Memories of my Father and the Marx Bros.

Marx_Brothers_1931As far as I know, my father took only one business trip in his 44 years as a mechanic (and later, foreman) for Green Bus Lines in Queens, New York. Luckily, he brought me with him. Because it was there, on the island of Puerto Rico, that I discovered the Marx Bros.

To be clear, Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Zeppo were not staying with us at the Dorado Beach Hotel (although that would certainly make a better story). It was 1978 and Zeppo was, sadly, the only Marx brother still standing. Groucho had taken his final bow on August 19, 1977  and learned, posthumously, what dozens of acts on The Ed Sullivan Show had known for years: never follow Elvis.

I was 10 and on winter break from Catholic school, an altar boy/aspiring comedian with a smart mouth, which had a propensity for getting slapped. But my “act” was limited to a joke that ended with the line, “That horse, he no looka too good!” (I can’t remember the rest) and ad-libbed wisecracks at the expense of my little sister Missy (age 7), who tripled as my straight man, audience, and object of ridicule.

Missy was on the Puerto Rico trip as well, along with my mother, who wanted to go to the casino. But what to do with the kids? My father had a solution.

“Son, there’s a movie I think you’d like,” my dad said, repeating a line he had used before, and would use again. “I saw it when I was a kid.”

Born in 1929, my father had the bad luck to experience his entire childhood during the Great Depression, but the good fortune of seeing some of the best comedies ever made during their original run in theaters. And one of them happened to be playing in the hotel’s “movie theater” that night.

Poster - A Night at the Opera_12“It’s called A NIGHT AT THE OPERA,” he said to me. “With the Marx Bros., who were really brothers. You’ll like it. It’s fffunneee.”

When my father thought something was really funny, he would alter the way he pronounced the word: contorting his face, puckering his lips, and stretching it out with an extra syllable or two. Sometimes he’d even laugh when he described the movie or TV show in question, with a loud, booming, “haw haw” guffaw. That’s the way he described A NIGHT AT THE OPERA, so I was sold before he even finished the pitch.

My father didn’t mention that the film was made in 1935, or in black-and-white because, in 1978, lots of stuff airing on TV was old and not in color. I watched The Little Rascals, The Three Stooges shorts, and countless black-and-white sitcom reruns every day after school, and Abbott and Costello movies on the weekends, all thanks to my father (and often, with him). I loved them all, and even had a reference book on the Little Rascals (by Leonard Maltin) that my father had given me.

“Okay,” I said, speaking for my sister, who, as usual, was not consulted.

The “theater” turned out to be a small meeting room with a pull-down screen and a 16mm projector on a conference table, which was turned sideways and pushed along the back wall. The “audience” consisted of five people: my sister, me, and three nice old ladies who promised to keep an eye on us. (Sure, they were strangers, but parenting was a bit more freeform back in the ‘70s.)

Ninety minutes later, my parents returned from the casino.

“I had more fun watching your son than I did watching the movie!” a white-haired lady told my mom when she picked us up. “He laughed so hard his chair fell over!”

A-Night-At-The-Opera-marx-brothers-31074310-338-450This was true. A NIGHT AT THE OPERA made me physically convulse with laughter; it was as if I had lost control over my body, and become possessed by some force I did not understand. And when my laughter knocked my seat backwards, it only made me laugh harder, which then made the old ladies laugh harder. The whole experience was a perfect storm for my ten-year-old sensibility: silly slapstick, witty wordplay, and this sense that I had discovered something nobody else  – except my father and three old ladies – knew about.

Until the end of his life, my father would mention that screening of A NIGHT AT THE OPERA at the Dorado Beach Hotel every now and then. I think he was proud that he had introduced me to what became a lifelong passion, and he had every right to be.

I tell you this story now because this month is Marx Fest in New York City, a celebration of the brothers and the centennial of the occasion when they were christened with their stage names. For the next four weeks, dozens of screenings, live performances and panel discussions will celebrate the comic legacy of Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and (sometimes) Zeppo.

There’s even a screening of A NIGHT AT THE OPERA on May 15 at the New York Public Library’s 96th Street Branch. I suggest they secure the chairs.

