Friday, 7 December 2012
Backstage with Groucho Marx - by Dick Cavett
20 April 2012
You could say, with partial plagiarism: It was the best of nights. It was the worst of nights.
I remember thinking that it might be a long time before I saw so many happy people in one place. The place was Carnegie Hall and the people were fans — worshipers might be the more appropriate word — of Groucho Marx.
At least half the eager throng was a young, college-type crowd; it was at the peak of the time when the Marx Brothers — and I, to some extent — were campus heroes. The controversial (mildly put) Erin Fleming, the young woman who was running Groucho’s life and household for both good and ill — had hauled the frail fellow out into public once more.
To the dismay of friends and relatives, who feared that in these sadly waning years, Groucho, with formidable powers decreasing noticeably, lacked the stamina, let alone the desire to perform again, Erin had lined up a series of “concerts,” the true purpose of which many felt was less to get Groucho back in the limelight than to get Fleming into it with him.
There were two fears. Would he be physically able to get through a full-length concert, enfeebled as he was most days then, and what would it do to him if only a handful of people showed up? Could he survive that? That last fear proved unfounded.
When the big night came, I had the cabdriver let me off out front, instead of at the stage door, to assess the crowd.
There was a touching aspect to the milling, chatting, laughing throng. Some carried pictures of Groucho and his siblings, some had painted on Groucho mustaches. Hurrying back to the stage door I must have seen at least a dozen fully-got-up Grouchos complete with swallow-tail coat. There were even a few Harpos and Chicos. (I saw no Zeppos.) Nice kids in a troubled time.
It was 1972 — not a nice time in the country — and there was something so sweet about these kids that I couldn’t manage to ditch the thought that some equally nice kids might have loved to be there but for their having been, just two years earlier, shot dead by the National Guard at Kent State.
Pushing dark thoughts aside, I went inside and up to the dressing room. I recall now that the words and melody of Groucho’s friend Harry Ruby’s “Everyone Says I Love You” began to play in my head in Groucho’s voice, sung by him on my show a few years earlier. This was going to be a great evening.
I entered the dressing room and was horrified. Groucho was slumped on a couch looking more frail and papery than I had ever seen him. The famous voice was a hoarse whisper. I thought of those milling kids outside in a near frenzy to see their hero and here he (all but) lay before me, looking like moribundity warmed over. Clearly it would be a miracle if we could get him downstairs and to the stage, let alone through a two-hour concert.
“How do you feel, Grouch?” I asked with forced brightness.
And then: “Did I ever tell you about the time George Kaufman….” It was an anecdote he’d told me at least four times. Not a good sign.
I went over to Erin, energetically finishing her make-up, and said, “What are we going to do?”
“He’ll be fine,” she said cheerily and, undaunted, went on with last-minute preparations. Was this blindness? Madness? Or was it something else? It reminded me, somehow, of one of those performances that heroic mothers of dying children are able to summon, bustling about with a chipper air and saying with a smile, “Today, we’re going to read a lovely story.”
I couldn’t decide if Erin was crazy or I was. The music in my head — in that weird way the mind has of selecting appropriate music — had switched to the theme from “The Blue Angel.” It crossed my mind to thwart Erin by whisking Groucho up and out a side exit and putting him to bed. But I figured both she and the audience would hunt me down and lynch me in Central Park. Instead — and although no one’s ever explained why it must — the show went on.
I remember going up a few steps and onto the famous stage in front of the great curtain, to a bombardment of cheering and applause. Was this all for me, I humbly thought, or because I was clearly the instrument by which they would soon see Groucho? I managed to convince myself it was some of each.
(A side note: I recently re-found a letter in which Groucho thanks me for my services that night and adds, “The record people are crazy about your introduction and want to use it on the record. I’ll look into it. I expect they’ll be owing you some payment.” If that was true, it still is.)
Back to our story. Scanning the packed house from the stage and spotting Woody Allen and Diane Keaton in aisle seats, I launched into the introduction (audio below of that and more) of “a few people that should be mentioned.”
