The Marx Brothers
Broadway Musical School Days opened at the Circle Theatre 14 September 1908. With lyrics by Will Cobb and music by Gus Edwards, the song School Days was the centrepiece of the show and by 1910 vaudeville was full of similar schoolroom acts. It was natural for a fledgling comedy team like the Marx Brothers to follow a popular trend and led by Groucho they made their own adaption named Fun In Hi Skule. This was their first show in which comedy and not music was the key ingredient and very soon the Marx Brothers became popular vaudeville comedians. Like virtually everything else in vaudeville, Fun In Hi Skule was just as much "Fun with Ethnic Stereotypes". Groucho portrayed a "Dutch" or German (Deutsch)-accented comic, the stick-carrying Herr Teacher, in frock coat and a scratch wig simulating baldness. He sat at a desk towards the rear of the stage. Either side were doors marked "Boiz" and "Goils". The "Boiz" included Gummo as "Izzy", the Hebrew Boy, and Harpo as "Patsy Brannigan", an Irish-cum-rural type that was a regular character in vaudeville shows.
The type was based on a real-life Irish comic of that name active in the 1890s. Harpo describes his Patsy Brannigan costume in Harpo Speaks. In this case, Jenny the ex-girl singer mentioned must refer to the original Nightingale Mabel O'Donnell: "Minnie got out the wig she'd made up for Jenny, our ex-girl singer, cut off the piece that used to cover Jenny's cockeye, and dyed the wig red for me. She sewed bright patches onto my travelling pants, which were pretty well shot anyway, and I used a piece of rope for a suspender. The rest of the costume was my beloved turtle-neck sweater and a decrepit beaver hat that Minnie scrounged out of the boarding-house attic. For a final touch before going onstage, I reddened my ears, painted on some freckles and blacked out three of my front teeth."
Another character in the act was the stereotyped homosexual (the "sissy", "nance" or "fairy"), a bass-singer who spoke in falsetto. In The Marx Bros Scrapbook, Groucho writes: "And we had a fairy in the act. The guy wasn't actually a fairy but that's the part he played. He'd say, "Strawberry shortcake, huckleberry pie. Are we in it. Ra, ra, ra!" His name was Paul Yale". Several "Goils" were in the class, including the Marxes' Aunt Hannah (with as thick an accent as Groucho's) and a Lucille or Lillian Textrude. It is generally believed that the class room scene in Horse Feathers gives a good example of what Fun In Hi Skule was like, at least in general appearance. Additionally, Harpo and Groucho has given us several glimpses of the dialogue in the books Harpo Speaks and The Marx Bros Scrapbook respectivally. Harpo had yet to abandon dialogue and could thus explain why he was late for school: "My mother lost the lid off the stove, and I had to sit on it to keep the smoke in". A lot of fun was of course generated by the fact that a "Dutch" teacher was giving "a lesson in der Englisher langvidge", for example in "The Alphabet Bit", Harpo's "big scene" with Groucho. This piece of dialogue is included in Harpo's autobiography;
Groucho (whacking his
a pair of barrel staves) Patsy Brannigan, no more
shenanigans! You will stand up and give the alphabet.
Harpo (scratching his head,
thinking hard) The alphabet - the alphabet - Gimme a start,
Groucho (glares at Harpo,
nose-to-nose) All right, dumkopf, I'll give you a start. "Ah
- ah - ah - "
Groucho Not "Ah" - "A!"
Harpo (heading for his seat) That's the alphabet - "A."
Groucho That's not the alphabet. Come back here.
Harpo There's more?
Groucho There's more. Please continue.
Harpo Gimme another start.
Groucho "Buh - buh - buh - "
Harpo "Buh?" (During this exchange they have sunk, nose-to-nose, nearly to the floor.)
Groucho Not "Buh," dumkopf!
Harpo Give me a hint.
Groucho What is it buzzes around the flowers? Bzzzzz? (Harpo starts waving and slapping at invisible bug) "Bee!"
Harpo "Bee!" That's the alphabet - "A, B."(heads for his seat)
Groucho Come back here, young man.That's not the alphabet.
Harpo There's more? Gimme a hint what comes after B.
Groucho I'll give you a hint. What's the first thing you do when you wake up in the morning? Ssssssssss - (Harpo gives Groucho a shocked, pop-eyed look.) "C", dumkopf! The first thing you do in the morning when you wake up is "see".
Harpo That's not the first thing I do in the morning. Groucho ends the hopeless lesson with a crack of the slapstick.
