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Germans Storm Romanian Passes

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 254th installment in the series. 

October 25, 1916: Germans Storm Romanian Passes

Following its invasion of Austria-Hungary in August 1916 the tides of war turned against Romania all too swiftly. With the arrival of the newly-formed German Ninth Army under Erich von Falkenhayn in late September, the combined forces of the Central Powers sent the Romanians reeling back to the mountain passes of the southern Carpathians (also known as the Transylvanian Alps). Meanwhile Bulgarian forces under the German commander August von Mackensen invaded Romania from the south, capturing the chief port, Constanta, by October 22. 

Then in late October and November defeat turned to debacle, as Romanian defenses crumbled before the German onslaught, allowing the enemy to pour through the mountain passes into the plains of Wallachia. Although the Romanians managed to halt them temporarily here, this advance set the stage for them to outflank all the Romanian armies to the east, clearing the way for a drive on the capital, Bucharest, in late November. Remarkably all this happened in just a few weeks, and indeed the German storming of the Romanian passes is remembered as one of the most impressive military achievements of the war. 

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In the right circumstances these high, narrow valleys cutting the Carpathians – from west to east the Vulcan, Szurduk, and Turnu Roşu (Red Tower) – should have been nearly impenetrable, with primitive wagon roads or goat paths broken by rough terrain and dominated by strong defensive positions. 

However circumstances were far from right for the Romanians, whose hasty retreat from Hungary left them little time to dig in, and who had scant experience with trench warfare to begin with. Their dire supply situation had hardly improved, due to continuing shortages as well as the general incompetence of Romanian logistics officers. Perhaps worst of all, they were facing elite mountain troops in the German Alpenkorps, supported by superior mountain artillery. 

The result was a crushing defeat, although ordinary Romanian soldiers fought bravely and tenaciously, exacting a heavy toll on the attacking Germans (above, Romanian infantry on the march). From October 25-November 15, 1916, the Germans battered the divisions of the Romanian First Army, separated by mountain ranges and thus unable to come to each other’s aid, back through the passes amid rapidly worsening conditions. The Romanians could at least draw cold comfort (literally) from the fact that the harsh weather in the mountains affected the Germans as much as them. One German infantry officer, first lieutenant Erwin Rommel, recalled his company’s nighttime ascent into the Szurdok Pass:

It began to rain as we started to climb without benefit of a guide. The rain grew heavier as night began to fall and it was soon pitch black. The cold rain turned into a cloudburst and soaked us to the skin. Further progress on the steep and rocky slope was impossible, and we bivouacked on either side of the mule path at an altitude of about 4950 feet. In our soaked condition it was impossible to lie down and as it was still raining, all attempts to kindle a fire of dwarf pine failed. We crouched close together, wrapped in blankets and shelter halves and shivered from the cold.

Battling up the narrow passes, the Germans faced Romanian defenders taking cover in forests and behind ridges, from which they frequently attempted ambushes, sometimes with considerable success (below, Romanian soldiers dug in in the snow). However the Germans for their part enjoyed a major advantage in their mountain artillery, which could be brought up with relative speed to lay down withering fire across valleys and over hills. 

Another German officer, captain Gerhard Friedrich Dose, remembered a battle where the German mountain artillery proved decisive, wiping out an entire enemy unit in dramatic fashion: 

The undergrowth closed behind us as we hurried down the hill as fast as our equipment and the terrain would allow. We went toward where we thought our company was, down into the valley. Behind us someone started shooting but it soon stopped. The noise moved down into the valley. From a favorable position I could see the Romanians far below on the right wing of our front. They began to advance downwards the mountain… A short while later we recognized Romanians in the trees. They had put on German helmets and were firing from behind trees. The branches moving gave away their movements… Suddenly we heard a storm roar through the air, it steadily increased in volume… Rounds flew by and slammed with incredible power in the area of the mountain crest. The roar of the rocks and earth falling back to the ground sounded like galloping cavalry. It must have been a very heavy artillery gun doing the shooting. It was exactly what was needed to destroy the crest. We advanced further and further. 

Of course, even relatively small engagements were fateful for the ordinary soldiers doing the fighting, and the prospect of being wounded was even more frightening given the primitive conditions and distance to the nearest casualty clearing stations, all of which meant wounded soldiers might die before they could receive medical care (below, an exhausted German soldier resting in the Red Tower Pass).

