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Starvation Stalks Europe

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 247th installment in the series.  

August 24, 1916: Starvation Stalks Europe

Well before the First World War, Germany had long been known for its apparently orderly society, characterized outwardly by respect for rules and deference to authority – but this regimented appearance hid deep wells of discontent based on class and regional differences. These tensions only grew as the war dragged on and physical privations mounted both in the trenches and on the home front – and soon Germany, like the rest of the combatants, was experiencing civil disorder on an almost daily basis. No surprise, the most frequent cause was food shortages resulting from the widespread disruption of agriculture and transportation during the war (top, a German bread line during the war), while the Allied naval blockade cut Germany off from virtually all its former sources of imported food.

On August 24, 1916, another everyday eruption occurred in the town of Hamborn in North Rhine-Westphalia, where an angry crowd gathered pelted local officials with rocks over chronic shortages. A week before, German coal miners in the Ruhr went on strike over rising food prices, and shortly afterwards, from August 27-30 the major port city of Hamburg was rocked as hungry workers rioted. These disruptions were especially unnerving to German authorities because so many of the participants were ordinary middle and working class housewives – not usually known for making trouble.

Unfortunately things were about to get much worse: beginning in fall 1916 the German potato harvest failed due to the spread of “late blight,” as fungus destroyed the potatoes just as they were about to be harvested or shortly afterwards. The harvest could have been prevented with a common fungicide, but this was no longer available because a key ingredient, copper, had been set aside for the country’s war industry. Further compounding the misery, the winter of 1916 was one of the harshest in decades, leaving peasants especially vulnerable to disease and starvation. By the end of the “Turnip Winter,” as it became known, hundreds of thousands of Germans had starved to death, including around 80,000 children; for the whole war, an estimated 750,000 Germans perished from malnutrition. 

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Although Germany was hit especially hard – and early – by 1916 food shortages were becoming more and more common across Europe, particularly in Germany’s ally Austria-Hungary, Russia, the Ottoman Empire, Belgium (fed by U.S. aid organized by Herbert Hoover), and the smaller Balkan states. In Ottoman Palestine, the young Arab diarist Ihsan Turjman noted with growing despair in mid-1916:

I can hardly concentrate these days. We face both a general war and an internal war. The government is trying (with futility) to bring food supplies, and disease is everywhere… Jersualem has not seen worse days. Bread and flour supplies have almost totally dried up. Every day I pass the bakeries on my way to work, and I see a large number of women going home empty-handed. For several days the municipality distributed some kind of black bread to the poor, the likes of which I have never seen. People used to fight over the limited supplies, sometimes waiting in line until midnight. Now, even that bread is no longer available. 

As the war ground on shortages would spread to neutral states like Holland, Denmark, and Switzerland, and eventually even Italy and the Western Allies, Britain and France, found themselves suffering as German submarines sent huge quantities of imported food to the bottom of the ocean.

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Hunger On the Home Front 

All the belligerents prioritized food supplies for soldiers fighting in the front lines, for obvious reasons, leaving civilians back home to make ends meet as best they could. As so often in war the burden of shortages, and the responsibility for sustaining families, fell disproportionately on women, who summoned all their resources and resourcefulness to make do, now without the help of husbands or sons serving in the army. Piete Kuhr, a 13-year-old German girl living in East Prussia, described a culinary coup by her grandmother in her diary on October 10, 1916: 

If only we had a bit more to eat! Bread and flour are so scarce, and it is no better with any other sort of food. There was wonderful smell in the house recent when we came home from school. With a mysterious look on her face, Grandma placed a stewed bird with jacket potatoes on the table. It tasted wonderful. Grandma smiled when we’d eaten it all up: ‘Guess what you have been eating!’ ‘A partridge!’ cried Willi. ‘A young pigeon!’ I said. ‘A crow,’ said Grandma. ‘A farmer from Colmar sold it to me.’ 