An alternative ending of the scene may be suggested in Harpo Speaks!: "We got a bigger laugh later on when Teacher said, "Can't you get noddings through your thick head?" and Gummo stuck a stiletto through my hat and I answered Herr Teacher with an enthusiastic nod." Harpo obtained a further laugh when belying his idiocy with a long, erudite speech. A similar speech appeared years later in the stage version of Go West.
In The Marx Bros Scrapbook, Groucho writes: "Little by little we developed the school act. I'd say to Gummo, "What are the principal parts of a cat?" And he'd say, "Eyes, ears, nose, cheeks and tail." "That's not all," I'd say. "What does a cat have that I don't have?" And Gummo would answer, "Kittens!" Groucho also recalls another piece of dialogue with Harpo; "I'd ask Harpo, "What is the shape of the earth?" And he'd say he didn't know so I'd try to help him. I pointed to my cufflinks and said, "What shape are these?" He'd say "Square" And I'd say, "No, not these. The ones I wear on Sundays". He'd say, "Round." "Now, then," I'd say, "what is the shape of the earth?" And he'd answer, "Square on weekdays and round on weekends!"
A cartoon drawn for The Show World from a performance at the Lyda Theater, Chicago, in 1911 (reproduced in The Groucho Phile and cited in both Glenn Mitchell's Encyclopedia and Simon Louvish' Monkey Business) gives us some of the other gags. Groucho introduces the schoolclass as "a fine bunch of smart dunces". Gummo, the derbyhatted Jewish dandy, clutches his abdomen and claims: "Some-one stuck me in the back of the stomach!" Harpo is seated at a school desk with short breeches and a yokel's hat, saying nothing. Beside him Herr Teacher is saying: "Take that thing off your head! Don't think because I am a fool I am a Dutchman!" A broomstick and an apple lie before the teacher. In fact, various jokes with fruits seem to have been a major way of having Fun In Hi Skule. A running gag was that Groucho repeatedly would tell Harpo to take his hat off, only for Harpo to offer a token gesture of tipping it from behind, allowing the hat to fall back in place. Groucho says that he "hollered at Harpo about his hat. He usually had an orange under it and when he finally took it off the orange would roll onto the floor and all the students would dive for the orange. That was considered a pretty classy piece of comedy!"
Harpo adds: "We got a big laugh one night when the Teacher made me take my hat off and an orange fell out. I gave the orange to the Teacher, and he told me to put my hat back on because he'd like another one for later." And when Groucho is trying to educate Gummo in 'rithmetic, asking how he would divide ten apples among six people, Gummo of course answers that he would make applesauce. Another apple was the one that Aunt Hannah offered Groucho. He placed the apple in a desk drawer - where it exploded! Having vented his wrath (maybe in the vein of "Don't think because I am a fool I am a Dutchman!"), Groucho tried to sit at his desk, only for Harpo to pull away the chair. A review in Variety on 24 February 1912 focuses on a very important thing in the career of Harpo Marx: "The Patsy boy is like a Clarence Wilbur in work, and a natural comedian. Also he is a harpist, and a good one. Introducing the harp into the center of the turn, he scored an unusually large success, deservedly so, besides giving a classy touch to the whole."
The second half of the show took the form of rehearsing for the school concert. Variety mentions the song Schnitzelbaum sung by the teacher, probably the same as Ist das Nicht Ein Schnitzelbank, Groucho's German item from the Nightingales-days and a song he was performing at the piano for his guests well into his eightieth year. Variety adds: "The girls do not figure largely, excepting to help out in talk and the choruses, although one leads Schoolmates for the finale". Soon the concert in the second act developed into a show of its own, Mr Green's Reception.
Minnie's Boys, the stage musical from the early 1970s written by Groucho's son Arthur in collaboration with Robert Fisher, is a mostly fictional version of the Marx Brothers' story, with a score that includes songs like The Four Nightingales, Where Was I When They Passed Out Luck and You Remind Me Of You by multi award-winning Larry Grossman (music) and Hal Hackady (lyrics). Worth mentioning is a scene where Mother Minnie joins the cast of Fun In Hi Skule dressed as a giant rabbit. In late October-early November 2002, New Yorkers had the opportunity for the first time in 32 years to revisit Minnie's Boys as the Jewish Repertory Theatre at the Center for Jewish History in New York City gave four performances. This "Marx Brothers Musical in Concert" was adapted and directed by Walter Willison.
School days, school days, dear old golden rule
Nothing to do, Nellie Darling
'Member the hill, Nellie Darling