Monday, August 9, 2010

The World Has Nacogdoches Texas To Thank For The Marx Brothers

Very early in the last century, some say it was 1907, some say it happened as late as 1917, but, regardless of the imprecision regarding the date, it is fairly universally acknowledged that an event occurred in Nacogdoches out in the Piney Woods Region of East Texas, that turned the Marx Brothers into their own special brand of improvised comic genius.

Before the Marx Brothers got to Texas they'd been just one more Vaudeville act, with their main focus being on music, with a few lame jokes thrown in.

And then in the middle of a matinee performance in the Nacogdoches Opera House and Theater, someone ran into the theater, interrupting the Marx Brothers performance, to shout the news that a runaway mule was rampaging down the street in front of the theater.

The theater emptied as the locals went to watch the spectacle of the runaway mule. The Marx Brothers followed. Eventually the locals made it back to their seats.

Groucho was now very grouchy. To vent his aggravation Groucho started making fun of Nacogdoches and its boorish, provincial people. Groucho had broken totally from their canned performance and was in full ad lib mode. The Marx Brothers as the world came to know them were born.

Groucho continued into his next song. A sentimental one that had previously contained one of their most important dramatic moments. But, this time Groucho changed the lyrics. He sang, "Nacogdoches is full of roaches." The aggravation diffused, and now having fun butchering one of their songs, at the next pause Groucho said, "The jack-ass is the finest flower of Tex-ass."

The Texans were not insulted, instead they loved it. The Marx Brothers were a hit. This event was so memorable, in Nagodoches history, that an historical marker, commemorating the start of the Marx Brothers, is in downtown Nacogdoches at the site of the opera house and theater.

In 1826 the Fredonia uprising rebelled against Mexico and set up the Republic of Fredonia in the territory surrounding Nacogdoches. Years later, in 1933, the Marx Brothers paid homage to Nacogdoches in their movie Duck Soup, naming the mythical kingdom in the movie, Freedonia.

Now, I have never found the Marx Brothers movies all that funny. And Groucho's adlibs that launched the Marx Brothers seem a bit mediocre to me. But, Groucho, later, solo, was very funny, like on You Bet Your Life, where his ad lib mastery was famously on display. And in interviews, like with Dick Cavett.

Groucho Marx was a very funny guy. And we have Texas to thank for aggravating Groucho enough to release his inner funny man.


paul said...

Nagodoches, Tx., I half suspect, is today, a fairly straight laced town out in the piney woods of southeast Texas. I can only imagine what it was like in the early 1900's. It's surprising knowing the Marx Brothers once played a show there and it's also surprising they took Groucho's verbal upbraiding with such good humor.

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Justin Koenig said...

Being from Nacogdoches, I would like to say that yes some of our peoples put out a straight laced front. However, it is a fairly mentally liberated town and one would be hard pressed not to find persons with humor and depth.
Long live the spirit of Nacoroaches and Groucho Marx!