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Groucho's Threat Against Nixon & 9 More Marx Brothers Stories

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by David Holzel

They were the bad boys of Broadway and, as the film record shows, of Hollywood as well. Chico, Harpo, Groucho, Gummo and Zeppo Marx, with their now iconic names and personas left a mark on the culture much greater than the sum of their work. As The Four Marx Brothers (Gummo left the team early on, replaced by baby brother Zeppo), they made five major films between The Cocoanuts in 1929 and Duck Soup in 1933. Sans Zeppo, they appeared together in another eight pictures through 1950.

They grew up poor in New York City, sons of an immigrant family that already had made inroads in show business. Oddly for showbiz Jews of that era, the Marx Brother kept their last names, but changed their first names. Here are 10 lesser known lessons about their lives.

1. There would have been six.

There was a sixth Marx brother, although he actually was the first. Manfred Marx was born in 1885 and died in infancy, probably of tuberculosis, according to The Marx Brothers Encyclopedia, by Glenn Mitchell. The oldest surviving brother, Leo aka Leonard aka Chico, was born in 1887.

harpo-marx.jpg2. Harpo knew a bad name when he was given one.

While all the brothers became known by their more famous show business names, only Harpo changed his given name. His German-Jewish immigrant parents originally named him Adolph, which, long before the rise of that other Adolf, Harpo Americanized to Arthur.

3. Here's your dialect, what's your hurry?

As was common on the vaudeville circuit, the early Marxes portrayed ethnic stereotypes. Chico was the Italian, a persona he never dropped. Harpo was an "Irish boob," reports Simon Louvish in his Marx biography, Monkey Business. Groucho's character was sometimes Dutch, sometimes German.

That changed on May 7, 1915, according to Stefan Kanfer's biography Groucho. That was the day German submarines torpedoed and sank the passenger ship Lusitania. Between the afternoon and evening shows, when news of the attack reached the theater, Groucho's accent metamorphosed from German to Yiddish. Eventually Groucho dropped the accent entirely.

4. A Day at the Farm

Raised in the Upper East Side German ghetto of Yorkville, the Marxes were as urban as they came. That helps to explain why they made such lousy farmers. When conscription was instituted during World War I, materfamilias Minnie Marx learned that farmers were exempt from the draft. She promptly purchased a 27-acre homestead in La Grange, Illinois, and moved the family there.

In a farce equal to their best work, the Marxes started a poultry farm. Each night, rats made off with the day's eggs, Kanfer writes. The Selective Service finally caught up with the Marxes in 1917. One by one the brothers were rejected. Only Gummo, who had been part of the act, was drafted -- but spent the war serving in Illinois. Zeppo, the youngest brother, then joined the team.

5. Filler up?

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An unknown Marilyn Monroe made one of her first screen appearances, a walk-on, in the Marxes' final film together, Love Happy (1950). The production was so short of funds that the filmmakers had to resort to the little-used tactic of product placement to pay the bills. Kool cigarettes and Mobil Oil bought advertising space, according to Mitchell. In one gag, Harpo is seen riding a series of Mobil flying horses across a neon billboard.

6. "Take a letter."

Although Groucho was forced by his mother to quit school at age 13 and go to work, he was the most intellectually inclined of the brothers. In 1964, the Library of Congress sought to obtain Groucho's extensive correspondence with show-business pals, friends and family. Groucho even exchanged letters with President Harry S Truman, Mitchell writes, "with whom [he] seems to have enjoyed a surprising rapport."

7. Speaking of presidents

Calvin Coolidge was in the audience one night to see the Marxes' Broadway show Animal Crackers, according to historian David Greenberg, author of Calvin Coolidge. Noticing the president, who enjoyed sleep as liberally as his politics were conservative, Groucho cracked from the stage, "Isn't it past your bedtime, Calvin?"

8. Arthur Marx and the Round Table

Although Groucho possessed literary aspirations, it was the semi-literate Harpo who found a welcome seat at the Algonquin Round Table of Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley. Invited by drama critic Alexander Woollcott, Harpo, "who sat, listened, played cards, and who was at ease anywhere," writes Louvish, survived "unscathed" what brother Groucho described as "sort of an intellectual slaughterhouse."

9. Getting Thalberg's Attention, 101

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The Marxes praised MGM's Irving Thalberg as the greatest studio exec they ever worked with "“ the man who brought A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races to the screen before his untimely death in 1936 at age 37.

