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The Marx Brothers

The Marxes in Chicago

The Marx/Schickler Family first lived in an apartment at 4649 Calumet Avenue where the city directories find them ensconed in 1910 and 1911 but in late 1912 the family moved to a three-storey brownstone house at 4512 Grand Boulevard. In The Marx Bros. Scrapbook by Groucho and Richard Anobile, Groucho says: "We lived in Chicago for twelve years. I saw Ty Cobb play baseball many a day at White Sox Park. We lived right near there. We bought a house for $ 25,000.00. We paid a thousand down and owed the rest."

The theatrical empire of Minnie Marx Palmer lasted for some years but in October 1914 she was sued by the McVickers Theatre for breach of contract for the non-appearance of the Marx Brothers. In 1918, the original Minnie Palmer returned to the United States, reappeared on stage and - to confuse matters further - also set herself up as a producer of musical shows. On 6 April 1917, USA declared war on Germany and in order to avoid her sons being drafted, Minnie Marx bought a farm in La Grange, south-west of Chicago. She had heard that farmers "who fed the nation" could be exempted from the draft. The farmhouse lay north of Joliet Road and east of La Grange, and has long been replaced by development. Chico married Betty Karp in March 1917 and three years later Groucho married Ruth Johnson. In the autumn of 1920, all the Marxes moved back to New York City.

In July 2001 I was contacted by Paul Laporte, who mentioned that his Grandfather James (or Jim) "Payday" Moss Weber, born in 1898, and his brother Jerome "Jerry" Weber grew up next to the Marx Brothers in Chicago and that they "played" together. Jim and Jerry's grandfather Louis Weber, a Hungarian Jewish immigrant (born c. 1850), was a successful tailor who became a department store owner. He bought a mansion on Chicago's south side because of his huge family and because he loved to entertain his Hungarian cronies. The third floor was an enormous banquet hall with a polished dance floor.

Jerry: "My being the firstborn grandchild gave me the run of the mansion. Doting grandmother kept me at her side even to the extent of helping her deal out raisins, nuts and cinnamon over the strudel dough which she baked for grandpa’s parties. In between these parties, my friends, the Marx Brothers, used the banquet hall as a skating rink. Grandma approved, not seeming to mind the noise one bit. She had grown accustomed to it while her own kids were growing. To her it was in all probability, a new lease on life. Since I practically lived there, Mother had the freedom to do as she pleased."

Of the Marxes, Zeppo (born in 1901) and possibly Gummo (born in 1892) seems the most likely to have played with the Weber Brothers. The other three were probably too old, being born in 1887 (Chico), 1888 (Harpo) and 1890 (Groucho). The research of Paul Laporte indicates that at one time Louis Weber had a house at 401 W. Fullerton Parkway, an area with many large houses. This may be the house Jerry is referring to although the address appears to be north of downtown Chicago. Jerry indicates that the house he and the Marx brothers played in was on Chicago’s south side. Perhaps these are not contradictory indicators. Louis, having accumulated quite a bit of wealth in the department store business, appears to have moved from a downtown house at 301 Blue Island Ave. (#52 before the big fire) to the big house (Fullerton Parkway?). His son Henry (father of Jerry and Jim) and family appear to have stayed relatively closer to the department store.

Perhaps confirming the Marx Brothers connection, other research (1910 Chicago city directory) shows that Jim, Jerry and parents lived on 427 E. 45th street. At another, apparently later time (per the 1917 Book of Chicagoans, a Biographical Dictionary of the Leading Men and Women of the City of Chicago, edited by Albert Nelson Marquis) they appear to have lived a few blocks away at 4801 Vincennes Ave. Both these addresses would make them neighbours of the Marx Brother's who lived right around the corner at 4649 Calumet Avenue and/or in a house on 45th Street. Paul has found several addresses for the department store and two are in downtown Chicago. One (per the 1910 Chicago City Directory) is at 283 South Clark Street. The other is nearby at 401 South Clark Street. Both are some 35+ blocks straight north from Jim and Jerry’s various home addresses. Company offices were next door at 83 W. Van Buren. Other research (Jazz Age Chicago Department Store index) puts the store at 308 W. 63rd street, 15 blocks south and five or so blocks west of the home addresses, yet still a bit closer to the home addresses than the downtown department store addresses.

In January 2003, John Larrabee and John Graf informed me about an article by Chicago Tribune staff reporter Nathan Bierma on preserving landmark buildings in Chicago. Bierma says that the Marxes also lived at 4512 S. Grand Blvd. in a graystone townhouse that Sam and Minnie bought in 1914. The townhouse, with its latticed balcony and flamboyant turret, still stands proudly along what is now Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. Between 1983 and 1995, the city of Chicago dispatched teams of surveyors to discover buildings that are considered architecturally or historically significant. However, the Marx Brothers house is not among the 17,371 buildings on the list because according to former city landmarks staffers who worked on the survey, the surveyors didn't know where the famous comedians lived.

Photos of the Marxes' old house in Chicago, taken in mid-January 2003, have kindly been sent to me by Marx fan Chris Palmer (no relation). Earlier in January 2003, Chris Palmer also sent me an email citing an old Chicago Herald newspaper dated Tuesday, December 22, 1914. In the small vaudeville section, there is a listing for the Palace Music Hall (no location), including "Four Marx Bros. & Co. of 16". At the same page at the very bottom, there is an ad for the La Salle Theater showing that Uncle Al was in town with a show the same week:

William Rock & Maude Fulton
in the 1916 Fasion Musical Review
With Al. Shean & 73 Others

1917: Groucho, Zeppo, Gummo and Harpo at La Grange Farm, Chicago

2003: "The Marx House is where it should be. It has a sign in front put up by the City of Chicago in 1998. Martin Luther King Drive has some beautiful houses and must have been quite nice in the Marx's day - I would say a nice middle class neighborhood." (Chris Palmer)

2003: "The apartment building that the Marx family first moved into is now a vacant lot. There are several very old apartment type buildings next door which are all boarded up and for sale." (Chris Palmer)

2003: "There are now a few vacant lots and new construction homes in between a lot of these old houses. The area as a whole is in the beginnings of rehab and turning old buildings into lofts and condos." (Chris Palmer)