Even wealthy industrialists and aristocrats, as civilians, found themselves forced to accept certain unexpected substitutions. On August 9, 1916, Ernesta Bullitt, an American diarist living in Berlin, recounted an exchange with an upper-class German friend: 

Stopped in to see Countess Gotzen. She had just come up from lunch. “Well,” she began, “the waiter brought me a piece of beef to-day which I couldn’t recognize the cut of for some time… I looked at it and I said to myself: ‘Now this isn’t the leg and it isn’t the rib, and it isn’t the shoulder.’ Then I said: ‘I know what it is, it’s the tail! And what’s more, it isn’t a cow’s tail – it’s a horse’s tail,’ so I called the waiter. ‘Now, waiter,’ said I, ‘I am not complaining, this is purely a matter of interest, but I want you to take this piece of meat to the chef and ask him if it is not a horse’s tail.’ In a few minutes the man came back, red to the roots of his hair, and said: ‘Madam, it is a horse’s tail!’” 

Official rationing and price controls, implemented by every national government at some point during the war, did little to alleviate shortages; in classic fashion, official attempts to impose maximum prices just drove trade in many goods underground where they could be had on the black market – for a great deal more, naturally. The result was long lines and empty shelves. Arnold Zweig, in his novel Young Woman of 1914, wrote of the shortages already facing the protagonist’s mother by early 1916: 

Times were indeed hard. Every German, great or small, had then to live on a weekly ration of four hundred grammes of bread, half a pound of meat, nine pounds of potatoes, ninety grammes of butter (watered), some cheese, and from time to time an egg. In the cities, milk was kept for children and sick persons; but owing to the lack of transport, the farmer was able to feed his young pigs on milk. In addition, everyone received half a pound of oatmeal, groats, barley, beans, or – in summer – vegetables; white or savoy cabbage, spinach, swedes, carrots, seakale. But the dreadful thing was the uncertainty as to what would be available the following week; this was the burden that weighed upon housewives and children. When, after hours of waiting in a queue, customers at least reached the counter, it too often happened that their allotted shares had already gone.

Hunger In the Trenches 

Despite their favored positions soldiers were also going hungry, especially if they were in second- or third-tier reserve or territorial units, or part of “pioneer” battalions responsible for engineering projects behind the lines. One German soldier from Alsace, Dominik Richert, described the rations for reserve troops in summer 1916:

The food got steadily worse, and soon we were down to two meat-free days per week. A day’s rations consisted of one and a half pounds of army bread in the morning and in the evening, poor-quality black coffee – often without sugar – some bread or cheese, sometimes a bit of sliced sausage, lard substitute, but mostly jam, and a sort of grey lard which the soldiers called Hindenburg- or monkey-fat. At midday each man was given one litre of soup. Everything was used to put in the soup – noodles, sauerkraut, rice, beans, peas, pearl barley, dried vegetables (called barbed wire by the soldiers), oatmeal, potato meal, and so on. Sometimes we were given green kelp fish: this much was completely unpalatable and smelt like corpses that had been lying out in the sun for a few days. 

Frontline soldiers also experienced hunger with greater frequency as 1916 wore on. According to Erich Maria Remarque, in his famous novel and memoir All Quiet on the Western Front, German soldiers would sometimes undertake dangerous trench raids merely in hopes of getting food from their better-supplied enemies: 

The corned beef over there is famous along the whole front. Occasionally it has been the chief reason for a flying raid on our part, for our nourishment is generally very bad; we have a constant hunger. We bagged five tins altogether. The fellows over there are well looked after; as against us, poor starving wretches, with our turnip jam; they can get all the meat they want. Haie has scored a thin loaf of white French bread, and stuck it behind his belt like a spade. It is a bit bloody at one corner, but that can be cut off. 

Of course, access to food also gave soldiers a key resource that could be traded for other things – including sex. On that note Remarque recounts a clandestine visit paid by him and his friends to three hungry Frenchwomen in occupied France: 

The house door opens, a chink of light shines through and a woman cries out in a scared voice. “Ssh! Ssh! camerade – bon ami –” we say and show our packages accordingly... Then we are allowed in… We unwrap our parcels and hand them over to the women. Their eyes shine, it is obvious they are hungry. Then we all become rather embarrassed. Leer makes the gesture of eating, and then they come to life again and bring out plates and knives and fall on the food, and they hold up every slice of livered sausage and admire it before they eat it, and we sit proudly by… The little brunette strokes my hair and says what all French women say: “La guerre – grand malheur – pauvres garçons…” 