In the beginning, their attempts just to meet with the notoriously unavailable wunderkind resembled a Marx Brothers film. They arrived punctually for appointments, only to find Thalberg's office shut. Once, they tried to signal their presence by blowing cigar smoke under his door and yelling "Fire!" After they finally made it into his office, Thalberg excused himself to consult with Louis B. Mayer. When he returned after an interminable delay, he found the brothers "squatting nude, roasting potatoes in his display fireplace," Kanfer writes. Several weeks later, Thalberg kept the Marxes waiting again. "On this occasion they barricaded his door with heavy filing cabinets," according to Kanfer. "These took an hour to remove. Never again did the Marx Brothers cool their heels in his waiting room."

10. Nixon's the One

Groucho spent his career deflating the rich, the pompous and the clueless "“ and got away with it. But in 1971, a thoughtless comment put him in duck soup with America's most humorless president.

Lunching with reporters from Take One, a San Francisco Bay-area underground newspaper, Groucho was asked, "Do you think there's any hope for Nixon?" Kanfer writes. Groucho, his judgment dimmed perhaps by cocktails and his own advancing age, shot back, "No, I think the only hope for this country is Nixon's assassination."

By the next day the wire services had the quote, and so did the FBI, which promptly investigated him. Kanfer writes, "The octogenarian was officially listed in File No. CO 1297009207 as a potential threat to the life of the chief executive."

Writer David Holzel keeps a 17-inch-tall plaster statue of Groucho in his office at all times. Groucho unwittingly also helped inspire David's ezine, The Jewish Angle. His last mental_floss story was a celebration of Franklin Pierce.

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The Sweet Surprise Reunion Mr. Rogers Never Saw Coming
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For more than 30 years, legendary children’s show host Fred Rogers used his PBS series Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood to educate his young viewers on concepts like empathy, sharing, and grief. As a result, he won just about every television award he was eligible for, some of them many times over.

Rogers was gracious in accepting each, but according to those who were close to the host, one honor in particular stood out. It was March 11, 1999, and Rogers was being inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame, an offshoot of the Emmy Awards. Just before being called to the stage, out came a surprise.

The man responsible for the elation on Rogers’s face was Jeff Erlanger, a 29-year-old from Madison, Wisconsin who became a quadriplegic at a young age after undergoing spinal surgery to remove a tumor. Rogers was surprised because Erlanger had appeared on his show nearly 20 years prior in 1980 to help kids understand how people with physical challenges adapt to life’s challenges. Here's his first encounter with the host:

Reunited on stage after two decades, Erlanger referred to the song, “It’s You I Like,” which the two sang during their initial meeting. “On behalf of millions of children and grown-ups,” Erlanger said, “it’s you I like.” The audience, including a visibly moved Candice Bergen, rose to their feet to give both men a standing ovation.

Following Erlanger’s death in 2007, Hedda Sharapan, an employee with Rogers’s production company, called their poignant scene “authentic” and “unscripted,” and that Rogers often pointed to it as his favorite moment from the series.

Near the end of the original segment in 1980, as Erlanger drives his wheelchair off-camera, Rogers waves goodbye and offers a departing message: “I hope you’ll come back to visit again.”

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20 Things You Might Not Have Known About Firefly
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© 2002 Twentieth Century Fox

As any diehard fan will be quick to tell you, Firefly's run was far, far too short. Despite its truncated run, the show still offers a wealth of fun facts and hidden Easter eggs. On the 15th anniversary of the series' premiere, we're looking back at the sci-fi series that kickstarted a Browncoat revolution.

1. A CIVIL WAR NOVEL INSPIRED THE FIREFLY UNIVERSE.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Killer Angels from author Michael Shaara was Joss Whedon’s inspiration for creating Firefly. It follows Union and Confederate soldiers during four days at the Battle of Gettysburg during the American Civil War. Whedon modeled the series and world on the Reconstruction Era, but set in the future.

2. ORIGINALLY, THE SERENITY CREW INCLUDED JUST FIVE MEMBERS.

When Whedon first developed Firefly, he wanted Serenity to only have five crew members. However, throughout development and casting, Whedon increased the cast from five to nine.

3. REBECCA GAYHEART WAS ORIGINALLY CAST TO PLAY INARA.

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Before Morena Baccarin was cast as Inara Serra, Rebecca Gayheart landed the role—but she was fired after one day of shooting because she lacked chemistry with the rest of the cast. Baccarin was cast two days later and started shooting that day.

4. NEIL PATRICK HARRIS WAS ALMOST DR. SIMON TAM.

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Before it went to Sean Maher, Neil Patrick Harris auditioned for the role of Dr. Simon Tam.

5. JOSS WHEDON WROTE THE THEME SONG.

Whedon wrote the lyrics and music for Firefly’s opening theme song, “The Ballad of Serenity.”

