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This is an undated photo of the Marx Brothers. Left to right, Chico, Groucho, Harpo and Zeppo. Gummo left the act before the brothers took their shtick to the movie screens. / Associated Press

RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. -- A resident recalled driving down a road near Tamarisk Country Club here in the 1960s and seeing the one, the only Groucho Marx on a bicycle.

Looking back at the zany, anarchic Marx Bros. act, launched with their well-known stage names 100 years ago this spring, it's hard to believe the leering, acerbic Groucho and his siblings led relatively normal, domestic lives in Rancho Mirage from the 1940s through the 1970s.

Groucho, Harpo, Gummo and Zeppo Marx all had homes at Tamarisk. Along with their eldest brother, Chico, they golfed, played cards and enjoyed the sun - Harpo often in the nude.

Chico, the only brother who didn't own a desert home, was the group's womanizer. His nephews still tell tales of his pursuit of showgirls.

"He was backstage kissing one of the girls in the show when his wife walked in," said Bob Marx, son of Gummo. "She went over to him and said, 'What were you doing kissing that girl?' He said, 'I wasn't kissing that girl... I was whispering in her mouth.' "

Gummo died in Rancho Mirage in 1977 and Zeppo, who married the future Barbara Sinatra, died there in 1979. But, because Chico, Groucho and Harpo are the best known, Harpo's son, Bill, and the late Songwriters Hall of Fame co-founder Howie Richmond formed the nonprofit CGH Society to celebrate their centennial in the city that has declared itself the society's official home.

New York City will celebrate the 100th anniversary with a month-long "Marxfest" in May, but Andy Marx, Groucho's grandson, said the Rancho Mirage event March 22-23 will be a rare get-together of the extended Marx family. Besides Andy, Bill and Bob Marx, Barbara Sinatra and Harpo's daughter, Minnie Marx, are expected to attend the weekend celebration at the Rancho Mirage Public Library.

CGH advisory board member Paul Krassner, a Desert Hot Springs-based satirist who introduced Groucho to LSD - at Groucho's request - in the 1960s, said he inspired Krassner's stand-up comedy.

"The Marx Bros.' movies consisted of slapstick, sarcasm, ridicule and, most of all, absurdity in action," said Krassner. "They exuded an aura of irreverence - their only sacred cow - inspiring stand-up comedians and sit-down satirists alike.

"Groucho would often pop up in my performances. I would find myself delivering an especially appropriate observation while wiggling my eyebrows, crouching forward, speaking with his attitude and rhythm, and tapping the ashes off an imaginary cigar. "

Origins

The story goes that Leonard, Adolph, Julius and Milton Marx got their nicknames - Chico, Harpo, Groucho and Gummo, respectively - in 1914 while playing poker with vaudevillian Art Fisher in Galesburg, Ill. Gus Mager had a popular comic strip then called "Sherlocko the Monk" and Fisher gave each brother a nickname related to their personalities.

Chico (pronounced Chick-o) chased women, Harpo played the Harp, Gummo wore gumshoes and Groucho wore a "grouch" bag around his neck to keep his money and personal items.

There are two versions of why the youngest brother, Herbert, was nicknamed Zeppo. Harpo said in his autobiography Harpo Speaks! he was named after an acrobatic chimpanzee named Zippo. Barbara Sinatra said in her autobiography, Lady Blue Eyes: My Life With Frank, that Zeppo was named after World War I zeppelins, which Groucho also said at his 1972 Carnegie Hall concert.

Groucho actually started in show biz in 1905, at age 14, when he answered an ad in the old New York World to sing with a vaudeville group called the Leroy Trio. Groucho's uncle, Harry Shean, brother of a vaudeville star, soon recruited Gummo for a singing act. But his mother, Minnie, decided he and Groucho should perform together. Harpo was added to their act in 1910 and was encouraged to become a silent comedian. Chico joined around 1914 as a pianist.

Gummo later left the act to join the military.

"At that time the government was conscripting one member of a family and he felt he was the least needed in the act," said Bob Marx. "The act was changing from a song-and-dance act, where he was the star, into a comedy act with a lot of lines. He wasn't comfortable with that, so that's when he made it his business to join the Army."

