In Memoriam: Tony Martin (1913-2012)

“The Zeppo Role” was a relatively thankless part in all Marx Bros. films.

After the “fourth brother” left the act following DUCK SOUP (1933), a stream of handsome young leading men took his standard part as the fresh-faced, often-crooning love interest: Allan Jones in A NIGHT AT THE OPERA (1935) and A DAY AT THE RACES (1937); Frank Albertson in ROOM SERVICE (1938); Kenny Baker in AT THE CIRCUS (1939); John Carroll in GO WEST (1940); Charles Drake in A NIGHT IN CASABLANCA (1946); and my favorite, Tony Martin, in THE BIG STORE (1941).

Martin died today at the age of 98, after three quarters of a century as a working singer and actor. He appeared in more than thirty films between 1935 and 1982, and he sang popular hits like I Get Ideas (1951) and There’s No Tomorrow (1950). He was the featured vocalist in the early days of the Burns and Allen Program on radio (1936-37), and later fronted his own television variety show on NBC (1954-56). After a brief marriage to singer and actress Alice Faye, Martin married dancer Cyd Charisse in 1948. Their union lasted until her death in 2008, at the age of 86.

Cyd Charisse and Tony Martin with sons Tony Jr. and Nicky, 1956.

Martin continued to perform his cabaret act at New York City venues until very recently, celebrating his 96th birthday with a gig at Feinstein’s at the Loews Regency in January of 2009. But despite all these accomplishments, for me, Tony Martin will forever be Tommy Rogers in THE BIG STORE.

All Marx Bros fans agree that the teams’ film career suffered after the death of MGM producer Irving Thalberg. Following his untimely passing in 1936 at the age of 37, the Marxes were saddled with poor scripts, low budgets and dull romantic leads, but Tony Martin stood out for me as something special. I probably watched THE BIG STORE more than 50 times between the ages of 9 (when I discovered Marx Bros. movies, thanks to my father) and 13 (when I discovered other stuff, thanks to other people) and I can STILL sing Tenement Symphony by heart.

Sure, it’s a dopey ballad in a B-grade movie, but it will always have a special place in my heart.

Growing up in the Pre-VCR ’70s, I had to watch movies when the TV told me to. And that often meant getting up at 2 a.m. to watch the Marx Bros. Our local CBS affiliate owned the Marx Bros.’ MGM films, and showed them only during overnights on The Late Show. Thankfully, they would air THE BIG STORE often, and I watched every time it was on.

When we finally got a VCR for Christmas in 1980 I continued to get up at 2 a.m. when a Marx Bros movie was on. I told my parents I wanted to record it and “Cut out the commercials,” but there was another reason. There was something magical about those late night viewings, when I was alone with my black & white friends, and the house was quiet. It was like a dream that I’ll never forget.

And I’ll never forget the charming, operatic voice of Tony Martin, and our frequent late night visits to THE BIG STORE more than 30 years ago.

Tony Martin and Chico Marx in THE BIG STORE (1941).

Tony Martin and Virginia Grey in THE BIG STORE (1941).

Tony Martin and Virginia Grey in THE BIG STORE (1941).

Tony Martin, Chico Marx and Virginia Grey in THE BIG STORE (1941).

Tony Martin with Groucho and Chico Marx in THE BIG STORE (1941).

About willmckinley

Will McKinley is a New York City-based writer, producer, reporter, radio host, and #OldMovieWeirdo. He’s been a guest on Turner Classic Movies (interviewed by host Robert Osborne), Sirius Satellite Radio and the official TCM podcast. Will has written for PBS and Slate and his byline has appeared more than 100 times in the pages of NYC alt weeklies like The Villager and Gay City News.
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7 Responses to In Memoriam: Tony Martin (1913-2012)

  1. Aurora says:

    Love this, Will! Great tribute. Sad we lost yet another classic today.

    Aurora

  2. another death. so sad to hear about tony martin. he lived a long life. i enjoyed him in many of the classic films. they are some of my favorite films to watch. they are not made that way now. smetimes i wish someone would just take some pointers from the past masters of film and make a film one could get lost in. thank you for the immemorium.

  3. willmckinley says:

    Thanks for the comment. Can you imagine? He was still performing at age 96. Amazing.

  4. Pingback: Tony Martin, 1913-2012 Immortal Ephemera

  5. Scott Logan says:

    Thank you for your Tony Martin and Marx Brothers memories.

    The Big Store is one of my favorite films. It’s a rich walk thru the performing arts! Great vocal and instrumental performances, hilarious comedy and special effects, and a happy ending! What more could you ask for. Perhaps Technicolor, but as Groucho said…it’s “sooooo expensive”!

    Tony Martin had amazing charisma and his voice and singing style captures that era perfectly! He was great in this movie. His character has a kindness not present in any modern films. Think of the scene where he creates a recording on the spot for one of his adoring fans!

    The Marx Brothers once again unleash their creativity on the silver screen and I will always be grateful. My sons and I perform for audiences with our act “The Professor Brainius Show”. I know in my heart that watching the Marx Brothers when I was growing up inspired me to follow in their footsteps! They are timeless!

    • willmckinley says:

      Thanks Scott. What a great story. I love that you and your kid do a two-man comedy act. That’s awesome.

      I love THE BIG STORE, though I know some Marx Bros purists don’t. And Tony Martin is delightful, for the reasons you suggest.

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