Food shortages at the front highlighted the yawning chasm between the resources available to officers and ordinary soldiers, with the “grunts” always getting the worst of it. In fall 1916 Evelyn Blucher, an Englishwoman married to a German aristocrat and living in Berlin, wrote in her diary: 

A soldier home on leave tells me about the life the officers lead. Why, he said, the officers were having the time of their lives even now. Every day for dinner the tables are decorated with flowers; the officers have butter in quantities, eggs, meat, all most beautifully prepared, and the table laid as if they were in a first-rate hotel… The men get nothing of all this, neither butter, eggs, nor forks and knives; but that was just it – war! 

Growing scarcity also exacerbated tensions arising from country-city differences, especially as peasants in more rural, agricultural areas began hoarding food for themselves, at the expense of hungry city-dwellers. The farmers were also able to obtain more favorable leave conditions than their peers. One German soldier, Wilhelm Rütjerodt, wrote home on July 18, 1916: 

The only ones not in need here are the farmers. They don’t have to restrict themselves in any way and have the privilege to go on furlough quite often. Agriculture is a trump card and is supported in every respect as far as possible… The farmers have the fat, for the others there is nothing else for it than to watch how they taste it. The comrades are getting more and more fed up, for they watch the farmers living under conditions that are almost even better than those during peace time. The farmers sell butter to the NCOs for a pre-war price. 

Longstanding grudges between different regions (or between the provinces and the capital) got mixed up with food politics as well. As privation ground down the Habsburg realm’s internal cohesion, many civilians in the Austrian half of the Dual Monarchy accused those in the Hungarian half, a traditional bread basket, of holding back food for themselves. Similarly Blucher noted tartly in her diary in fall 1916 that relatively well-supplied Bavarians had found a new way to express their dislike for the Prussians in charge of the German Reich: “Prussians were much disappointed on their journeys to the Bavarian Alps this year. The Bavarians never had any food when Prussians were hungry!”

Meanwhile, fearing strikes and even revolution on the home front, governments on both sides of the war tried to fill the gap in civilian diets with man-made substitutes for a whole range of foods – some more plausible than others, and most thoroughly disliked. In his play “The Last Days of Mankind,” the Austrian critic Karl Kraus evoked the tragicomic situation with his character Frau Wahnschaffe, a German housewife who recites menus created with lists of increasingly absurd ingredients: 

So far as our food is concerned, since I am an efficient housewife, I have to make do with imagination here, too. Today we were well provided for as far as that goes. There were all kinds of things. We had a wholesome broth made with the Excelsior brand of Hindenburg cocoa-cream soup cubes, a tasty ersatz false hare with ersatz kohlrabi, potato pancakes made of paraffin… For dessert we had ersatz ladyfingers, which tasted fine to us… For tonight’s supper there’s a casserole, as always, and, for a change, liverwurst made from starch past and vegetables artificially colored red. And, as a substitute for cheese, Berlin curds with ersatz paprika. Today we’re also going to try the much-praised hodgepodge with Yolktex brand of ersatz egg made from carbonite of lime and baking powder, and a bit of Saladfix, a delicious additive that I prefer by far to Salatin as well as to Saladol. Because for the German family table the best is just good enough, and there’s nothing lacking… 

For young wives rationing provided a novel rite of initiation for the establishment of their households, as recorded by Zweig. After marrying her fiancé, back from the front on leave, Zweig’s protagonist Lenore Wahl declares: “Now let us go at once to the registration office and get my bread and meat cards, potato cards, fat cards, soap cards, sugar cards, and report myself generally…” Another popular joke, recorded by a German local newspaper in September 1917, mocked the government’s ability to hand out ration cards limiting households to certain quantities of every kind of food imaginable – but no actual food to go along with them: 

Take the meat card, mix it well with the egg card and bake it with the butter card until a healthy brown crust appears. The potato card and the vegetable card should be steamed until they are tender, and then thickened with the meal card. After-dinner coffee is prepared by boiling the coffee card and adding the sugar and milk cards to the beverage. A very succulent confection is obtained by dipping the bread card into the coffee so prepared and partaking of it in small pieces. At the conclusion of the repast you wash your hands with the soap card and dry them upon the cloth purchase permit.

