How Groucho Marx was saved

The legend's grandson tells the incredible true story of the TV show that almost ended up in the garbage dump

Published March 24, 2013 3:00PM (EDT)

An audio version of this interview ran on the APM radio program, "The Story," and is excerpted here as part of Salon's partnership with the show. To listen to the audio interview, click here.

Groucho Marx began hosting the TV game show “You Bet Your Life” in 1947. This was after his classic films with Chico, Harpo and Zeppo, and unlike those movies, Groucho didn’t dance around in a painted-on mustache. He sat in a chair with his cigar, wisecracking with the contestants for a long time, and the results were the stuff of classic TV.

You can watch the show on Netflix now, or YouTube – which might not have been possible if it weren’t for the efforts of Andy Marx, the grandson of Groucho Marx. Andy’s a writer and photographer now. But in 1973 he was instrumental in saving this vital piece of Marxianna and Hollywood history from the garbage dump.

First question: How many people have tried out their Groucho Marx impression on you?

Oh my god, probably hundreds. There’s some legitimate ones that are good. I’ll be at lunch, and somebody will throw off some line or something, or they’ll try to relate a line of Groucho’s to whatever’s going on in the conversation.

At what point did you realize that your grandfather was Groucho Marx and what that meant?

I grew up in the 60’s, so “You Bet Your Life” was off the air. It was an Emmy-winning show, but at that particular point the movies had not been rediscovered, and the Marx brothers hadn’t been lionized and become these cultural icons, so Groucho was the equivalent of the retired Bob Barker. He was obviously much funnier, but that was what he was known for. When I was growing up he was just kind of like this regular grandfather.

I was maybe 8 or 9, and I remember my mother and father saying “Oh, come in, ‘A Night at the Opera’ is on TV.” Back then, there was no way to see this stuff unless it was on TV. It never showed in theatres, and so I can literally remember watching that movie and thinking, “Wow, that’s kinda cool.”

Did you think it was funny?

I did. When I was in high school, there was an album that came out, and it was narrated by this very great radio guy named Gary Owens who was very, very famous – he was the announcer on “Laugh In”– and he would do an intro and the whole album was nothing but comedy bits taken from the Marx Brothers films.

At that point I was probably 15 or something and going around and dressing up, and doing the whole thing, and then going off to college and then…

Dressing up like your grandfather?

Yeah. I went to UC Santa Barbara, and they did a yearbook photo. And I actually dressed up – I put a mustache on and a cigar and everything – and got in the picture. They took the photo with, like, the 20 other guys in my dorm, and they published it in the yearbook – they didn’t notice.

It sounds like you were using this as currency quite a bit among your peers.

It was an absolute great way to get dates. There was a revival theatre near my college, and they played Marx brothers films, and I could say to a woman, “Hey, you wanna go to the movies? My grandfather is in two movies they’re showing.” I’m ashamed to say it, but I did use it as currency.

No shame in your game, man. I can’t imagine anybody who wouldn’t have done the same thing in your position.

And it worked.

I will actually tell you a funny story. My father had written a play called “Minnie’s Boys” and they were going off to New York – it was going to go into production – and I remember there was a big going-away party for my dad. Groucho was there, and I was back from college I was very proud of myself that I knew all the lines. I started doing them for him, and he got angry and he said “I don’t wanna talk about the past. When you do that, it just makes you really old.” He didn’t like it at all. But then, a couple years later, when the accolades started rolling in, then it was a completely different story. Then he loved it.

What do you think changed? Just that suddenly it wasn’t just you, but it was the whole world that was fond of him?

It was a freight train that you couldn’t stop. They got an honorary Oscar. Every day, there was something else. There was the release – maybe it was ’74 – but they re-released “Animal Crackers” in theatres, and they had these premieres in New York.

So do you remember first seeing the show “You Bet Your Life”?

I kinda do. I don’t really think I watched it that much to begin with. I was kinda young.

So you don’t remember whether you thought it was funny or not?

I mean, yes, there was stuff on it that I thought was funny. What I actually thought was funny was when he would ask those sort of consolation prizes to the people, like “Who’s buried in Grant’s tomb?”, “What color is an orange?”, “From what city do we get Boston baked beans?”.

Those are the sort of jokes that a kid would actually appreciate.

And I do remember hearing about some of the crazy contestants, and some of the funny lines and things like that. But I was very young, so I really was not a regular watcher of it at the time. That’s why it was kind of a pleasure to go through every one of those movies and watch those.

So this is, more like something you would hear on “This is Your Life” as opposed to “You Bet Your Life” but, but the year is 1973. You’re right out of film school. Your grandfather Groucho has invited you to lunch, and you are, what, 21 at the time?

Yeah. Well basically, he and I would pretty much have lunch at least once a week and literally there would always be some turnover of celebrities there. He loved to sing for his guests and, and I was a pretty good piano player. So I kinda served a dual purpose – he got to have his grandson there but then he got to have a piano player too. There would always be some crazy group there, so he said “Hey, come to lunch,” and so I went over, and this particular day it was Jack Nicholson, Elliott Gould, and Marcel Marceau, the fantastic French mime.

That’s like a joke waiting to happen right there. “Jack Nicholson, Elliott Gould and Marcel Marceau walk into a bar, and…” And God knows what happens in that bar, but it can’t be…

Well it’s sort of funny, because the other great mime is Harpo. And so I’m probably one of the few people on earth who has actually heard both Harpo and Marcel Marceau speak.

But I can remember dinners at my grandfather’s house. I had a girlfriend and I’d bring her, and there would be Jack Nicholson, and it would be just us having dinner. This was in the very early stages of Nicholson’s career, but he was a super nice guy. We’d go into the screening room and we’d watch “A Night at the Opera”, and so you’re sitting there and it’s like, Groucho Marx and Jack Nicholson watching “A Night at the Opera”, which is kind of amusing.

But, anyway, so Nicholson was there that day and this was a different thing because now there were people there that I either idolized or looked up to.

So then, a Hollywood movie comedy thing happens where the phone rings and sets off this chain of events that cannot be believed.

Yeah. I mean basically, there was a guy, probably some guy working in a warehouse and he said “Is Mr. Marx in?” and I go “Who’s calling?” and he goes “Well I’m so-and-so, I work in this warehouse in New Jersey and we have some film of ‘You Bet Your Life’ which we’re going to destroy. We were wondering if Mr. Marx would like any of it.” I think it was CBS and then it went over to NBC or something, but it was from the warehouse, they were storing all the film.

And they were running out of room, so they were either going to destroy it – which they did all the time. I think there’s a lot of the Steve Allen stuff from “The Tonight Show” that’s all gone. One of Groucho’s very close friends, Oscar Levant, had a local show in L.A. called “Information Please” and it was apparently incredible. It was all Cinescopes, and I think it was all destroyed.

What happened was, he said “Do you want any of this?” and I ran back into the dining room and I said to my grandfather, “Hey, there’s a guy on the phone, they’re gonna destroy all this film, what do we do?” And I think he said , “I don’t care, they can burn it for all I care if they want to.”

Burn it?

You never knew with him if he was just rattling off a line to be sort of funny or if he really didn’t care.

Sort of playing the Grouch role or actually being grouchy.

Exactly. So he loved doing that, and  thenI said, “We can’t let him do that,” and then the other guys chimed in and said “Yeah, your grandson’s right, let him send it out here.”

And we didn’t know how much it was. The guy kind underestimated. He said “Oh, we have a few boxes here,” which is not what it turned out to be…

Two weeks later, my grandfather calls, and he was angry. And he said, “You better get over here,” and he said, “There’s like five UPS trucks out here and guys have been wheeling stuff in for the last hour and who knows when they’re going to finish.” And so I went over there, and it literally was like something out of a comedy. He had this big house in Beverly Hills, and it was just in every room of the house. There were boxes piling up to the ceiling. And nothing was marked. You didn’t know what was in any of them, but it was just unbelievable.

And was Groucho really p.o.’ed when you got there?

Yeah. He said, “What am I gonna do with all this now?”

 So, these UPS guys leave and then what’s the conversation between you and Groucho?

I said “Let me come back and let me at least try to figure out and make some sense of what is here and then let’s go from there.” And you know, it took me weeks to figure out what all was there.

So, these boxes all stay in the Marx manse?

Yeah, they actually did. He had an ex-wife that had a big bedroom and a lot of the stuff was in there. Anywhere you went in his house, into a closet or anything, you would just find like another 25 boxes. Good thing he divorced that wife and he had that extra room.

How did you manage to get “You Bet Your Life” on television again?

John Guedel had been the original producer of “You Bet Your Life” and so John Guedel and I went down to KTLA, which was down in Hollywood and we just pitched this idea of, look, Groucho’s gonna get his Academy Award in a couple months. This is a good time. We’ve got the stuff. It’s ready to go. And everybody knew what the show was and the guy said “Sure, OK. We’ll give it a shot. We’ll put it on. We’ll see.” And then the guy said, “But we’re going to have to hire somebody to go through all this stuff…” And that’s how I got my job.

And so he basically hired you to do the thing that you had already started doing?

Yeah. I probably did that for at least a year and probably even longer. That was actually the tail end of ’74 and ’75, and Groucho died in ’77, so for the next year and a half or two years, I pretty much spent every day up at his house, and sometimes there’d be one of those crazy lunches, and if not, he and I would eat lunch together and then we’d watch a couple of episodes.

But what a dream job! Jeez.

Forget the job part. Just being able to spend that much time with him, watching this whole thing unfolding, it’s great.

So what do you think, because you watched these shows on occasion on Netflix now, right?

Yeah. I just noticed them on Netflix the other day. I thought, “Wow, that’s cool.” I don’t know how many are even on there, but it was just cool to see that that’s up there.

What do you think when you watch the shows now?

It’s kind of a neat blessing that there’s basically stuff of my grandfather that I can watch.

My other grandfather was the great songwriter Gus Kahn, who wrote “Makin Whoopee” and “It Had to be You”, and “Dream a Little Dream” and all these really terrific songs. And I’m probably the only person whose two grandfathers have been referenced by Woody Allen in “Annie Hall” – because Diane Keaton sings “It Had to be You” and then of course, in “Annie Hall”, Woody Allen quotes Groucho, so basically both of my grandfathers are referenced in one of the greatest comedy movies of all time.

By Sean Cole


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Comedians Groucho Marx Hollywood Real Families The Story Tv You Bet Your Life