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Chico Marx, Wisecracking Pianist

Published: 3/22/2011
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Chico Marx (Wikimedia Commons / Allison-Lighthall photographers, Chicago)

To celebrate the birthday of late comedian Chico Marx, we bring you 20 things you might not have heard about the piano-playing Marx brother.

1. Born March 22, 1887, in New York City, Leonard "Chico" Marx was the son of Jewish immigrants from France and Germany. He was the eldest of the Marx brothers.

2. Groucho Marx later claimed that their father had difficulty making a living as a tailor partially because Chico often stole his shears in order to pawn them.

3. Though many now pronounce his nickname as "Cheek-o," it was originally pronounced "Chick-o," a moniker he reputedly earned for his girl-chasing reputation. A typesetter dropped the "k" when creating a program guide and the new spelling stuck.

4. Their mother was the daughter of a magician and a musician and all the brothers were encouraged to take up artistic pursuits. While Chico was known for his piano playing in the Marx Brothers films, Harpo was arguably the most talented musician, having learned how to play six different instruments, including the harp (thus his nickname). Groucho played guitar and sang, while Zeppo was also a singer.

5. As an early vaudeville act, the Marx Brothers focused on music rather than comedy. It was only after Groucho became disgruntled because of an audience interruption in Nacodoches, Texas, and started cracking jokes that they discovered their comedic potential.

6. Chico's comic persona was that of a dimwitted Italian, a caricature based largely upon growing up with immigrants in the then poor neighborhood of Yorkville on Manhattan's Upper East Side.

7. Chico is largely considered the least funny of the Marx Brothers, and a recent online poll on the Turner Classic Movies site found his modern day popularity to be below that of even Zeppo, who appeared in only about half of the Marx Brothers' films.

8. As the eldest, Chico acted as the manager of the vaudeville troupe after their mother died.

9. As the Marx Brothers manager, he was able to get the act a deal that gave them a percentage of the film's gross ticket receipts – the first deal of its kind given to any Hollywood performer.

10. He also made friends with MGM mogul Irving Thalberg, a relationship instrumental in getting the Marx Brothers a second shot after the box office disappointment of Duck Soup, now widely considered their masterpiece.

11. While shooting Horse Feathers, he suffered a knee injury and can be seen to be limping in some sequences of the finished movie.

12. Chico was a lifelong gambling addict, and would bet on cards, horse races, dog races and various sports. He wasn't, however, apparently a lucky or skilled gambler. Asked how much he'd lost during his life to gambling, he responded, "Ask how much money Harpo's got. That's how much I lost." All of the Marx Brothers also lost fortunes during the Great Depression.

13. When gangster Bugsy Siegel was shot, he was carrying a check from Chico Marx, causing the police to question Chico about the nature of their acquaintance.

14. Groucho later said of the incident, "Chico was lucky Bugsy was shot. If Bugsy had tried to cash that check, it would have bounced. Then Bugsy would have had to shoot Chico."

15. The Marx Brothers made their penultimate film, A Night in Casablanca, to help Chico pay off his gambling debts. These same debts forced him to continue performing vaudeville long after his brothers had retired on their Hollywood earnings.

16. In the late 1930s and '40s, Chico even led a big band. A 17-year-old Mel Torme landed his first gig in showbiz singing with the Chico Marx Orchestra.

17. Chico's brothers eventually took control of his financial assets and put him on a fixed allowance.

18. Despite not being a great gambler, he was reputedly a world class pinochle player.

19. Chico and Harpo were often mistaken as twins when they were young. On the 1950s television game show I've Got a Secret, Chico came onstage dressed in Harpo's wig and tried to convince the panel that he was really his younger brother. He fooled everyone – including Groucho Marx.

20. Chico Marx died Oct. 11, 1961, from heart disease. He was the first Marx brother to pass on.

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