Although people put the best face they could on the situation with humor, there was no question that discontent over food shortages was fueling growing political dissent in Germany, as in other combatant nations. On August 26, 1916, a German housewife voiced typical sentiments in a letter to her husband, showing how easily anger at conditions on the home front could translate into demoralization in the trenches, and vice versa:

My poor dear Paul! I have received your card from 20 July. If only this misery that has come upon mankind came to a quick end… We are all fed up here and we want peace as soon as possible. Yesterday there was a huge meeting in the Albert hall about peace and it said as follows: ‘Millions and millions of people have to demand with one voice: It is enough! Will you listen to reason and come back to your senses again! Become human beings among human beings again!’ (Storming applause) There were 50,000 people taking part in the gathering… If you were here occasionally, you would have been fed up for a long time… They have opened a war kitchen […] and I have to get the meals form there. You can imagine what kind of much this is! If you were able to see it, you would get an idea what we women are going through… Our main food is bread with cabbage, it is a shame. Just don’t be stupid and let them fool you, everything that I am writing is the truth, otherwise I wouldn’t write it. 

See the previous installment or all entries.

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15 Fun Facts About Yo Gabba Gabba!
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Since its debut on August 20, 2007 on Nick Jr., Yo Gabba Gabba!—a kids’ show featuring a red cyclops, a magic robot, a pink flower girl, a green-striped guy, a blue cat-dragon, and a host wearing orange spandex and a fluffy hat—became one of the biggest draws for the preschool crowd. But thanks to the show's hipster-friendly musical performances and celebrity guest stars, Yo Gabba Gabba! managed to transcend its kiddie roots to become a hit with fans of all ages. On the 10th anniversary of its debut, let's go behind the scenes of the beloved series.

1. THE CREATOR OF NAPOLEON DYNAMITE HAD A HAND IN GETTING YO GABBA GABBA! ON THE AIR.

Longtime friends Christian Jacobs and Scott Schultz got the idea for Yo Gabba Gabba! when, as two dads in their mid-30s, they were less-than-enthusiastic about the television shows their kids were watching. It wasn't that the other shows were bad; they were just boring and sanitized.

With their experience as musicians and videographers, Jacobs and Schultz thought they could do something different. So they scraped together about $150,000 and began writing, animating, and shooting demo episodes of Yo Gabba Gabba! in their garage. They posted these videos online and Jared Hess, director of Napoleon Dynamite, happened to see them. Impressed, Hess passed the link onto Brown Johnson, an executive at Nickelodeon, who said, “Lordy. Nothing else looks like this on television.” She quickly contacted the duo and, in a risky move that obviously paid off, gave them complete creative control of their own show on Nick Jr.

2. THE TITLE IS MEANT TO BE MIMIC BABY TALK.

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According to Jacobs, the name of the show is a nonsense phrase meant to be reminiscent of the first words spoken by a baby. However, that doesn't mean Jacobs and Schultz aren't happy the name also pays homage to The Ramones, who used the phrase “Gabba Gabba Hey!” in their song “Pinhead.” But that actually makes it an homage of an homage, as The Ramones were paying tribute to the original source of the phrase, the 1932 cult classic film Freaks. In the film, “Gabba Gabba Hey!” is part of a chant uttered by a group of circus freaks as they welcome a new member into the fold.

3. ITS THEME SONG IS REMINISCENT OF PEE-WEE'S PLAYHOUSE.

The show's intro music seems suspiciously like the intro music from another kinetic kids' show, Pee-wee's Playhouse. Pay close attention to when the trees part on Pee-wee's intro and you'll hear a lot of similarities between the two.

4. THE SHOW BECAME A WORLDWIDE PHENOMENON.

Yo Gabba Gabba! became a worldwide phenomenon, and was broadcast all over the world, including in Italy, France, the UK, the Netherlands, Australia, and Canada.

