The oldest of the Marx Brothers, Chico Marx had an antic personality that included the adopted persona of an Italian dimwit as a foil for Groucho's sarcasm and Harpo's horn. It was his savvy dealing, however, that secured his brothers' wealth. Ironically, his own wealth was elusive due to his lifelong gambling addiction and penchant for chasing women, from whence he got his nickname.
Chico Marx was born Leonard Marx in New York City on March 22, 1887, the second son of Jewish immigrants Sam "Frenchie" and Minnie (Schoenberg) Marx. Because the couple's first son had died in infancy, Chico was the eldest of the famed Marx Brothers.
According to his brother, Groucho, one of the reasons their father was a less-than-successful tailor was because Chico was always pawning his scissors to fund his gambling habit. Said to be his mother's favorite (which was perhaps why he was loosely disciplined), Chico in inherited her drive to keep the act afloat, and took over as manager after her death in 1929.
Another maternal influence was making sure the boys all learned to play musical instruments, and, thusly, Chico took up the piano. He actually joined the brothers' act later, after holding various jobs, including playing the piano in brothels—ideal, given his eye for the ladies—during the Marx Brothers' early years.
In fact, the origin of his nickname, he told a BBC interviewer in 1959, evolved from his penchant for womanizing, often called "chicken chasing" at the time. The name should actually be pronounced Chick-o, which was the way Groucho had always said it, but in an early show program, the "k" was inadvertently dropped, and the new spelling and pronunciation, Cheek-o, stuck.
Show Business Career
When Chico joined the brother act, they were a musical group on the vaudeville circuit; legend has it that audience inattention in Texas spurred Groucho to start heckling them and they discovered their flair for comedy.
For the Marx Brothers act, Chico adopted the persona of an Italian dimwit—complete with accent, curly-haired wig and Tyrolean cap—based on denizens of their East New York neighborhood. His dull-witted character masked a savvy businessman; Chico negotiated a percentage of their films' gross ticket receipts for the brothers—a benchmark in early film industry relations with performers—which sustained them, despite huge financial losses during the Great Depression.
The Marx Brothers' sketch comedy on the vaudeville circuit and in Broadway shows, as well as Groucho's and Chico's radio performances, were the spine of their material for the movies. Among their films, The Cocoanuts, Animal Crackers, Monkey Business and Horse Feathers were the most successful for Paramount. But when Duck Soup, now often considered their masterpiece, didn't do as well, it was Chico's friendship with Hollywood heavyweight Irving Thalberg—probably through card games—that got the brothers a contract with MGM.
The Marx Brothers went on to make a number of classics, including Night at the Opera and A Day a the Races.
Though Chico was responsible for helping secure the wealth of his brothers, his gambling addiction forced them to take over his finances and put him on a fixed allowance. When the other brothers retired from show business, Chico kept working to pay off gambling debts. Jobs included headlining the Chico Marx Orchestra, where Mel Torme got his start, and performing at some of the seedy vaudeville houses where his career had begun. The Marx Brothers reunited for A Night in Casablanca (1946) to help Chico's bottom line after he'd filed for bankruptcy a few years earlier.
Personal Life and Legacy
Chico was the first of the Marx Brothers to die, of heart disease on October 11, 1961, in Hollywood, California. He had married his second wife, Mary De Vithas, just a few years earlier, but in 1917, had married Betty Karp. He and Karp had one child together, daughter Maxine Marx, who would later write about her love and exasperation with her complex father in Growing Up With Chico (1980). She also campaigned hard to get the Marx Brothers a U.S. postage stamp. (The brothers actually had an obsession with collecting business stamps, and had used numbers from the stamps to remember bits in their acts.)
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