“Among them: Rufus T. Firefly [explosion of applause], J. Cheever Loophole [again] — hold your applause to the end, please — Dr. Hugo Z. Hackenbush, Otis B. Driftwood, Captain Jeffrey Spaulding … and the one, the only, Groucho.”
The join in the curtain moved a little and Groucho shuffled forward.
The place went wild. A truly moving hero’s welcome. The rafters, and your eardrums, seemed threatened by the bellowing, stomping, whistling, clapping and unbridled cheering. You could see people laughing already to the point of tears.
His performance consisted mostly of an unenergetic reading of his favorite anecdotes from three-by-five cards; a thing I feared might turn even that audience to stone.
But a sort of miracle took place. They were so pre-sold to have the time of their lives that they barely seemed to notice any difference between the all-but-drained Groucho onstage and the capering madman of the movies. And, as an actor still susceptible to a booming audience, mercifully he did “come up” a lot.
Still worried and thanking the gods that we got to intermission, I went back and suggested cutting an energetic musical number between Groucho and Erin in the second act in order to conserve the old man’s energy.
Erin — already costumed for the number — gave me a look that brought to mind the chilling close-up of Laurence Olivier as Richard III, looking down at the tart-tongued little child prince he will soon murder. I backed off, retaining my status as perhaps the only person in her life she never had harsh words with. And maybe she knew best. Somehow those gods, and she, got us this far and through the rest of the evening — and in fact, as it turned out, many more.
I was told later that a small mob of the kids, including some of the costumed ones, who couldn’t get into the sold-out hall, simply hung around outside, seemingly content to be at the same place where their hero was. And some got the treat, cheering, of seeing him get into the limo at the stage door.
The evening also provided, for me, one of what I call “through the looking glass” incidents. It could also be called, “How did I, specifically, get here?” It’s kind of corny to talk about it, and some doubt the genuineness of the feeling as merely an opportunity to drop a name or two. It’s the feeling of: how did I ever manage to get from being a kid seeing Groucho on the screen of the Grand movie theater in Grand Island, Neb., to now being in the back seat of a long black car with him? (If you know, please provide the answer.)
After all these years, I still don’t know exactly what I feel about all this. I’m so close to the forest as to be almost one of the trees. Yet it seems that whatever manipulations and self-promotions and hectoring Erin may have been guilty of, she did bring a good measure of light and cheer into Groucho’s last years.
At his house in Beverly Hills, she frequently stage-managed dinner parties with his cronies and admirers. She fed him straight lines, she set up anecdotes by bringing out awards and letters and mementos from the famous; and around dessert time, when he became restless, she got him to the piano to regale everybody with Harry Ruby songs, or the Gilbert and Sullivan numbers for which he had such a passion. Doubtless overtaxing him at times, but also putting him where he loved to be: on, and the center of attention.
I once heard Henry Kissinger say about Richard Nixon something like, “Just about anything you could say about him would be true.” So of Erin. For better or worse, she brought a near-dead man back to life repeatedly; even if she seemed to risk killing him in the process.
And very near the end, he was still able to bring his own light and cheer. Visiting a friend in the hospital, an exhausting chore at his age, he was able to say, as the elevator door closed, “Men’s tonsils, please.”
Steve Stoliar (author of “Raised Eyebrows,” reports that near the end, when vital signs were low, a nurse entered Groucho’s bedroom with a thermometer.
“What do you want?”
“We have to see if you have a temperature, Mr. Marx.”
“Don’t be silly,” said the barely audible figure in the bed. “Everybody has a temperature.”
It may have been his last joke.
Despite everything, despite his reported crankiness and even cruelties in his unhappy times with his children and wives, I hope some kind of peace is being enjoyed by the man who merits our eternal gratitude for having lived in our time; who imagined The Stamp Act of 1765 as two fellows who came onstage, stamped their feet and finished with a song; or who could say to an operator, as I heard him do, “Extension 4-8-2, eh? 4-8-2. Sounds like a cannibal story.”
Such a man deserves flights of angels to sing him to his rest. Let’s hope, for his sake, they sang something from “The Mikado.”