5. DJ LANCE ROCK REALLY IS A DJ.

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DJ Lance Rock is actually Lance Robertson—and he really is a DJ. Robertson grew up in St. Louis, where he started spinning records in the early '90s before moving to Los Angeles at the age of 29. While in L.A., he played with a band, The Ray Makers, who played a few gigs with a group called Majestic, which counted future Yo Gabba Gabba! co-creator Scott Schultz as a member. When the Yo Gabba Gabba! guys were looking for a host, Schultz thought of Robertson. After Robertson signed on, one of the first things he did was suggest they change DJ Lance's look to the now-iconic orange jumpsuit and fuzzy hat. The original costume included a waistcoat similar to the one worn by Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka.

6. MUNO AND BROBEE EXISTED BEFORE YO GABBA GABBA!.

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While the other characters were created exclusively for Yo Gabba Gabba!, Muno and Brobee were already around as part of the live show for Christian Jacobs's kid-friendly ska/punk band, The Aquabats. Since shortly after their founding in 1994, The Aquabats have dressed in matching superhero costumes, fighting evil under aliases like The MC Bat Commander (Jacobs), Crash McLarson, Jimmy the Robot, Ricky Fitness, and Eagle “Bones” Falconhawk. The lineup has changed frequently over the years (Travis Barker of Blink-182 was briefly their drummer under the name “The Baron von Tito”), but the band still performs live and releases the occasional studio album. Naturally, they made a handful of appearances on Yo Gabba Gabba!, as well.

7. THE SHOW HAS A CONNECTION TO DEVO.

While most kids only know him as the kookie art teacher on the show, Mark Mothersbaugh was one of the founding members and lead singer of the New Wave band Devo. Even when he’s not wearing a red terraced “Energy Dome” hat, Mothersbaugh’s career has been prolific as a composer for dozens of TV shows, films, video games, and commercials, including Apple’s famous “I’m a Mac” ads starring Justin Long and John Hodgman.

8. BIZ MARKIE WAS ORIGINALLY SUPPOSED TO DANCE ON THE SHOW.

Yo Gabba Gabba! fans learned how to beatbox thanks to rapper Biz Markie (born Marcel Theo Hall) and his “Beat of the Day” segment. Biz was initially asked to do a Dancey Dance routine for the show, but he has a bad back, so he offered to teach the kids how to do a beat instead. The producers loved it and it became a staple on the show. Parents knew Biz best from his 1989 hit “Just a Friend,” which featured his unique brand of rapping and “singing.” 

9. SUPER MARTIAN ROBOT GIRL IS THE PRODUCT OF TWO GROUNDBREAKING COMIC BOOK ARTISTS.

The comic book the Gabba gang often reads, Super Martian Robot Girl, is the creation of married underground comic book celebrities Sarah Dyer and Evan Dorkin. Dorkin is the genius behind the small press comic Milk and Cheese about “dairy products gone bad”—a milk carton and a wedge of cheese who love to drink gin and beat people up. Dyer was an influential creator in the '90s zine scene, where she was one of the few people giving female zinesters a voice with her Action Girl Newsletter, which later paved the way for the similarly-themed Action Girl Comics.

10. IT WAS NOMINATED FOR SEVEN EMMYS, BUT NEVER WON.

Yo Gabba Gabba!  received numerous Daytime Emmy nominations for Outstanding Achievement in Art Direction and Costume Design, as well as for Outstanding Pre-School Children's Series, but a win eluded the show. In addition, the series was nominated for Outstanding Achievement in Children’s Programming by the Television Critics Association Awards five times (and won twice). Internationally, the show was awarded a BAFTA in 2008. And DJ Lance received two NAACP Image Award nominations.      

11. THE SHOW GOT ITS OWN LINE OF SNEAKERS.

Ever wanted to see Foofa pop a wheelie? How about Toodee ride a surfboard? In 2011, the Gabba gang shot a series of videos to promote their line of Vans shoe, a brand popular among the extreme sports crowd. The characters shared the screen with some of the biggest names in the X Games, including surfers Alex Knost and Jared Mell, skateboarders Bucky Lasek and Christian Hosoi, BMXers Alistair Whitton and Coco Zurita, and motocross stars Dean Wilson and Ryan Villopoto. You can check out the videos at Yo Gabba Gabba's official YouTube channel.

