Friday, April 22, 2011

Friday Dance Party: Is My Aunt Minnie In Here?

The Marx Brothers have crossed my radar several times this week, and, unlike our nation's air traffic controllers, I was not asleep at the time. I was, however, watching the hilarious stateroom scene from A Night At The Opera. Groucho, Chico, Harpo, and their brothers Zeppo and Gummo, will live on forever, as will this guy:

Arthur Marx


He was a nationally ranked tennis player in high school, and later wrote for sitcoms as disparate as Petticoat Junction and Maude. Are there two sitcoms with tones and attitudes more polarly opposite than Petticoat Junction and Maude? How about My Three Sons and All In The Family, both of which received his scripts? He also contributed episodes to McHale's Navy, The Jeffersons, and Alice. He was a noted show biz biographer, delivering books about Sam Goldwyn, Red Skelton, Mickey Rooney, and Bob Hope. His biography of the comedy team of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis became the TV film Martin and Lewis in 2002, affording sitcom star Sean Hayes a rare dramatic role (as Lewis). Arthur also penned The Impossible Years for Broadway in 1965; the play starred Alan King as the harried father of two teen-aged girls during the sexual revolution of the 60s; it had a healthy, multi-year run and a movie adaptation starring David Niven.

But let's face it, this guy's last name doomed him to be forever associated with his famous family. He did nothing to discourage that association, and he is best known for his various chronicles of the life of his father, Groucho Marx.

He wrote several books about his dad, revealing the jokester to be a sarcastic, stingy, emotionally distant father. He even put his father's life onstage. In 1970, he wrote the book for the Broadway musical Minnie's Boys, which concentrated on the early years of the Marx brothers' career, as guided by their mother, a Mama Rose type played by Shelley Winters. The musical was a flop, though the name recognition of the Marx brothers was enough to secure two summer revivals of the show, starring Kaye Ballard and Charlotte Rae. Much later, in 1986, Arthur Marx had more success with his Off-Broadway snapshot of his father's career, Groucho: A Life in Revue. The show won critical raves both in New York and London and, in the second instance of the Marx Brothers showing up in my life this week, is now being revived at Wayside Theatre in Virginia.

The show is a love letter from son to father. Arthur Marx clearly made the decision to avoid the complicated nature of his relationship with his dad, and to also ignore all of Groucho's less attractive qualities. Instead, he concentrates on the rise of the Marx Brothers from vaudeville performers to stars of stage and screen. Wayside's production is great fun, with lively performances from all its actors. In particular, Peter Boyer as Groucho and Vaughn Irving as both Chico and Harpo, play the material for all its worth. And I'm not just saying that because both of them are my friends. Groucho narrates the piece, and Peter is quite effective when he sits at the make-up table and ages himself in front of us all. In fact, the moment when he becomes the older, fragile Groucho which I remember from talk shows of my youth, is downright poignant. Peter is the spitting image of the star, and received gasps of recognition at the final moment when he completed his transformation by donning his beret.

Groucho: A Live in Revue contains many of the Marx Brothers greatest bits (though, because the cast is so small at Wayside, the afore-mentioned stateroom scene from A Night At The Opera is missing, as is Aunt Minnie).

Several of their songs pop up, too, including this week's Dance Party. The first time I ever heard this number, I had no idea it was one of Groucho's signature tunes. I first heard it sung by Dody Goodman on the old Merv Griffin Show, and the memory of her hilarious rendition has stuck with me for oh these many years. The song is written by the same team who gave us "Over the Rainbow" and all those other Wizard of Oz showstoppers, and has about 102 verses. It was many years after seeing Dodie sing the song that I learned it was actually introduced by Groucho Marx, in At The Circus. It is from that film that this week's Dance Party is plucked. So, as a tribute to Groucho's poor son Arthur, and to the gang at Wayside who are producing a great revival of Marx's sweetened tribute to his father, meet Lydia: