Remembered as kings of the vaudeville stage and early motion picture comedies, it's fitting that the Marx Brothers found their origins in a performance setting.
Their father, Simon, was a tailor from Alsace-Lorraine who despised using tape measures and derived his greatest enjoyment from games of pinochle. He also worked as a dance instructor after moving to New York City in the early 1880s, and it was on the dance floor that the sparks flew with Minnie Schoenberg, another recently transplanted Jewish immigrant from Germany.
The couple's first-born, Mannfred, died of tuberculosis before he was a year old. But the next two, Leonard (Chico) and Adolph (Harpo), were perfectly healthy, as was the third, Julius Henry (Groucho), other than the strabismus that left his eyes mismatched. The clan grew with the addition of Milton (Gummo) and finally Herbert (Zeppo), who arrived just before his biggest brother turned 14 years old.
The family settled in the Yorkville section of Manhattan's Upper East Side, a working-class neighborhood bustling with German, Polish, Russian and Cuban immigrants. Things were nearly as busy inside their three-bedroom apartment, which also served as the home to Minnie's parents, Lafe and Fanny, as well as a temporary shelter for a stream of relatives who crashed on cots in the living room.
Left largely to his own devices, Leonard applied an aptitude for mathematics to street gambling games, developing an addiction that prompted him to pawn his family's keepsakes. Sweet-natured Adolph followed his lead and dropped out of school, propelled by the bullies who made his days miserable.
Julius was the rare Marx brother who enjoyed his studies. Struggling to win the attention of his parents, who seemingly favored the two older boys and doted on the sickly Milton, he found solace in books and the praise of his teachers. However, his dreams of becoming a doctor were dashed when he was pulled from school at age 12 and directed to work for a wig company to help support the large family.
Groucho was the first to show promise as a stage performer
While school clearly wasn't a top priority for most of the Marx brothers, they received invaluable lessons in show business from their extended family. Lafe and Fanny demonstrated their retired magic act, with Fanny's portable harp catching the attention of one grandson in particular. And the boys relished visits from Minnie's younger brother, who was carving out a favorable reputation as a vaudeville singer-comedian under the name of Al Shean.
Spurred by her brother's success, Minnie had her children learn musical instruments. For Leonard, a brief brush with piano lessons may have been a life-saver, as he pulled himself away from gambling long enough to line up pianist gigs at venues throughout the city and, eventually, the music publishing company of Shapiro, Bernstein & Co.
Meanwhile, Julius was showing promise with a surprisingly sweet singing voice. After a stint with an Episcopal church choir, he scored his first touring role in 1905 with the short-lived Leroy Trio, and soon joined English performer Lily Seville for their Lady Seville and Master Marx traveling performance.
Milton also found himself thrust into show business around this time, as the dummy for another uncle's ventriloquist act, though the younger Marx's stuttering problem quickly torpedoed that act.
The brothers sang together as the Four Nightingales
With Julius enjoying additional success as a member of Gus Edwards' Postal Telegraph Boys, Minnie took the opportunity to rope more of her boys into the business. Working with Edwards' co-producer Ned Wayburn, who went on to fame as choreographer of The Ziegfield Follies, she paired Julius with Milton and 16-year-old soprano Mabel O'Donnell to form the Three Nightingales.
The trio became a quartet when Minnie abruptly pulled Adolph from his job as a silent movie theater pianist and plopped him on stage with the rest. No one seemed to notice that he was terrified of singing in front of an audience, and the Four Nightingales enjoyed a solid showing on the road.
According to legend, the brothers' singing act began its transformation into a comedy act during a performance in Nacogdoches, Texas, when a local burst in to announce that a mule had gotten loose. Seething at the interruption, Julius began excoriating the audience, only to find them laughing at his insults.
The brothers hit their stride with help from their showbiz uncle
With opportunities drying up, the Marx matriarch moved the family to Chicago around 1910 and rebranded herself as impresario Minnie Palmer. She reconfigured the Nightingales into a musical act called the Six Mascots, which featured three of her sons, a fourth boy named Freddie Hutchins and both Minnie and her sister Hannah attempting to pass as schoolgirls.
The next production, Fun in Hi Skool, marked the brothers' first full-blown foray into comedy, with Julius portraying an overwrought teacher and the others his troublemaking students. Along with providing a means for them to hone their timing and improvisational skills, the show's success pulled in the missing Marx brother, Leonard, who allegedly joined the act by way of a surprise performance with the orchestra one night.
Leonard helped develop the follow-up production, a 10-years-down-the-road reprisal of the characters in Mr. Green's Reception, but their obvious comedic talents weren't enough to save the stale schoolboy jokes. Fortunately, the boys were again able to rely on the experience and wisdom of Uncle Al Shean, who took note of their individual strengths and sussed out material for a new show.
Home Again, which underwent continual rewrites after debuting in 1914, eventually brought the group from the classroom to a dock, with Julius and Minnie portraying a mismatched couple and Milton their son, alongside the other two boys as ship hands. Anchored on Julius' verbal dexterity, the show also found a sweet spot with the pantomiming abilities of Adolph, now known as Arthur, and featured an early stage appearance from baby brother Herbert.
Comedian Art Fisher gave them their famous nicknames
During a stop in Illinois, the Marx brothers were playing cards with comedian Art Fisher, who decided the boys needed nicknames. Julius became "Groucho" for his cynical nature and the "grouch bag" he wore to store valuables, Leonard became "Chicko" (later altered to "Chico") for his relentless pursuit of female companionship, Arthur became "Harpo" for his love of the instrument and Milton was saddled with "Gummo" because of his preference for gumshoes. (The origin of "Zeppo" for Herbert is unclear.)
The catchy nicknames boosted the growing fame of the Four Marx Brothers, and they continued developing their signature personas as Home Again played to packed houses. Chico found his Italian accent to be a surefire crowd-pleaser, Harpo dropped dialogue altogether and communicated by way of buffoonish gestures and an air horn and Groucho made great use of a stooped walk and raised eyebrows.
And Gummo? The fourth wheel lacked the talent and drive of the others, and as such was grateful when he was drafted into service for World War I. That paved the way for Zeppo, who was mirroring Chico's early path and headed for trouble on the streets before joining the family funny business as the straight man.
Zeppo closed out the run of Home Again in 1919, but the Marx Brothers as the world at large would come to know them was just beginning. They prepared to make their return to New York, ready to take Broadway by storm en route to unprecedented heights of zaniness on the silver screen.