12. THEY PLAYED COACHELLA.

The gang invaded the Coachella Music Festival in 2010, where they performed, hung out with celebrity fans backstage, and even showed up to dance with the audience at other musical performances.

13. THE SHOW HAD A LOT OF CELEBRITY FANS.

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For Halloween 2009, Brad Pitt donned DJ Lance's orange jumpsuit and fuzzy hat when he took his kids trick-or-treating. Lance was later quoted as saying that Pitt looked “Awesome.”

14. IT FEATURED A LOT OF GUEST STARS.

While most celebrities only come on the show to do a Dancey Dance or Cool Tricks segment, there have been a handful of guests that played a bigger role in an episode. The first was Jack Black, who had an entire episode dedicated to his adventures in Gabbaland after his flying motorbike ran out of gas. He got the gig after his wife emailed the show and practically begged them to let Jack come on because he was such a big fan. Other celebrities who popped in: Angela Kinsey from The Office played a teacher, the Tooth Fairy was played by Amy Sedaris, Mos Def saved the day as Super Mr. Superhero, Anthony Bourdain cameoed as a doctor, Jason Bateman played an evil spy, Lost’s Josh Holloway played a helpful farmer, and Weird Al Yankovic guested as a circus ringmaster.

15. A YO GABBA GABBA! DOLL WILL COST YOU A PRETTY PENNY.

The Gabba action figures that DJ Lance brought to life at the beginning of each episode were produced by Kidrobot, one of the leading names in the vinyl toy movement. The figures are no longer produced, so when one pops up on eBay, it often commands a high price. But if you’re not willing to spend that kind of money on an action figure, there are plenty of other Gabba-themed toys, books, DVDs, comics, smartphone apps, and clothes to keep your kids happy.

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10 Witty Facts About The Marx Brothers
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Talented as individuals and magnificent as a team, the Marx Brothers conquered every medium from the vaudeville stage to the silver screen. Today, we’re tipping our hats (and tooting our horns) to Groucho, Harpo, Chico, Zeppo, and Gummo—on the 50th anniversary of Groucho's passing.

1. A RUNAWAY MULE INSPIRED THEM TO TAKE A STAB AT COMEDY.

Julius, Milton, and Arthur Marx originally aspired to be professional singers. In 1907, the boys joined a group called “The Three Nightingales.” Managed by their mother, Minnie, the ensemble performed covers of popular songs in theaters all over the country. As Nightingales, the brothers enjoyed some moderate success, but they might never have found their true calling if it weren’t for an unruly equid. During a 1907 gig at the Nacogdoches Opera House in East Texas, someone interrupted the performance by barging in and shouting “Mule’s loose!” Immediately, the crowd raced out to watch the newly-liberated animal. Back inside, Julius seethed. Furious at having lost the spotlight, he skewered his audience upon their return. “The jackass is the finest flower of Tex-ass!” he shouted, among many other ad-libbed jabs. Rather than boo, the patrons roared with laughter. Word of his wit soon spread and demand for these Marx brothers grew.

2. THEY RECEIVED THEIR STAGE NAMES DURING A POKER GAME.

In May of 1914, the five Marxes were playing cards with standup comedian Art Fisher. Inspired by a popular comic strip character known as “Sherlocko the Monk,” he decided that the boys could use some new nicknames. Leonard’s was a no-brainer. Given his girl-crazy, “chick-chasing” lifestyle, Fisher dubbed him “Chicko” (later, this was shortened to “Chico”). Arthur loved playing the harp and thus became “Harpo.” An affinity for soft gumshoes earned Milton the alias “Gummo.” Finally, Julius was both cynical and often seen wearing a “grouch bag”—wherein he’d store small objects like marbles and candy—around his neck. Thus, “Groucho” was born. For the record, nobody knows how Herbert Marx came to be known as “Zeppo.”

3. GROUCHO WORE HIS TRADEMARK GREASEPAINT MUSTACHE BECAUSE HE HATED MORE REALISTIC MODELS.

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Phony, glue-on facial hair can be a pain to remove and reapply, so Groucho would simply paint a ‘stache and some exaggerated eyebrows onto his face. However, the mustache he later rocked as the host of his famous quiz show You Bet Your Life was 100 percent real.

