Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Hail Fredonia: Marx Brothers began in Nacogdoches

Anyone who has ever watched a Marx Brothers movie knows that the family of comedians were also classical musicians. Harpo (far right), who got his name from the instrument he mastered, could also play several other instruments. Chico (middle) performed on the piano, Groucho (left) sang and performed on the guitar and Zeppo was a vocalist. Like most acts of their time, the brothers got their start in vaudeville, sometimes performing with their mother Minnie, Uncle Albert Schönberg (stage name Al Shean), Aunt Hannah and brother Gummo.
How they got into comedy dates back to an evening in 1912 at the Opera House in Nacogdoches, Texas.
Old Opera House in Nacogdoches, Texas
The troupe was performing when a runaway mule caused a ruckus on the street outside the opera house. The audience, distracted by the noise like modern drivers viewing an accident, ran outside to see. Groucho didn’t appreciate losing his audience to a mule so he began making jokes about the town, saying things like “Nacogdoches is full of roaches” and “the jack-ass is the finest flower of Tex-ass.”  To his surprise, the audience thought the snide remarks were funny. And that’s how the brothers added ridiculous comedy to their routines.

“They got their comedy act started here,” said Mike Bay, Visitor Services Coordinator at the Nacogdoches Visitor Center across the street.

You might also remember the fictional government of Freedonia in the Marx Brothers film, “Duck Soup.” Nacogdoches was the site of the Fredonia uprising in 1826, when residents rebelled against Mexico and briefly created the Republic of Fredonia.  
"Duck Soup"
According to “Film Guide to Duck Soup (1933)” by Erin Glossl of the State University of New York-Fredonia, the film was a box office disaster when it was released in 1933. Glossl gives two reasons for its failure:

“One was that it was the beginning of the depression and not many people had money to spend on the movies,” he writes. “The other was that film was a satire and sometimes went over the heads of the audience. When the movie was revived in the 1970s, it became a classic because of its spoof on war and the government. Benito Mussolini, the dictator of Italy took the film as a personal insult and banned it from the country. The Brothers greeted this news happily. But, foreign countries weren't the only ones that were upset by the film. In Fredonia, New York, Mayor Harry B. Hickey protested the movie. He claimed that the movie was giving the real Fredonia a bad name. The Marx Brothers said to the mayor that he should change the town's name.”

Today, the Nacogdoches Opera House is the Cole Art Center, part of the Stephen F. Austin State University School of Art.

Cheré Dastugue Coen is a food and travel writer living in South Louisiana who is the author of several Louisiana romances under the pen name of Cherie Claire and the author of “Forest Hill, Louisiana: A Bloom Town History,” “Haunted Lafayette, Louisiana” and “Exploring Cajun Country” and co-author of “Magic’s in the Bag: Creating Spellbinding Gris Gris Bags and Sachets.” Write her at cherecoen@gmail.com.

No comments:

Post a Comment