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Footnotes in Texas History

Texas Marx the Spot

Did Lone Star State put the funny in the Marx Brothers?

Not long ago in these pages, we extolled the mule’s essential but underrated role in early Texas life and history.

To further strengthen the case, we suggest that mules—specifically Texas mules—were responsible for perhaps the funniest comedy troupe of all time, those zany Marx Brothers. And to the many Texas boasts we humbly submit another: The Marx Brothers weren’t funny at all until they came to Texas.

They weren’t known as the Marx Brothers when they toured Texas in 1912 as part of a vaudeville act. Some sources say they were known at the time as the Four Nightingales and that the group consisted of Groucho, Harpo, an older brother named Gummo and a female singer billed as Miss Janie O’Riley. Or they may have added the brothers’ mother and aunt by that time and were performing as the Six Mascots. Either way, all sources agree that they took to the stage at the Opera House in Nacogdoches one summer night as serious singers, musicians and actors. Thespians, as it were.

The Nacogdoches audience was less than enthused with the act’s classical music and dramatic readings. That was made clear when someone on East Main Street hollered “Runaway! Runaway!” This must have seemed preferable to the entertainment on stage, because the theater emptied when everybody went to see some runaway mules. Really, who wouldn’t want to see them, other than the obvious exception of the person who might be standing in their path?

Some modern accounts have it that just one mule was on the loose in Nacogdoches that night, not a whole team. The old-timers, like former District Attorney Bob Murphey, always said it was a team of runaway mules that caused the commotion. 

The mule or mules were eventually caught and the patrons returned to the theater, but it was a hard act to follow, these runaway mules, none with even a smidgen of classical training.

The appalled thespians, especially Groucho, were none too pleased with an audience so fickle and inattentive that it could be lured away from a performance of high art by a bunch of mules, or even one mule. Groucho made up a little impromptu verse to express his feelings:

“The City of Nacogdoches is full of cockroaches …”

Groucho called the audience “(expletive) Yankees” and opined that “the jackass is the state flower of Texass.”

If there is one thing Texans can generally appreciate, it is somebody who is ticked off and doesn’t mind letting you know about it. Groucho did just that, and the Nacogdoches audience loved it.

“Probably the Marxes didn’t realize it then, but they were working a true vein of Texas humor,” Dallas columnist Frank X. Tolbert wrote of the incident many years later. “Other Texas theater managers heard of the hit the Marx Brothers made as impudent comedians, and the troupe got a raise to $75 a week as they moved on to Denison and Clarksville on the Red River.”

So while we’re not claiming the Marx Brothers as Texans, we don’t mind taking credit for setting them straight and helping them find their true calling as comedians. And let’s not forget to give those mules (or that mule) some credit, too.

Along with a good-natured Texas audience, they just may have given the Marx Brothers their start in comedy.

Clay Coppedge frequently writes odd bits of Texas history for Texas Co-op Power.