For the grievously wounded, who all too often found themselves left behind by comrades during chaotic battles in the passes, there was nothing to do but lie out in the open, exposed to the elements, and wait for the end. Hans Carossa, a medic in the Romanian Army Medical Corps, remembered stumbling across one man in his final moments, and doing what little he could for him: 

A Roumanian stretched between two birch trunks lay across my path; I thought he was dead and was stepping over him, when I heard a groan and felt a feeble but perceptible tug at my cloak. Turning around, I looked down on the dying face of a man of about thirty; his eyes were closed, his mouth terribly twisted with pain. His fingers still clutched the fast hem of my cloak. Through a grey cape which covered his breast a slight vapour was rising. R. threw it back; under his torn ribs his lungs and heart lay exposed, the heart beating sluggishly. A number of silver and copper medals of saints, which he had been wearing on a black ribbon round his neck, were driven deep into his flesh, some of them much bent. We covered him up again. The man half-opened his eyes, his lips moved. Simply for the sake of doing something I filled my morphia syringe, and then I saw that this was what he seemed to want: he pushed the cloak aside and tried to stretch out his arm to me in readiness… 

Wounded Romanian soldiers lucky enough to be evacuated to the rear for medical care endured conditions that were shocking even by the very low standards of the First World War. Casualty clearing stations were often open to the elements, while hospitals were often little more than hastily renovated sheds. Doctors and surgeons, many of them foreign volunteers, were overwhelmed by the huge numbers of casualties, which included thousands of victims of frostbite as the winter wore on. As in neighboring Serbia and the nearby Salonika front, disease was epidemic, with cholera, dysentery, and typhus killing thousands of soldiers and civilians alike. 

In her diary Lady Kennard, an English noblewoman volunteering as a nurse with the Romanian Army, described the struggle to treat an unending flow of wounded amid mounting anxiety about their own circumstances in Bucharest (not assuaged by the belated arrival of an Allied military mission): “The arrival of a French command may still save the capital, but one doubts it, for the passes are obviously falling with incredible rapidity, and the wounded are coming in hundreds. We now have thirty-five cases in each of our wards, planned to hold fifteen. They are packed like herrings, poor wretches, and lying two in a bed.”

These men were lucky, as at least they had beds in a real hospital in the capital; the plight of wounded soldiers being treated out in the countryside, behind the front, was even worse. Yvonne Fitzroy, another British volunteer nurse serving on the southern front where the Romanians were fighting the Bulgarians, described conditions there in early October: “In the Russian Red Cross Hospital next door two and three men were shoved on a single mattress just as they came in, the dead and the living sometimes lying side by side for hours.” 

And still the German invaders continued pounding through the northern passes, finally reaching the Wallachian plains by mid-November. Rommel recalled his company’s descent from the valley into more open country, where the fighting continued amid scattered peasant farmhouses and small villages, including a violent, confusing encounter on November 12, 1916: 

The fog swirled hither and yon and the visibility varied between a hundred and three hundred feet. Shortly before the head of the column reached the south end of the village, it ran into a close column of advancing Rumanians. In a few seconds we were engaged in a violent fire fight at fifty yards range. Our opening volley was delivered from a standing position and then we hit the dirt and looked for cover from the heavy enemy fire.

The odds looked unfavorable for Rommel’s unit, to say the least, and the Germans were forced into a temporary retreat by fierce Romanian counterattacks, as often happened during this period: 

The Rumanians outnumbered us at least ten to one. Rapid fire pinned them down, but a new enemy loomed on both flanks. He was creeping up behind bushes and hedges and firing as he approached. The advance guard was getting into a dangerous situation… I ordered the advance guard to hold the farmhouse for an additional five minutes, and then to retire on the right side of the road through the farms… 

However Rommel’s famous levelheadedness, combined with German training and firepower, helped stem the Romanian tide, providing yet another example of the power of machine guns against even vastly superior numbers in the First World War:

Soon Rumanian skirmish lines reappeared in the south and approached our position. They were still over two thousand yards away, I have the signal to fire at will. This stopped the attack cold and we suffered no losses in the ensuing fire fight. The heavy machine guns had many excellent targets. As night fell the enemy retreated… We were sad about the losses in the company which totaled seventeen wounded and three dead… On the Rumanian side hundreds of dead covered the field including a Rumanian divisional commander. 

Elsewhere, however, the Germans found themselves bogged down in heavy fighting near the southern mouths of the passes, made even more miserable by heavy winter storms. Dose recalled conditions in the eastern Predeal Pass in mid-November: 

Our exhausted troops dug rifle pits and covered them with their shelters but the weight of the snow collapsed them again and again…  Numerous soldiers had fingers and toes frozen… The wounded could only be brought down much later because there were so few people available for that purpose. Four people were required per litter. It took almost twelve hours to make the trip. 

On the other side, in mid-November Kennard recorded worsening conditions in Bucharest, as thousands of wounded piled up outside the train station: 

The men lay on the ground, which was covered with wooden boards. Some shared a mattress with four or five others, the rest lay without even a pillow to their heads… I passed the station, where a trainload of them had just come in. They lay out in the waste ground behind the building, in full sunlight, pitiful in their helplessness. They had no water and no food, just a few cigarettes, and I did not hear one single moan or complaints.

Even more alarming, as the Germans approached from the west Kennard was informed that she should be ready to evacuate the capital at any time: “It sounds impossible, but I was told to-day that we shall probably have to pack up and leave in forty-eight hours’ time, to spend the winter in – well, we don’t know where, but in the snow, anyway!” Later she recorded a social encounter which did little to allay her fears: “A Roumanian general came to tea and said: ‘We shall leave by night.’ I said: ‘Where to?’ He answered: ‘God knows!’ – which was encouraging!” 

Meanwhile to the south Mackensen’s drive into Dobruja at the head of the Danube Army sent waves of refugees fleeing into the interior. In late October Fitzroy recorded the classic scenes – now all too familiar from previous mass retreats in Belgium, northern France, Poland and Serbia – of peasant families trudging along with all their belongings: 

The whole country is in retreat… Behind we could see the shells exploding, and the sky was alight with the glow of burning villages. On our right a bigger glow showed the fate of Constanza, which fell to-day. The road was indescribably dilapidated, and crammed with refugees, troops, and transport… Ponies and oxens are harnessed into their little springless carts, all their household goods are packed inside, and they are followed by terrified flocks of sheep, pigs, and cattle. The peasants trudge along, going – one wonders where? 

French Retake Fort Douaumont 

Verdun was supposed to be the place of decision, where Germany would “bleed France white” and end the war. Instead it was simply a charnel house, where the initial German onslaught devolved into a bloody battle of mutual attrition, the attackers suffering almost as many casualties as the defenders.

At the beginning of September 1916 the new German chief of the general staff Paul von Hindenburg visited Verdun with his collaborator Erich Ludendorff; shocked at what they saw, they immediately called off the offensive. But the tide was already turning, as the French gradually pushed the Germans back a few meters at a time, paying a heavy price to liberate their ruined land. The most humiliating setback for the Germans so far came on October 24, 1916, when the French finally recaptured Fort Douaumont – the strategic key to the battlefield and the object of several earlier failed counter-attacks. 

The French were aided by the delivery of two massive new howitzers, the 400-millimeter St. Chamond railway guns, so called because they were mounted on custom designed flatbeds pulled by steam engines – the only practical way to move the 140-ton behemoths. Although this obviously limited their deployment, with a range of ten miles the monstrous artillery pieces could easily drop 1,400-pound high explosive shells on German positions outside Verdun from specially built rail spurs well to the south. 

The French offensive also benefited from a huge accumulation of other types of artillery drawn from all over the Western Front, plus a stockpile of 15,000 tons of shells. The French troops in the three frontline divisions had trained for weeks, rehearsing their assault on a full-size reproduction of the position. Last but not least the French commander in charge of the counter-attack, the artillery officer General Robert Nivelle, had new tactics – and a trick up his sleeve.

The counter-attack began on October in typical fashion on October 19, with a punishing bombardment by the “regular” French artillery, which as before seemed to make little impression on Fort Douaumont, but pulverized the German trenches blocking the approaches to the fort (above, the fort before the war; below, on October 10, 1916). As casualties mounted many German units sensibly withdrew to the protection of the fort itself, while the well-hidden German artillery held its fire, waiting for the French infantry attack before revealing its own positions. 

On October 22, the French artillery suddenly stopped firing and a huge cheer went up from the French lines, indicating that the French infantry attack was imminent, and the German artillery finally unleashed its own bombardment against the French trenches, supposedly now full of assault troops – but no one was there. In a clever piece of deception, Nivelle had tricked the Germans into giving away the positions of their own artillery, allowing the French guns to target them before the French infantry went over the top (below, French infantry in a trench near Fort Douaumont). 

