Chico Marx
By: Brian Berger | Categories: HiLo Heroes

“You know, I’d buy you a parachute if I knew it wouldn’t open,” said the man with a painted moustache. “Haha you’re crazy, I got a pair of shoes,” replied the man in a Tyrolean hat, LEONARD “CHICO” MARX (1887-1961). The eldest surviving child of German-Jewish parents, Chico earned his nickname (pronounced Chick-o) as a young skirt chaser but not until 1914 did he use it on stage. And what stages! The Marx Brothers performed thousands of vaudeville shows before making it to Broadway and then the movies. The Cocoanuts (1929) and the four Paramount films following remain pinnacles of American culture. Chico’s contribution is often misunderstood: Harpo was holy and Groucho anti-semantic, but they both needed the unflappable, ersatz Italian confidence man. It was through Chico’s bridge game with MGM producer Irving Thalberg they got their second movie contract, which began well but ended with a whimper. (Musical highlight: Franz Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody #2 into “On The Beach At Bali Bali” from 1937’s A Day At The Races, see below.) In 1942, Chico began fronting a credible big band that included future stars Mel Tormé and Barney Kessel. In 1944, he went solo to mixed reviews: “a couple jive routines that had little variety or sock” opined Billboard, which liked his piano playing better. Yet Chico, a lifelong gambler, continued. Why? “Ask Harpo how much he’s made and that’s how much I’ve lost.” 

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On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: William Shatner.

READ MORE about members of the Modernist generation (1884-93).

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Historian, journalist, and poet Brian Berger is coeditor of New York Calling. He has written for many publications, a few of which even still exist.