I suppose that because I am the last living person on Planet Earth to have worked professionally with the three Marx Brothers, those being my dad, Harpo, and uncles Groucho and Chico, one could say it is a distinct honor that could be considered both fortunate and dubious. It was in a time span extending over twenty-six years, starting with my being a prop man for Harpo and Chico in 1949 while touring the British Music Hall circuit, and ending with my accompanying Groucho on piano in his later years up until the time of his passing in 1977.
Fortunate? Quite indeed. However, I have since learned there is a vast difference in the comparing of my mindset during the time. I was actually involved while working with dad, and the reflections I have now of those all too distant past events. The level of importance to me at the time could never come close to that of audiences’ immediate responses, as I was always too consumed by the moment, never feeling that I was taking part in something of any major significance. I was just always busy being more concerned about getting my job done. But today, I am humbled beyond belief that both as a father to me and entertainer to millions, I was even a part of his life, and so very grateful for the unwavering confidence he had in me.
Fortunate was I, quite indeed. It started from the time I was twelve years old, when my dad first validated me as a pro by making me responsible for his harp and all of the “magical” props he would use in his shows. Gradually he inserted me into his act as a foil for his wonderfully childlike shtick. By the time I was sixteen, he had ordained me as his official musical arranger/conductor, thus my working closely with him in that capacity for the next twelve years until his life came to an end, and with it, so did a precious part of mine as well.
By then, I had come to realize my having accepted the role of his father. But now that gig was over. And without him, I would have no more bits to rehearse, no more arrangements to pen, no more piano/harp duets to jam, no more role to play. From then on, I was a pro on my own. No more “Harpo’s kid.” All of a sudden, I had to become responsible for the new role of “Bill Marx,” whoever he might be.
And it is not surprising to me that during my early years, though I really in fact did hear all the life messages that Harpo Marx would impart to me, my awareness of the wisdom behind them would subsequently gain far greater importance as they slowly resurfaced when I most needed them in my fortunate journey through life.
Oh, and the passing of Marx Brothers’ great screenwriter Irving Brecher a few years ago has left me alone with the other part of this distinct honor, that of it being dubious…….which appears, quite indeed, self-explanatory.
Son of Harpo Speaks!: A Family Portrait by Bill Marx is available Nov. 15, 2011 from Applause Theatre and Cinema Book, an imprint of Hal Leonard. Visit the Hal Leonard Performing Arts Publishing Group blog.