By Brad Dison
Simon “Sam” Marrix was born in 1859 in Alsace, France. In 1880, he emigrated to New York. Because of the country of his origin, his friends in America called him “Frenchie.” Four years after moving to America, he married an immigrant from Dornum, Germany called Miene Schoenberg. To lessen confusion over the pronunciation of her name, she adopted the spelling “Minnie.” In Germany, Minnie’s parents worked on the fair circuit. Her father was a ventriloquist, and her mother was a yodeling harpist. In America, Minnie’s younger brother, Adolf Schönberg, began performing in shows under a stage name that was easier to pronounce, Al Shean. With Minnie’s help, her brother entered the vaudeville circuit and eventually became half of the popular musical comedy team called Gallagher and Shean.
In 1885, Frenchie and Minnie had their first child, Manfred, who died at the young age of seven. Between 1887 and 1901, they had five more sons, Leonard, Adolph, Julius, Milton, and Herbert, respectively. Rather than having aspirations for her sons to become doctors, lawyers, or engineers, Minnie wanted her sons to join the family business and become stage performers. Minnie worked untiringly to develop her sons’ talents. By 1907, Julius and Milton joined Mabel O’Donnell in a singing trio named “The Three Nightingales.” In 1908, Adolph joined the Nightingales. By 1910, with the addition of Minnie and the boys’ aunt Hannah, they renamed the group “the Six Mascots.”
The members of “The Six Mascots” most likely would have faded into obscurity had it not been for a team of runaway mules. During one lackluster musical performance in Marshall, Texas, the crowd grew bored. Suddenly, a great commotion occurred outside the theater. Audience members in the back of the theater could hear all sorts of sounds of destruction including breaking glass. Many members of the bored audience rushed out of the theater to see what was happening. A runaway team of mules was running wild through the streets of the town. The Six Mascots continued performing their musical act to a much smaller audience. Finally, after the mules were caught, the crowd returned to their seats to see the remainder of the performance. They had paid for it after all. Julius, Milton, and Adolph, irritated that “the audience had deserted Mozart for mules,” began insulting the crowd with wise cracks. The result was unexpected. Rather than resenting the remarks, the crowd began to laugh. The crowd’s laughter grew exponentially with each new insult. They tried the same wise cracks at their next performance and got a similar reaction. The brothers took the hint and revamped their whole show.
Over the next few years, the five brothers, in varying combinations, fine-tuned their characters. Their success continued into Hollywood films beginning in 1929 with Animal Crackers. For the next decade, they worked on at least one film per year, all of which were successful. They continued to work together as well as in solo projects for the rest of their lives. Had it not been for a team of runaway mules, we may never had heard of Leonard, Adolph, Julius, Milton, and Herbert, who purportedly received their nicknames from a friend during a poker game. Leonard became Chico, Adolph became Harpo, Julius became Groucho, Milton became Gummo, and Herbert became Zeppo. You and I know them as the Marx Brothers.
1. The Decatur Daily, December 9, 1930, p.2.
2. The Peninsula Times Tribune, August 20, 1977, p.5.