After another day of shelling, during which the French managed to wipe out about half the German artillery positions around Fort Douamount, the Germans were still in firm possession of the fort itself – but now the hammer came down. On October 23 at 12:30 p.m. a massive explosion shook the center of the fort, as the first of the 400-mm shells plunged with remarkable precision into the bowels of the structure, killing 50 patients and medical staff in the infirmary. Ten minutes later brought another shuddering impact, followed by another, and another, as the two railway guns fired in tandem. The fort had finally been breached. 

With fires burning inside the fort, the German commander had little choice but to order his men to withdraw on the evening of October 23, leaving it undefended – or rather, almost undefended. In a typical mix-up resulting from virtually nonexistent communication on the battlefield, that evening a German captain in charge of a signaling unit returned to the fort to find it abandoned. With the fires mostly extinguished, showing admirable initiative he hurriedly scraped together whatever troops he could find to hold the fort. 

Thus only a handful of ill-equipped defenders were holding the fort when the French attacked on the morning of October 24, 1916, meaning that Fort Douaumont, one of the strongest fortifications in Europe, was hardly defended at all both when it fell to the Germans in February 1916, and then again when the French liberated it exactly eight months later. In fact, ironically the French faced much stiffer resistance from German defenders in trenches and bunkers outside the fort – but once again Nivelle’s tactics delivered a startling success. 

Nivelle’s second innovation was the double creeping barrage, in which French artillery laid down a wall of fire just in front of the advancing infantry, shielding them from German counter-attacks, obliterating recently dug German trenches and fortifications, and forcing German defenders to take shelter in deep dugouts while the French advanced. The tactic was particularly effective because it was actually composed of two barrages advancing in sequence: the first by heavy artillery to take out major strongholds, followed by the second by field artillery, to keep German troops pinned down. 

As the double creeping barrage scoured the fog-covered battlefield, three French divisions surged forward with a speed that took the demoralized and distraught German defenders by surprise. Taking thousands of prisoners, the French bypassed the few remaining German strongholds, leaving these to the five reserve divisions following close on their heels, while they raced ahead to the abandoned fort looming out of the clouds. One French officer recalled the dramatic scene: 

Through my artillery glasses I could count the shell holes. They are all full of water. What a time our men must have had if they went through there! The landscape is not dead. Over there on the slopes of Douaumont earth-colored men are moving about. To the left and to the right they are marching in Indian [single] file. They are advancing, climbing, and gradually getting nearer their objective. As last there is one whose silhouette stands out upon the sky as clearly as if a shadow show. Others are going down a gorge. They are going to be seen. They will be mown down. Don’t show yourself like that. It is crazy… I want to shout. I must have shouted, but I did not hear the sound of my own voice in the noise of bursting shells… Douaumont is ours. The formidable Douaumont, which dominates with its mass, its observation points, the two shores of the Meuse, is again French.

Fort Douaumont, the strategic key to the entire Verdun battlefield, was once again in French hands – or rather, what was left of it. Another French officer described the battered fort, whose upper levels had been largely destroyed, but whose lower levels were still mostly intact, a tribute to superb French pre-war engineering (above, the roof of the fort today):

One can clearly make out the site of ditches whose sides and bottom are in shocking condition; the masonry has almost entirely collapsed, the slopes are destroyed, and the grating of the escarp no longer exist. The wire network is demolished. Some blocks of concrete are still to be found, with fragments of iron stakes, these having formed part of the battlements… All the basement rooms are in perfect condition, except the last one to the east, in which was a store of bombs that has been blown up.

The liberation of Fort Douaumont was hailed across France as the greatest French victory (or as some cynics may have observed, the only victory) since the Miracle on the Marne. In addition to decisively demonstrating the failure of the German offensive at Verdun, the victory had special personal meaning for some of the troops who took part. Masserigne Soumare, a Senegalese soldier in the French Army who took part in the battle, remembered that in a time of endemic racism their success helped change the attitudes of ordinary French people towards black Africans, and no one was prouder than the colonial troops’ white officers (above, Senegalese troops with a banner recognizing their service at Douaumont, a rare honor): 

We felt very proud after the attack because the French had tried many times to retake the fort, but finally, we [were the ones] that took it… And when we were leaving the fort, our officers told us not to wash our uniforms even though they were very dirty and covered with mud. But we were told: “Don’t wash your uniforms. Cross the country as you are so that everyone who meets you will know that you made the attack on Fort Douaumont.” And we took the train [and traveled] for three days between Douaumont and St. Raphäel. And in every town we crossed, the French were clapping their hands and shouting: “Vive les tirailleurs sénégalais!

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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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