In celebration of the birthday of Harpo Marx, who made his stage debut in Coney Island’s soon-to-be-demolished Henderson Music Hall in 1908, we’ve assembled some of our fave scenes from Harpo’s film and television career. Happy Birthday to Harpo (born November 23, 1888) and Happy Thanksgiving to all of our readers. Enjoy!
When Harpo appeared on “I’ve Got A Secret” in 1961 to plug his new memoir Harpo Speaks!, he acted out the answers to interview questions from host Garry Moore while the panelists, including Johnny Carson, try to figure out what he’s miming.
As for Harpo’s debut in show business on June 1, 1908, here’s what he had to say about it in Harpo Speaks…
It was not until Minnie got me on the El that the awful truth of her mission struck me, like a bolt of lightning out of a clear blue sky. We were headed for Coney Island. I was being shanghaied. I was being shanghaied to join Groucho, Gummo and Lou Levy. On a stage. Singing. In front of people.
On the train, Minnie screened me with a newspaper, while I changed into a white duck suit, my costume. At the same time she tried to teach me the words to “Darling Nelly Grey.” I was too weak with dread to protest. My mind went blank. I couldn’t possibly learn the song before we got to Coney Island.
As one of “The Four Nightingales” performing at Henderson’s, Harpo had such a bad case of stage fright that he wet his pants…
It was probably the most wretched debut in the history of show business.
Nobody could hear me sing that night in the quartet at Henderson’s. It was all I could do to open my mouth at approximately the same time that Groucho, Lou and Gummo opened their mouths. But I sang, a voiceless swan song. I sang farewell to the streets of the East side, to hurtling and hopping trolleys and swindling ticket choppers, farewell to happy-go-lucky hired today and fired tomorrow wandering from job to job…Like it or not I was in show business for the rest of my days.
Harpo’s Place, a website lovingly put together by Harpo’s son, Bill Marx, features a wonderful collection of family photos and memorabilia. From a list of the Harpo Marx Family Rules–we like #8: “If things get too much for you and you feel the whole world’s against you, go stand on your head. If you can think of anything crazier to do, do it.”
As his father’s “prop man” for 12 years, Bill Marx has a complete list of the unusual items that were part of Harpo’s repertoire, including knives that come out of a coat (and the coat), a clarinet (with mechanical bubble machine and tube), and signs for sewing on the singers’ rear ends! In this BBC clip, a rare voice recording of Harpo speaking is played and Bill explains why Harpo never spoke in film or TV appearances.
In Coney Island, preservationists have tried to save the historic Henderson Music Hall where music and vaudeville acts such as the Marx Brothers, Al Jolson and Sophie Tucker performed. But the building failed to win consideration for landmark status since it has been altered extensively. The City’s Landmarks Preservation Commission also rejected an application by Coney Island USA, Save Coney Island, the Coney Island History Project, the Historic Districts Council and the New York City Landmarks Conservancy to create a historic district. Ironically, the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation wrote that “the historic core of Coney Island appears to meet the criteria for listing to the Registers as a historic district.”
There’s also the unfortunate fact that the Henderson is owned by real estate speculator Joe Sitt of Thor Equities and occupies a prime site at the corner of Surf and Stillwell that was rezoned for a high rise hotel in 2009. A demolition permit has been issued and the former music hall is expected to be demolished soon, though there are no immediate plans to build a hotel.
At the same time, the 93rd Street Beautification Committee has been advocating for the preservation of “Marx Brothers Place” in Manhattan. The grassroots group wants the City to extend the Carnegie Hill Historic District one block to include the Marx brothers childhood home at 179 East 93rd Street. For info, visit their blog or e-mail 93rdst.beautification[AT]gmail.com.
Related posts on ATZ…
September 27, 2010: Video: The Museum of Wax by Charles Ludlam
September 20, 2010: Movie Monday: Teaser Trailers from the Coney Island Film Festival
February 26, 2010: Happy Belated Birthday to Coney Island’s William F Mangels