The Legend of Groucho and the Marx Brothers in Peterborough
The lore of Peterborough’s theatre history insists that the famous “Marx Brothers” performed on the stage of the city’s Grand Opera House. The legend goes way back – as exemplified by a July 1950 Examiner headline: “Opera, Marx Bros., Circuses, Noted Actors, Came to Town.”
But did the Marx Brothers ever really appear in Peterborough? I can hear Groucho’s voice – as he twitched his eyebrows and pulled his cigar out of his mouth: “Half the time I didn’t know where I was, so why should you?”
I’ve been going through old Peterborough newspapers and so far haven’t found any sign of the Marx Brothers coming here. And a recently published book with a detailed Marx Brothers “Stage Chronology” documents several stops for the boys in Toronto, but none for them as a group in Peterborough.
Did someone, at some point in the past, mistake the “Marx Brothers” for the “Marks Brothers” travelling troupe from Perth, Ontario? The Marks Brothers were so popular that their act in various formations appeared countless times in Peterborough from as early as September 1901 (and perhaps before then) until the mid- to late-1920s.
I’m led to believe that somewhere along the way in the city’s theatrical annals the “Marx Brothers” were mistaken for the “Marks Brothers,” which is easily understandable.
Still, on this particular Marxian front all is not lost, as I also discovered . . .
Nov. 3, 1906: when Groucho Marx first came to town . . .
. . . except he was not yet called “Groucho.” His name was Julius H. Marx, and he was sixteen years old. (It wasn’t until the mid-1910s that Julius became known as Groucho.)
Julius Marx, born in October 1890 in Manhattan, New York City – in a room above a butcher’s shop (or so he said) – had begun singing for money (very little money) at age twelve or thirteen. In 1905, not yet fifteen, he added his “pleasant soprano voice” to a travelling vaudeville act.
In 1906 his mother got him a part in a play, The Man of Her Choice, which toured through the winter of 1906–7 in the Eastern United States and Canada. Travelling no doubt by train, and usually overnight to save the cost of hotel rooms, on Thursday evening, Nov. 1, the show was in Kingston, Ontario. On Friday night it played at the Carman Opera House in Belleville. On Saturday it stopped at Peterborough’s Grand Opera House for matinee and evening performances.
“Good audiences” apparently turned out to greet what the ads declared to be a “melodramatic sensation.” In a Monday review an Examiner writer found The Man of Her Choice to be something less than earth-shaking. It was “the usual type of such plays,” with “heroes, villains, faithful friends, revolvers, fighting and a happy ending.” The audiences appreciated the work of the heroine, played by Mabel Mordaunt, an attractive young actress who would have a short career on Broadway. As was the norm in those days, the villain, an “evil genius,” garnered “plentiful hisses” from the occupants of the cheap seats in the upper gallery, the “gods.”
Most significantly, though, the local writer found something else worth noting: “A feature was the particularly fine singing of ‘Somebody’s Sweetheart I Want to Be’ and ‘I’ll Do Anything in the World for You’ by Julius Marx.”
In Groucho’s own words years later, he would “run out on stage” between acts and sing a few songs. He entertained audiences from the space in front of the curtain while the scenery backstage was being changed. The Man of Her Choice had a number of songs with lyrics written especially for it by the writer/manager Edward M. Simmons, including “Mary Moore” (the name of Mabel Mordaunt’s character), sung by Julius. Extant sheet music for that song features “Master Julius Marx” and the name of the play. But Julius also sang other tunes from his own repertoire: the two pieces cited by the reporter came from an act that Julius had appeared in earlier that same year, with the Gus Edwards’ Postal Telegraph Boys.
Although the review did not mention it, Julius also appeared briefly in a “kid” part as an office boy. His role included catching the dastardly villain in a “nefarious act” involving stolen bonds. Towards the end of act one Julius rushed onto the scene carrying a gun and saying, “Stop! Move one step and I’ll blow you to smithereens!” At that exciting moment, the curtain fell.
Later on this same Julius Marx, now known as “Groucho,” recalled that it was “a terrible play. They used to have a lot of plays in those days that never played Broadway. They played other circuits.” During his time with the play – over seven months, with performances almost daily – young Julius developed a severe crush on Mabel Mordaunt. By his own admission, he got nowhere with her – although he did add an extra 25 cents a day to his pay of $25 a week by walking her big greyhound dog every morning.
We are left to imagine a somewhat sad teenage Groucho walking up and down George Street, slouching past the Clock Tower perhaps, with the greyhound dog on a leash – though not yet with his trademark bent-over stride, fake moustache, and ubiquitous cigar. By Sunday or Monday the company had moved on – making the short trip to Lindsay and its Academy Theatre for yet another one-night stand.
And, as it happened, twice within a few months in 1906–7 major trade papers gave his name as “Julius Marks.” As Groucho said to Chico in Duck Soup: “I wonder what ever became of me? I should have been back here a long time ago.”
Sources: “Music and Drama,” Daily Examiner, Nov. 5, 1906, p.8; Groucho Marx and Richard J. Anobile, The Marx Brothers Scrapbook (New York: Warner Books, 1975), pp.19–22; Robert S. Bader, Four of the Three Musketeers: The Marx Brothers on Stage (Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 2016), pp.45–49, 395–96; “Groucho Marx: Portrait of the Artist as an Old Man,” interview by Robert Altman, Jon Carroll, and Michael Goodwin, Take One, vol. 3, no.1 (1971). Bryon G. Harlan wrote the music for “Mary Moore.” Bader, Four of the Three Musketeers, p.46, says that “I’ll Do Anything in the World for You” and “Somebody’s Sweetheart I Want to Be” were from the Gus Edwards tour, which Julius Marx appeared in from March to July 1906. See also “Magazine History: A Collector’s Blog,” http://magazinehistory.blogspot.ca/2009/01/one-that-got-away-rarest-groucho-marx.html, about the rarity of the sheet music for “Mary Moore.” The Bader “State Chronology” includes Julius Marx’s Peterborough stop on Nov. 3, 1906, p.396. The extremely detailed chronology shows no other stops in Peterborough.
For reports of the Marx Brothers coming to town, see “Opera, Marx Bros., Circuses, Noted Actors, Came to Town,” Examiner, July 14, 1950, special issue, p.13; also Fern Rahmel, “The Theatre,” in Peterborough: Land of Shining Waters, An Anthology (Peterborough: Centennial Committee for the City and County of Peterborough, 1967), p.388; Mary Beth Aspinall, “Women in the Theatre,” in Portraits: Peterborough Area Women Past and Present (Peterborough: Portraits Group, 1975), p.146; Elwood Jones and Bruce Dyer, Peterborough: The Electric City (Burlington, Ont.: Windsor Publication [Canada], 1987), p.65; and Ed Arnold, George St. Stories: A Walk on Peterborough’s Main Street (Peterborough: 2007), p.84.
This piece was published in Heritage Gazette of the Trent Valley, vol. 22, no.2, August 2017.