Zeppo replaced Gummo and the boys went on to make the hit Broadway musicals, I'll Say She Is and Cocoanuts. They turned the latter into a sound movie by filming on Long Island during the day and doing another Broadway musical, Animal Crackers, at night.

By the 1930s, the Marx Bros. were Hollywood's hottest comedy team - significantly more advanced than Laurel & Hardy, Abbott & Costello and the Three Stooges.

Revolutionary humor

"Their form of comedy was very new," said Bob Marx. "They dealt with socially significant issues and made fun of the establishment in everything they did. That was quite unusual. It was also unusual that they all had a musical talent. They incorporated music into their shows and their films."

The brothers' characters reflected their real life views, which lent a certain truth to their humor. They'd lampoon elitism, as they did in every film with Margaret Dumont; war, as they did in Duck Soup; legal mumbo-jumbo, as they did in A Night At the Opera; and even the U.S. treatment of Native Americans, as they did in "Go West."

"The brothers were far more - I don't want to say intellectual, but really in their approach to humanity they had (sensitivity)," said Bill Marx. "I would say that Groucho, just like Harpo and Chico, are pretty transparent people. If you look into them, you know that on stage and in the movies, Groucho was a charlatan. You knew that! But people bought into it. They don't care. He was convincing."

In real life, friends such as Jack Benny said Zeppo was the funniest brother, even though he played the straight man. Harpo was the darling of the 1920s Algonquin Round Table wits of New York, including George S. Kaufman, Robert Benchley and Dorothy Parker. Groucho was the most literary humorist, having had several books made of his letters to interesting people.

"According to the New York Times, my father (was the funniest)," added Bob Marx. "He had a very quick wit - very similar to Groucho's, not quite as acerbic. But then, so did Zeppo. They were all pretty much the same."

Their touring may have shaped their outlooks.

"They were not judgmental people," said Bill. "I think the best part about them was they met every kind of person in vaudeville in their desire to survive. I think that's the reason they had no prejudices whatsoever."

Their early struggles taught them to rely on one another and they took care of Chico throughout his life. Their last film, the much-derided Love Happy in 1949, was reportedly made to pay off Chico's gambling debts.

"He was an inveterate gambler," said Bill. "He never had any money, so guess who had to chip in over the years? The brothers. I would say Groucho probably helped him out quite a lot more (than anyone)."

A fractured family

But their family ties didn't really bind their extended families.

"The wives were never part of the family, really," said Bob. "There were never big social get-togethers. The wives didn't like each other. They were jealous of each other, many of them. It was not a family in that regard."

Harpo was married for 28 years to Susan Marx. Groucho was married and divorced three times, Zeppo was married and divorced twice. Chico divorced in 1940 and married again in 1958, three years before his death.

Groucho wasn't known to cheat on his wives and he wasn't a big drinker. But there were accusations that he drove his wives to drink, which is an oversimplification at best.

His daughter Miriam became an alcoholic. His daughter Melinda was estranged from Groucho. His son, Arthur, was sued by Groucho for writing a tell-all book about him.

"I would say they might have been susceptible to drinking, but there's no question that Groucho chose really weak women so he could kind of verbally abuse them and that did drive them to drink," said Bill Marx.

Andy Marx, who was 16 when Groucho died, attributed much of his grandfather's marital problems to the fact that he married very young women. The son of Arthur Marx, he recalled Groucho as a "very warm" grandfather.

The brothers began coming to the desert in the 1940s. They each stayed at the old Wonder Palms Hotel on what is now Frank Sinatra Drive, and built homes inside or near Tamarisk.

"It used to take us six hours to get here from Beverly Hills," said Bill Marx, 76. "My dad was a sun worshiper and he loved this valley."

"They enjoyed country club life," said Bob. "They were members of Tamarisk and Hillcrest (in Beverly Hills). It was a very nice retirement for them. They were very poor children who got pushed onto a stage by their mother and never had a real childhood... I think they got tired and they kind of wore out a little bit. They enjoyed the peace and quiet of the desert."



Copyright 2014 USATODAY.com

Read the original story: Centennial celebration hits the Marx

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