6. STAR WARS SPACECRAFT APPEAR IN FIREFLY.

Star Wars was a big influence on Whedon. Captain Malcolm Reynolds somewhat resembles Han Solo, while Whedon used the Millennium Falcon as inspiration to create Serenity. In fact, you can spot a few spacecraft from George Lucas's magnum opus on the show.

When Inara’s shuttle docks with Serenity in the pilot episode, an Imperial Shuttle can be found flying in the background. In the episode “Shindig,” you can see a Starlight Intruder as the crew lands on the planet Persephone.

7. HAN SOLO FROZEN IN CARBONITE POPS UP THROUGHOUT FIREFLY.

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Nathan Fillion is a big Han Solo fan, so the Firefly prop department made a 12-inch replica of Han Solo encased in Carbonite for the Canadian-born actor. You can see the prop in the background in a number of scenes.

8. ALIEN'S WEYLAND-YUTANI CORPORATION MADE AN APPEARANCE.

In Firefly’s pilot episode, the opening scene features the legendary Battle of Serenity Valley between the Browncoats and The Union of Allied Planets. Captain Malcolm Reynolds takes control of a cannon with a Weyland-Yutani logo inside of its display. Weyland-Yutani is the large conglomerate corporation in the Alien film franchise. (Whedon wrote Alien: Resurrection in 1997.)

9. ZAC EFRON'S ACTING DEBUT WAS ON FIREFLY.

A 13-year-old Zac Efron made his acting debut in the episode “Safe” in 2002. He played Young Simon in a flashback.

10. CAPTAIN MALCOLM REYNOLDS'S HORSE IS A WESTERN TROPE.

At its core, Firefly is a sci-fi western—and Malcolm Reynolds rides the same horse on every planet (it's named Fred).

11. FOX AIRED FIREFLY'S EPISODES OUT OF ORDER.

Fox didn’t feel Firefly’s two-hour pilot episode was strong enough to air as its first episode. Instead, “The Train Job” was broadcast first because it featured more action and excitement. The network continued to cherry-pick episodes based on broad appeal rather than story consistency, and eventually aired the pilot as the show’s final episode.

12. THE ALLIANCE'S ORIGINS ARE AMERICAN AND CHINESE.

The full name of The Alliance is The Anglo-Sino Alliance. Whedon envisioned The Alliance as a merger of American and Chinese government and corporate superpowers. The Union of Allied Planets’ flag is a blending of the American and Chinese national flags.

13. THE SERENITY LOUNGE SERVED AS AN ACTUAL LOUNGE.

Between set-ups and shots, the cast would hang out in the lounge on the Serenity set rather than trailers or green rooms.

14. INARA SERRA'S NAME IS MESOPOTAMIAN.

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Inara Serra is named after the Mesopotamian Hittite goddess, the protector of all wild animals.

15. THE CHARACTERS SWORE (JUST NOT IN ENGLISH).

The Firefly universe is a mixture of American and Chinese culture, which made it easy for writers to get around censors by having characters swear in Chinese.

16. THE UNIFORMS ARE RECYCLED FROM STARSHIP TROOPERS.

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The uniforms for Alliance officers and soldiers were the costumes from the 1997 science fiction film Starship Troopers. The same costumes were repurposed again for the Starship Troopers sequel.

17. "SUMMER!" MEANS SOMEONE MESSED UP.

Every time a cast member flubbed one of his or her lines, they would yell Summer Glau’s name. This was a running gag among the cast after Glau forgot her lines in the episode “Objects In Space.”

18. THE SERENITY SPACESHIP WAS BUILT TO SCALE.

The interior of Serenity was built entirely to scale; rooms and sections were completely contiguous. The ship’s interior was split into two stages, one for the upper deck and one for the lower. Whedon showed off the Firefly set in one long take to open the Serenity movie.

19. "THE MESSAGE" SHOULD HAVE BEEN THE SHOW'S FAREWELL.

Although “The Message” was the twelfth episode, it was the last episode filmed during Firefly’s short run. Composer Greg Edmonson wrote a piece of music for a funeral scene in the episode, which served as a final farewell to the show. Sadly, it was one of three episodes (the other two were “Trash” and “Heart of Gold”) that didn’t air during Firefly’s original broadcast run on Fox.

20. FIREFLY AND SERENITY WERE SENT TO THE INTERNATIONAL SPACE STATION.

American Astronaut Steven Ray Swanson is a big fan of Firefly, so when he was sent to the International Space Station for his first mission (STS-117) in 2007, he brought DVD copies of Firefly and its feature film Serenity aboard with him. The DVDs are now a permanent part of the space station’s library.

This post originally appeared in 2014.

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