via New Yorker

The Marx Brothers were five brothers originally from New York who dedicated themselves to American comedy. And no, they didn’t have anything to do with Karl Marx.

Their success began in vaudeville, then on Broadway, and later in the movies. In fact, five of their films are included in the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 best comedies.

Samuel and Minnie Marx had their first child – Manfred – in 1886. Unfortunately, seven months later, he died of influenza. Then came the five Marx brothers to form the family.

However, artistically, the cores of the group were the three older brothers, Chico, Harpo, and Groucho, each with his character. As soon as the younger brothers – Gummo and Zeppo – decided not to develop their characters in the same way, they would eventually abandon acting to pursue other professions.

Fun Fact: Gummo did not appear in any of the films, and Zeppo only appeared in the first six. In other words, the five brothers never appeared together on stage.


The Origin Of Their Stage Names

via Gold Derby

Now then, let’s get down to business. Where did their stage names come from?

It is believed to be the result of a monologist named Art Fisher and a poker game. However, no historian or biographer has ever discovered the slightest clue about this Art Fisher. But don’t worry, there are other theories.

One posits that the names were taken from a famous comic strip called Sherlock or the Monk. However, like the previous theory, this one was also discarded since this strip only appeared from 1911 to 1913, and the names did not appear until 1919. So which version is true?

We can’t say for sure, but beyond the evidence, we have to consider the custom of the time to end names with the vowel “o” to make them funny.

Let’s start with the explanations – which are simpler than we think – by the way.

Arthur: it is said that he was called Harpo because he played the harp. It makes sense, doesn’t it?

Leonard: it is said that he was called Chico because he had a weakness for women. Let’s put some context, in those days, women and girls were often referred to as “chickens”. (Later, as now, the slang term became “chicks”). So, Chico got the nickname as he was a “Chicken chaser”.

Milton: In his autobiography, Harpo Speaks! (1985), Harpo explained that Milton was called Gummo in allusion to rubber since he had played several detectives in the theater with his typical rubber shoes.

Julius: the reason why Julius was called Groucho is usually the most discussed. There are three possible explanations:

  • Julius’ character: According to Maxine – Chico’s daughter and therefore Groucho’s niece – says in the documentary The Unknown Marx Brothers that Julius was called Groucho for the simple reason that he was growling all the time.
  • The “Grouch Bag”: Many of Groucho’s friends claimed that Groucho was extremely stingy, so he hung one of these bags around his neck to store his money.
  • Groucho’s explanation: Understandably unhappy with being described as perpetually grumpy or excessively stingy, Groucho always insisted that his name coincided with a character in the comic strip Sherlock or the Monk, which had a mania for featuring characters whose names always ended in o. But he was the only Marx brother who defended this theory.

Herbert: As in the case of Groucho, there are three explanations as to why Herbert was called Zeppo.

  • Explanation of Harpo: The older brothers decided that Herbert should be named Zippo, after a chimpanzee that participated in some vaudeville acts. Due to Herbert’s own disapproval, it was changed to Zeppo.
  • Groucho’s explanation: In an interview, Groucho said that he was so named because he was born when the first zeppelins crossed the Atlantic. The first zeppelin flew in July 1900, while Herbert was born seven months later, in February 1901; but the first zeppelin to cross the Atlantic did not do so until 1924, when Herbert was already a young man.