown hair parted in the middle, deep circles under his frog eyes, a gap-toothed overbite, and a wicked sense of humor. Instead of signing my yearbook with the usual comments (“You’re funny! See you next year”), he filled the middle two pages with a long disquisition on stewed prunes. I can still see him: eyes gleaming, tongue emerging from his half-smile as he broke down another absurdity of life. I was held back by politeness—and by a desire, certainly in high school, to fit in with all the dull phonies and lousy schemers. He didn’t give a shit. He knew the world was wider.

To be honest, I’m not sure why Nathan and I were friends. We had similar tastes but different sensibilities. After one meeting, instead of that bus ride through downtown Minneapolis, I got a ride home from his mother. While we waited for her on a side street near the University, Nathan lit matches and watched them burn. When his mother showed up he kept doing it. I made nervous noises and indicated his mom with a head-bob. He looked at me like I was crazy. His expression said: Can I buy back my introduction to you?

The brotherhood met monthly and showed one or two of the Marxes’ 13 films along with an extra something: an episode of You Bet Your Life, Groucho’s quiz show from the 1950s, or Harpo re-creating the mirror scene with Lucille Ball on a 1955 episode of I Love Lucy. Once, a contest was held to see who could do the best “gookie,” Harpo’s trademark facial expression, in which tongue is curled, cheeks ballooned, and eyes crossed. A St. Paul Pioneer Press reporter showed up on “Salute to the Moustache Night,” which is how the brotherhood, with Nathan and I front and center, holding cigars and wearing greasepaint moustaches, got splashed across the front page of the Twin Cities’ other newspaper.

But 13 movies doesn’t allow for much variation, particularly when five of the films were subpar and the extra somethings were often tinged with sadness: Chico and Harpo, faces sagging with age, seeming trapped by their absurd wigs and clothes. At least Groucho, on You Bet Your Life, eschewed the greasepaint moustache for the real salt-and-pepper variety and came across as a dapper old man with a twinkle in his eye.

But the humor on his show was forced. Everyone waited for Groucho to be Groucho, but there was no stuffed shirt, no Sig Ruman character, to be affronted. The contestants, often drab middle-class Americans, wanted to be insulted. They waited to be insulted. “Oh, Groucho,” they’d say afterwards, pleased. This always cracked Nathan up. Not the fact that the contestants were glad to be insulted, but that they called this dapper old man Groucho. To be born Julius but to be known, at 65, as Groucho—Nathan loved that.

Eventually Nathan and I drifted away from the brotherhood. I’d get a flyer in the mail and think, “All that way? To watch The Big Store again?” VCRs didn’t help. By 1982, the brotherhood was no more.

Eventually Nathan and I drifted away from each other too. I did my best to blend in, and Nathan did his best to stand out. For “Senior Slave Day” at Washburn High School, in which freshmen were assigned their own seniors, like us, who had to wear crazy clothes and carry their books and do whatever they said, I wore the traditional suit jacket over shorts. Nathan turned up in a metallic jumpsuit, 3-D glasses, and slicked-back hair.

“What’s this?” I asked when we bumped into each other in the hallway.

“Devo,” he said.

I laughed, but Nathan wasn’t joking.

“You like them?” I asked, incredulous.

“You don’t?” he answered back.

For the midyear talent show, Nathan fronted a band, War Movie, which performed a song that was loud, long, and dissonant. I had no idea what he was doing anymore. But he did: After graduation he went to Northwestern, changed his name to Nash Kato, and started another band, Urge Overkill, which had some success in the mid-1990s. He and his bandmates wore all white clothes with big belt buckles. They looked fake but had an air of authenticity about them.

The Marx Brothers thrived in the 1970s, in that brief period between the ascendancy of the humorless left (and its flirtation with anarchy) and the ascendancy of the humorless right (and its flirtation with libertarianism), when the country didn’t know what to believe in. There the Marx Brothers were, believing in nothing (“those are my principles, and if you don’t like them, well, I have others”).

I had assumed the Marx Brothers would stay near the center of our culture, but they’re marginal figures now (or again), relatively unknown to people in their 20s. A young colleague pleaded ignorance about them, then did a Google search that revealed it: She searched for the “March brothers.”

I ran into Nathan once more, in the late ’80s, at a show at 7th Street Entry in downtown Minneapolis. I had recently returned from a year abroad, in Taipei, and he and his band, struggling in Chicago, were giving Minneapolis a try. We spent the night party hopping. Nathan, eyes amused, tongue protruding from his half-smile, did what he always did. He picked apart the proceedings. He popped the pretensions in the room. He made me laugh so hard I could hardly breathe.

—Originally published in the Winter 2011 issue of Minnesota, a publication of the University of Minnesota Amumni Association