What do an east Texas opera house, a cantankerous mule and the Marx Brothers have to do with each other? Turns out…quite a bit!
Around 1910 a trio of brothers named Leonard Joseph, Adolph and Julius Henry Marx were touring the vaudeville circuit with their act, which was mainly singing popular tunes and doing a little dancing. The thing was…they weren’t terribly adept at either of those things.
One night they were doing their act at the Opera House in Nacogdoches, Texas, one of the stops known as “tank towns” on the performance circuit. Nope, that’s not a compliment, but I’m sure they were glad to perform anywhere they could. (A tank town was considered a small, unimportant town where only trains stopped to take on water. There – now you’re all set for trivia night!)
During this particular show, a man ran in from the street shouting “Runaway mule!” Well now, THAT had to be more entertaining than these guys, so almost everyone in the audience ran out to see the excitement.
It seems that a mule had begun kicking a wagon it was hitched to until it broke loose on Church Street beside the Opera House and started running rampant through the streets of downtown. With their audience now outside on the streets watching the action, the brothers were left on stage. And Julius was fuming mad. Once the mule had been lassoed and subdued, the audience returned to their theatre seats – they HAD paid for tickets, after all.
And Julius let loose on them.
He began singing the tune of a popular little ditty but changed the words to include the story about how “the Jackass is the flower of Tex-ass.” As he kept hurling insults into the audience the brothers noticed something unexpected. The Texans were laughing and applauding. The snide remarks and clever insults were a hit!
That was a turning point in their career, and they began to develop the routines around sarcastic humor that would become their trademark.
Soon, Julius would paint on a greasepaint moustache and go by the name Groucho – a surly man who walked with a stooped posture. Leonard Joseph would adapt the personae of an accented immigrant by the name of Chico. And Adolph (who, by the way, understandably later changed his name to Arthur) would still rely on his brilliant musical talents as the wordless Harpo.
After they found success, they were occasionally joined by brothers Milton (Gummo) and Herbert Manfred (Zeppo).
But one of America’s most recognized comedy acts may never have happen if it weren’t for that east Texas Mule.
The Opera House is still standing today at 329 East Main Street in Nacogdoches . . . without a mule in sight.