For more information on Marx Fest, and a complete schedule of events, click here

My sister, father, mother, and me - Halloween, 1980

My sister, father, mother, and me – Halloween, 1980

About willmckinley

I'm a New York City-based writer, producer, and digital marketing consultant. I've been a guest on Turner Classic Movies (interviewed by Robert Osborne), NPR, Sirius Satellite Radio, and the official TCM podcast. I've written for, Game Show Network, getTV, Sony Movies, and NYC weeklies like The Villager and Gay City News. I'm also a contributor to four film-and-TV-related books: "Monster Serial," "Bride of Monster Serial," "Taste the Blood of Monster Serial," and "Remembering Jonathan Frid."
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24 Responses to Memories of my Father and the Marx Bros.

  1. Jennifer says:

    That’s a wonderful story, Will! I love the family photo at the end. The Marx Brothers continue to be a superb way to hook young viewers on classic movies, so take note, parents!

  2. I love this, Will. And the photo made me tear up. Thanks a heap.

    • willmckinley says:

      Karen, thanks. That photo was taken at my grandmother’s apartment in 1980 and hung on her wall until she passed away in 1997. She had it in a circular frame, which is why it’s a circle. She cut it herself, which almost makes me feel like she’s part of the picture.

  3. kelleepratt says:

    What a splendid memory! It’s always fascinating to me how many of us refer to our passion for classic movies as inspired by our childhood memories. I love the Marx Bros and how fortuitous for NYC to have so many ways to enjoy them this next month! Love the family photo, Will!

    • willmckinley says:

      I’ve said this before, and I’m sure I’ll say it again: love for classic film is like a family heirloom passed down from generation to generation. I’m glad my father passed it down to me. Thanks Kellee.

  4. Peter Gong says:

    Great childhood memories, Will. The photo is the clincher what you would become an avid film fan and a great of sense of humour that will serve you well in life. Cheers, see you at next year’s festival.

  5. This was such a lovely post and I enjoyed every minute of it. Sounds like your Dad was a lot like mine; getting us into classic film and classic comedy like they did 😉 A Night At The Opera is one of the funniest movies I’ve ever seen and I think I’ll watch it again this week after having read your nostalgic post!

  6. Kelly says:

    Oh how sweet

    My first Marx brother movie ever was Animal Crackers I was hooked
    For while one of my local SO CAL station it was KTLA for while kept showing Marx brother movies back to back especially during Saturday winter afternoons where EL Nino rains come and really flood back yard you couldn’t go out in 1970s

    • willmckinley says:

      Thanks Kelly. Oh, for the days when you could watch the Marx Bros. on a broadcast television station!

      • Kelly says:

        The channel I used to watch was KTLA there was show back in 1970s and earlier 1980s called Family Film festival where they used show MGM Family movies like Little Lord Faluterory, Secret Garden and other movies like Godzila yup were those days

  7. x\I could see your Father’s face contorted to draw out the words “it’s funneee. ” I may have go watch this Night at the Opera of which you speak…btw I have an aversion to rulers, that was the Sisters method of keeping order, a rap across the knuckles…had quite a few of those lol

    • willmckinley says:

      Thanks Sandi. My most feared nun (Sister Dorothy) used to pull the little hairs on the back of my neck, at the base of my hairline. And people wonder why I’m a lapsed Catholic.

      • Kelly says:

        HA HA 8 year of Cathoic school right here Will I understand your pain LOL!
        I think there is new generation coming up thanks to TCM, Movies tv network GET TV there new appreciate of classic movies

        Last Sunday nephew niece and me were watching Dr Strangelove they found the film weird they still couldn’t understand why we bombing the Russians remember they don’t remember the cold war people LOL!

  8. Your dad had what I call real top-notch parenting skills.

  9. I adore this story – and the family photo. Wonderfully written.

  10. Hawkswill says:

    Very interesting Will. I was never a Marx fan…….really didn’t like slapstick such as them and Lucille Ball when young. Learned to appreciate them when Older though………..I should give the Marx boys another try. Of course, I knew Zeppo in the 70s…..he used to hang out at Tamarisk CC in the Springs where I was a golf pro. We always laughed at his jokes, but he told the same few over and over. He was still married to Barbara…..later Sinatra’s lady…..actually was then too, LOL! Thanks….going to for sure try them again. KEITH

  11. Hilarious story and very cool french poster!

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