As 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.
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!”
This 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.