East 93rd was once Marxist stronghold

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Band of brothers that would find fame in vaudeville and film grew up amid Yorkville’s tenements and breweries


  • The Marx Brothers in 1931. Top to bottom: Chico, Harpo, Groucho and Zeppo. Photo: Library of Congress.

The small, older apartment building at 179 East 93rd Street is a stone’s throw from the fashionable Carnegie Hill neighborhood. But at the turn of the 20th century, it was in the midst of a crowded immigrant tenement and brewery district.

And from 1895 through 1909, the building housed the family that gave rise to the world-famous Marx Brothers. A group of local seventh graders from the East Side Middle School recently discovered the house and the Marx Brothers themselves, and have started a campaign to mark the house with a commemorative plaque. More about that later.

The brothers’ life in their small apartment is chronicled in Groucho’s autobiography, “Groucho and Me,” and Harpo’s, “Harpo Speaks.” Their parents, Sam (‘Frenchie”) and Minnie, were German-Jewish immigrants. Groucho called his father, who had an in-house tailor shop, “the most inept tailor that Yorkville ever produced — the idea that Pop was a tailor was an opinion held only by him.”

Also living with the family were Minnie’s elderly parents. Minnie’s father was a former magician, and her mother played the harp. One of the brothers, Adolph, started exploring grandma’s harp and later mastered it, earning him the name Harpo.

The oldest boy, Leonard (later Chico), was a problem child. He didn’t take school seriously and he was an incorrigible gambler his entire life. You could always find him at a pool hall or a card or dice game.

Yorkville was full of warring youth gangs, most of them the children of immigrants, who jealously guarded their “turfs.” To avoid getting beat up when wandering onto the wrong block, Chico became an expert mimic of several accents — German, Yiddish, Irish and Italian. It was the Italian one that later defined his stage and screen character.

Harpo, too, didn’t have much schooling. In his autobiography, he tells how, in second grade, two tough Irish kids would grab him and drop him out of the first-floor window whenever the teacher left the room. When he would climb back in, the teacher would blame him.

Harpo soon left school and did odd jobs around the neighborhood, but he loved performing even then. He liked to imitate a local cigar maker, Mr. Gehrke, nicknamed “Gookie,” who would sit in the window of his store rolling cigars. Engrossed in his cigar-rolling, the man would make a grotesque face, crossing his eyes, puffing his cheeks and sticking his tongue out. Years later, Harpo’s “Gookie” face became a well-loved part of his comic persona.

Julius, or Groucho, was the quiet, bookish one and originally wanted to be a doctor. His love of language would be reflected by his comic wordplay and punning in the Marx Brothers films. Groucho could also be a mischief-maker: In his autobiography, he recalled walking over to the Ruppert mansion on 93rd and Fifth, climbing over the fence and stealing apples and pears that grew on the premises.

Starting around 1907, Minnie started organizing her boys into a vaudeville act. The “Marxology” website says its first version, “The Three Nightingales,” included Groucho, Milton (Gummo) and a young lady, Mabel O’Donnell.

Mabel was soon replaced by Lou Levy, a childhood friend of the Marxes. When Harpo joined the act, they became the Four Nightingales. The name reflected the fact that theirs was originally was a musical act — they all played instruments and/or sang.

Some readers might not recognize Gummo. That’s because he left the act in 1918 when he was drafted into the Army. He was succeeded by youngest brother Herbert (Zeppo), who quit in 1934 after becoming fed up with his role as the straight man for three great comics. Don’t feel sorry for Gummo and Zeppo — both became successful Hollywood agents.

Minnie moved the family to Chicago, the hub of several vaudeville circuits, in late 1909. Lou Levy’s place was taken by another short-lived replacement, and then Chico, already a seasoned comic actor and pianist, joined the act. The Marx Brothers as we know them were born.

Even after the Marx Brothers rocketed to stardom, they never forgot where they came from. Toward the end of his life, according to “Untapped Cities,” Groucho came back to the house on East 93rd Street and paid for new tiles in the common areas.

Today, visitors from all over the world come to see the house — including the above-mentioned group of seventh graders. As part of a class project, the kids, who started out as the “Mapping Committee,” sought to make a map showing places where famous people had lived on the Upper East Side.

When they got to the Marx Brothers’ childhood home, they felt a strong connection, although they didn’t know why. But they soon discovered the brothers, researched their history and saw their films. “We came to know the Marx Brothers as unique, hilarious and subversive entertainers who had a great sense of humor,” the students, who now call themselves the Marx Brothers Historic Committee, said in a statement.

They sent the owner a letter requesting a historic plaque on the building, but they haven’t heard from him yet. The East 93rd Street Association has offered to fund the plaque. We’re sure that Groucho, Harpo, Chico, Zeppo and Gummo would approve.

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