That Time A Renegade Mule Changed Comedy History
Why didn’t the pony sing at the opera? Because it was a little horse!
That’s the kind of bottom-tier joke that would get you the hook at a 1912 vaudeville show like the one where Julius, Leonard, Herbert, and – um – Adolph Marx unofficially became the legendary comedy group now known as the Marx Brothers.
One dreary evening at the Opera House in Nacogdoches, Texas, the four brothers took the stage as The Four Nightingales, a four-part musical act. When they left, a chorus of laughter and applause followed them offstage, and the cosmic trajectory of American comedy shifted.
The comedy group would become arguably the most influential act in humor history, inspiring the likes of Monty Python, Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Carl Reiner, David Zucker, and countless others to follow in their footsteps.
The Marx Brothers were originally a singing quartet managed by their mother Minnie. And while the exact time and place have been disputed, one thing is clear – an ornery mule at the Opera House is the reason the Jewish-French-German family act switched from crooning to comedy.
The Marx Brothers grew up on the Upper East Side of Manhattan back when it actually had affordable neighborhoods for immigrant families. According to Zeppo, their father, Samuel Marx, “was a very bad tailor but he found some people who were so stupid that they would buy his clothes, and so he'd make a few dollars that way for food.”
Their mother, Miene “Minnie” Schoenberg, came from a family of entertainers – her father was a ventriloquist and her mother was a yodeling harpist, both “funfair” performers in their native Dornum, Germany. The Marx Brothers were essentially the descendants of carnies.
Their lineup was constantly shifting – between three and six family members would take the stage at any given show – but by the time of that fateful night in Nacogdoches, The Four Nightingales were composed of the brothers who would become Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Gummo.
One night in 1912 at the Opera House in Nacogdoches, Texas, the quartet was playing their usual music act when a man burst into the theater, yelling, “There’s a runaway mule!”
The audience, apparently bored by the same old song and dance, rushed into the street to observe the commotion, leaving the four brothers to play to a distracted, dispersed, and dwindling crowd. Julius Marx, later to be renamed Groucho, grew infuriated with the unruly onlookers, and when they finally returned to the theater, he began to berate and insult the flock of Texans.
Imagine that in the present day, a band of Manhattan musicians traveled to a small city in East Texas and started hurling insults at the crowd. If any of them left the theater alive, it’s hard to believe they would feel even remotely encouraged about their future in entertainment.
But this Texas crowd loved these New York musicians’ jabs, and they quickly turned their attention from the mule to the Marx Brothers. The rest of the group joined Julius in hurling abuse at the electrified crowd, jeering, "Nacogdoches is full of roaches" and "the jackass is the flower of Tex-ass".
History’s funniest family realized then and there that comedy, not music, was going to take them to the top. The group began performing sketches based on their German upbringing, the most popular being "Fun in Hi Skule,“ which featured Groucho as a heavily accented German man trying to teach in an American classroom, with Harpo, Gummo, and Chico playing the students. Unsurprisingly, ethnic humor was all the rage back in 1912.
The youngest brother, Zeppo, joined the group in 1915 just as Gummo, the oldest, was leaving to fight in World War I. Anti-German sentiment forced the group to re-think their branding, and under the supervision of their uncle, Al Shean, they spent the wartime years honing their craft and establishing their roles.
Groucho began wearing his signature greasepaint mustache. Harpo stopped talking and donned a red wig. Zeppo, the starry-eyed youngster, became the straight man and romantic lead. Chico pretended to be Italian. Seriously, people went nuts for ethnic stereotypes.
The Marx Brothers quickly became one of the hottest theater acts in the nation. They spent the 1920’s touring the country, bringing their sharp, witty, satirical style to every town with a stage. Their revues took Broadway by storm and caught the eye of playwright George S. Kaufman who would work with them in both their stage and film careers and further develop the characters into comedy icons.
Their success came at a serendipitous point in entertainment history – they got big right as the movie industry was entering the “talkies” era. The brothers signed a contract with Paramount Pictures and began making films such as The Cocoanuts, Animal Crackers, and Monkey Business.
Film would prove to be their most impactful venture, as well as their most profitable. Movies like Duck Soup, Horsefeathers!, and A Night At The Opera regularly make appearances on lists of the greatest comedies of all time. Following their massive movie success, the brothers would all go off to explore their own solo careers on television, on stage, and on film, never straying too far from the family that made them what they are.
The Marx Brothers’ fingerprints are all over our modern comedic landscape. Like Chuck Berry for Rock ‘n’ Roll, just about any great comedian of the modern era can trace their influences all the way back to the group formerly known as The Four Nightingales.
Harpo Marx said the event happened in Ada, Oklahoma, while other sources believe the misbehaving mule was in Marshall, Texas – but the people of Nacogdoches have claimed it for their own. Now an art gallery, the original opera house still stands in Nacogdoches with local residents touting their town as the first step on the Marx Brothers’ road to stardom.
All because they got upstaged by a mule at the Opera. It’s like a Marx Brothers sketch in itself.
Top Image: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
For exclusive ComedyNerd content, subscribe to our spiffy newsletter: