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Culture

The 1918 Marx Brothers musical stopped short by the Spanish Flu

In late September 1918, at the height of the Spanish flu outbreak, theatergoers in Grand Rapids, Mich. showed up in masks, found their seats and watched as the Marx Brothers failed to entertain them.

The show was called “The Cinderella Girl” — and was changed later in its brief run to “The Street Cinderella,” according to Mikael Uhlin’s Marxology website. While the plot of the play, and many of the songs, were not worth remembering, the brothers themselves recalled one thing — the show was bad, and its failure wasn’t entirely due to the health crisis.

According to Charlotte Chandler’s biography of Groucho Marx, “Hello I Must Be Going,” on opening night, at the start of the second act, Groucho stepped forward and told the audience, “Folks, that first act wasn’t so good. We’re gonna ad-lib from now on.”

That audience, it bears mentioning, occupied every other seat in every other row due to health regulations. This meant that even a sold out house was sparse, which made it tough for the brothers to break even.

Adding to their problems was a subpar out-of-town ensemble. Groucho later wrote of the production that “Chico hired six dancers out of a five-and-dime store, and gave them each ten dollars. They were overpaid.”

The brothers, working with writer Jo Swerling (who went on to co-write “Gone with the Wind” and “It’s a Wonderful Life”), lyricist Gus Kahn and composer Egbert van Alstyne, were by then hugely successful on the road, having toured their show “Home Again” for nearly three years. But they were in something of a different arrangement than usual. Gummo had just left for the army, and Zeppo was added to the roster as a replacement, a permutation that, with few exceptions, would become the norm for the group going forward.

We don’t know what role Zeppo was playing — details on the plot, which local notices from the time describe as “a love story of a couple of street singers,” are hard to come by. It does appear that the show, once it moved from Grand Rapids to Benton Harbor, Mich. was not well-received there either. It did, however, produce at least one notable song: “Sailin’ Away on the Henry Clay.”

Planning their next move, the quartet retired to the family farm in La Grange, IL., Stefan Kanfer wrote in “Groucho: The Life and Times of Julius Henry Marx.” By November 1918 the war ended and the brothers were once more playing packed houses with a show called “N’ Everything” — a (very) lightly rewritten version of their old “Home Again.”

The flu epidemic wouldn’t end until December 1920. Some time later, in 1921, the Marx Brothers made their first film — the silent and unreleased “Humor Risk,” with a script by Swerling. Like “The Cinderella Girl,” the film is oft-forgotten and considered lost.

PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture fellow. He can be reached at [email protected].

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