4. HARPO WAS A SELF-TAUGHT HARPIST.

Without any formal training (or the ability to read sheet music), the second-oldest Marx brother developed a unique style that he never stopped improving upon. “Dad really loved playing the harp, and he did it constantly,” his son, Bill Marx, wrote. “Maybe the first multi-tasker ever, he even had a harp in the bathroom so he could play when he sat on the toilet!”

5. THE VERY FIRST MARX BROTHERS MOVIE WAS NEVER RELEASED.

Financed by Groucho, Chico, Harpo, Zeppo, and a handful of other investors, Humor Risk was filmed in 1921. Accounts differ, but most scholars agree that the silent picture—which would have served as the family’s cinematic debut—never saw completion. Despite this, an early screening of the work-in-progress was reportedly held in the Bronx. When Humor Risk failed to impress there, production halted. By Marx Brothers standards, it would’ve been an unusual flick, with Harpo playing a heroic detective opposite a villainous Groucho character.

6. GUMMO AND ZEPPO BECAME TALENT AGENTS.

World War I forced Gummo to quit the stage. Following his return, the veteran decided that performing was no longer for him and instead started a raincoat business. Zeppo—the youngest brother—then assumed Gummo’s role as the troupe’s straight-talking foil. A brilliant businessman, Zeppo eventually broke away to found the talent agency Zeppo Marx Inc., which grew into Hollywood’s third-largest, representing superstars like Clark Gable, Lucille Ball, and—of course—the other three Marx Brothers. Gummo, who joined the company in 1935, was charged with handling Groucho, Harpo, and Chico’s needs.

7. CHICO ONCE LAUNCHED A BIG BAND GROUP.

Chico took advantage of an extended break between Marx brothers movies to realize a lifelong dream. A few months before The Big Store hit cinemas in 1941, he co-founded the Chico Marx Orchestra: a swinging jazz band that lasted until July of 1943. Short-lived as the group was, however, it still managed to recruit some amazing talent—including singer/composer Mel Tormé, who would go on to help write “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)” in 1945.

8. THEY TESTED OUT NEW MATERIAL FOR A NIGHT AT THE OPERA IN FRONT OF LIVE AUDIENCES.

With the script still being drafted, MGM made the inspired choice to let the brothers perform key scenes in such places as Seattle, Salt Lake City, and San Francisco. Once a given joke was made, the Marxes meticulously timed the ensuing laughter, which let them know exactly how much silence to leave after repeating the gag on film. According to Harpo, this had the added benefit of shortening A Night at the Opera’s production period. “We didn’t have to rehearse,” he explained. “[We just] got onto the set and let the cameras roll.”

9. GROUCHO TEMPORARILY HOSTED THE TONIGHT SHOW.

Jack Paar bid the job farewell on March 29, 1962. Months before their star’s departure, NBC offered Paar’s Tonight Show seat to Groucho, who had established himself as a razor-sharp, well-liked host during You Bet Your Life’s 14-year run. Though Marx turned the network down, he later served as a guest host for two weeks while Johnny Carson prepared to take over the gig. When Carson finally made his Tonight Show debut on October 1, it was Groucho who introduced him.

10. SPY MAGAZINE USED A MARX BROTHERS MOVIE TO PRANK U.S. CONGRESSMEN.

Duck Soup takes place in Freedonia, a fictional country over which the eccentric Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho) presides. In 1993, 60 years after the movie’s release, this imaginary nation made headlines by embarrassing some real-life politicians. Staffers from Spy got in touch with around 20 freshmen in the House of Representatives, asking some variation on the question “Do you approve of what we’re doing to stop ethnic cleansing in Freedonia?” A few lawmakers took the bait. Representative Corrine Brown (D-Florida) professed to approve of America’s presence in Freedonia, saying, “I think all of those situations are very, very sad, and I just think we need to take action to assist the people.” Across the aisle, Steve Buyer (R-Indiana) concurred. “Yeah,” he said, “it’s a different situation than the Middle East.”

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