A True Marx Brothers Rediscovery
We’re always hearing how young people simply will not watch black-and-white movies.
But you can’t prove that by Noah Diamond.
“I’ve always felt a little disconnected from the popular culture of my time,” he says soberly, before brightening. “As a kid, I did like The Muppets, though – but I think that has to do with their being friends who put on variety shows in an old vaudeville theater.”
Back in the early ‘90s when Diamond was just reaching his teenage years, he made a point of seeing all 13 Marx Brothers features. The antics of Groucho, Harpo, Chico and sometimes Zeppo provided the color.
At 14, Diamond actually self-produced ANIMAL CRACKERS at the local South Florida community theater where he’d been in FIDDLER ON THE ROOF and KUNI-LEML. Of the four brothers he could have played, he chose his absolute favorite: Groucho.
“There has never been a better comedian than Groucho,” Diamond insists. “His vocal instrument was made for comedy.”
It was just the beginning of his Groucho-mania. Once he became a professional actor, Diamond could be heard auditioning with “Samovar the Lawyer,” Groucho’s song from A NIGHT IN THE UKRAINE. In cabaret, he’s often done “You Remind Me of You,” Groucho’s song from MINNIE’S BOYS.
Now Diamond will again play Groucho with the help of producer-director Trav S.D. Next week, they’ll let us see the Marx Brothers in color, and we DON’T mean THE STORY OF MANKIND. Diamond and three confederates will become reasonable facsimiles of Mrs. Marx’s zany quartet in a revival of I’LL SAY SHE IS.
Doesn’t ring a bell? “It was really a book revue,” says Trav, not at all ruffled at the contradiction in terms. “It was the Marx Brothers’ first Broadway show, before THE COCONUTS (in 1925) and ANIMAL CRACKERS (in 1928).”
“It opened on May 19, 1924 and closed on February 7, 1925,” says Diamond with the knowledge only a true aficionado has. (Want more proof? Devoted fans of a performer always seem to think less of a subject’s biggest hit and more of his flop. Diamond fits the profile: “A NIGHT AT THE OPERA slightly overrated and A NIGHT IN CASABLANCA a bit underrated,” he insists.)
I’LL SAY SHE IS’ 313 performances was the longest of the three Marc Brothers stage shows. It may not sound like much today, but it ran longer than 1,132 musicals that had already braved Broadway. Besides, the New York engagement wasn’t all that I’LL SAY SHE IS experienced. “It played a year’s tryout on the road before it got to Broadway,” says Diamond. “Afterward, it went on the road yet again and played another five months.”
And yet, we know so little about it because it wasn’t filmed as the other two were. By the time that both COCONUTS and CRACKERS had closed on Broadway, the movies had learned to speak (even if Harpo officially hadn’t), so there was a market for Groucho’s fast-talk and Chico’s verbal imbecilities. Although I’LL SAY SHE IS had a two-week return in May, 1927, that was still more than four months before THE JAZZ SINGER informed audiences that they hadn’t heard anything yet.
Diamond estimates that about 75% of the stage COCONUTS and about 50% of the stage ANIMAL CRACKERS survived to the screen. “But,” he says appreciatively, “at least ANIMAL CRACKERS contains most of what the Marx Brothers did.”
Trav S.D. – the pen name of Donald Travis Stewart – quickly adds, “It’s been said that COCONUTS had forty additional minutes filmed that no one can find.”
That was more that Diamond was initially able to uncover of I’LL SAY SHE IS. He learned that the typed script was in the Library of Congress, thanks to the Johnstone Brothers --bookwriter-lyricist Will B. and composer Tim – who donated it.
“It was only 30 pages long,” Diamond rues. “The rest of the show was provided by all the Marx Brothers’ ad-libs. What happened on stage was the real text, not what was on the page.”
Needless to say, Diamond didn’t have the Marxes around to recall their ad-libs. “So I decided to build from that foundation my own Marx Brothers show,” he says.
And yet, this revisal will be a little closer to the original than we might assume. “I love doing research,” he says, “and I found on the Internet and on microfilm Groucho’s quips that newspaper columnists of the time were fond of quoting. So I’ve put them in the show.”
I’LL SAY SHE IS comes from a catchphrase of the ‘20s – “much as ‘You bet your life,’ which also turned out to be the name of Groucho’s quiz show in the ‘50s,” explains Diamond. “So when a character in the show remarks ‘Isn’t she a beauty?’ the rejoinder is ‘I’ll say she is.’”
She’s such a beauty, in fact, that that’s the only name by which her character is known. “Beauty is a bored heiress looking for a thrill,” says Diamond. “She runs into one Marx Brother after another and each takes her to various places around town: Times Square, Central Park and opium den. There’s even a fantasy sequence in which Groucho plays Napoleon. Finally the thrill she finds is the thrill of love.”
“And that search for love winds up as Zeppo,” Trav says flatly of the least-regarded Marx Brother – well, the least- regarded of those four who made a go of it. And then there was Gummo.
“That’s Trav’s specialty,” says Diamond while gesturing with respect to his collaborator.
And indeed Trav takes over: “Gummo got his name because he liked to dance and often did it in gum sole shoes. He got out of the business because he stuttered. For that matter, Harpo had a hard time remembering lines, which is why he went silent.”
(We can only speculate if Gummo would have been the silent one had Harpo had a better memory.)
Just as Beauty has no official name, neither did the characters whom the Marxes played. The program offered “Lawyer” (Groucho), “Poorman” (Chico), “Beggarman” (Harpo) and “Doctor” (Zeppo).
Beauty was played by an actress whose birth certificate said “Florence Reutti.” By then, however, she’d become billed as “Lotta Miles.” Explains Diamond, “She was the spokesperson for Kelly Springfield Tires, and they gave her that name.”
Yeah, this guy knows his onions. When he was 15, he went to Goodspeed to see how their ANIMAL CRACKERS stacked up with his. In the lobby he spotted a woman who looked familiar to him. Diamond approached her and asked, “Aren’t you Maxine Marx?”
Now how many teens would have been able to recognize Chico’s daughter? Only someone who’d immersed himself in Marxiana would have been able to pull that off.
“She was very, very nice to me, but when I tell that to a lot of Marx fans who had already dealt with her, they’re surprised, for they had very different experiences,” he says diplomatically. “I have a feeling that she was happy that someone so young knew about Chico.”
Of course, Diamond says “Chicko,” and not the widely mispronounced “Cheek-o.” Chico got his name from chasing chicks – and we don’t mean the kind found in barnyards.
“Fans of the Marx Brothers have the same type of obsession as fans of the Beatles,” he says. “We want to know everything about them. The Broadway period has particularly been my sweet spot because it’s shrouded in the unknown.”
So both Trav and Diamond aren’t surprised by the extensive interest in I’LL SAY SHE IS. “In May, we had a reading that was enough to bring over a fan from Bath, England,” says Trav. “And we have a man coming from Sweden for the production.”
Care to join him? I’LL SAY SHE IS plays Aug. 10 through 22 at various times and days at the Sheen Center, 18 Bleecker St., New York. Tickets are $18. Visit www.illsaysheis.com
— Peter Filichia