Wednesday, September 3, 2008

The Marx Brothers - Preservation Instigators ?

The Marx Brothers' global influence is so undeniable and so indelible that even after all these years, the brothers still manage somehow to contribute to the public dialogue on issues as far ranging as local politics, foreign policy, individualism and yes - even historic preservation (you see, it turns out - the Marx Brothers were the impetus for the Demolition Review law in Chicago, too ! ).

Their collective recalcitrance, and the inevitable image of those brilliant comics thumbing their noses at the status quo, is perhaps the essence of what is most American about these lovable clowns. It's also the very characteristic that gave their opinions pop, and still does.

Throughout their busy lives, the Marx Brothers engaged in a freewheeling discourse with a virtual salon of leaders, thinkers and creative artists which included American Presidents, world-renowned painters (perhaps most notably Salvador Dali), filmmakers, writers and poets from all across the globe. Correspondence flowing back and forth between the publicly mute Harpo Marx, the outspoken Groucho Marx and the somewhat taciturn American President Harry S. Truman is preserved today in the National Archives at:

In 1961, Harpo Marx presented Truman with a copy of his acclaimed memoir Harpo Speaks! in which the comedian lovingly describes the Marx Brothers childhood home on East 93rd Street in Carnegie Hill where the family lived before the turn of the 19th century and into the 20th century. Harpo always liked to say (yes, he really did speak) that wherever the Marx Brothers went, their 93rd Street accent followed. The Marx Brothers childhood home, the first they ever knew, never left them - even after they moved out of the house on the hill (perhaps it actually was the steep slope under footing their childhood that caused them to lean so far to the left at times ?).

The stark vulnerability of that still un-landmarked childhood home, the house that helped to shape the world-view of the inimitable Marx Brothers, and to which Groucho wistfully returned late in life, has sparked a preservation campaign attracting a rather ecclectic coalition perfectly suited to men of such renaissance talents and ideas. Among the many supporters of the effort to protect historic East 93rd Street (affectionately known as Marx Brothers Place) are some of the most distinguished Preservationists in NY (Tony Wood, Elizabeth Ashby, Teri Slater, Michael Devonshire & Bronson Binger to mention but a few), theatre artists & theatre critics (Playwright Gregory Murphy, Theater Critic Leonard Jacobs, Stage Director Ludovica Villar-Hauser, Actor Jy Murphy, et al), film & television artists (filmmaker Woody Allen and TV Writer-Producer Bob Weide of HBO's "Curb Your Enthusiasm"), Marx Brothers fans from all over the world and Groucho's own granddaughter Jade Marx.

Now, as it turns out, we find that NYC is not the first place where these magicians of mayhem and comic clowning have had a profound and positive impact on historic preservation. After leaving their beloved childhood home on East 93rd Street, in the 2nd decade of the 20th century, the Marx Brothers lived for a time in the City of Chicago. As you will read in this Chicago Tribune story from 2003, it is this later Marx Brothers House that was the impetus for the adoption of a Demolition Review Amendment in that city, too:, 1,703330.story .

As this fact was completely unknown to the 93rd Street Beautification Association when it first launched its preservation campaign, Save Marx Brothers Place (, which has now led to a movement to adopt the Demolition Review Amendment in NYC (the bill is presently making its way through the legislative process of the NYC Council), one must ask the obvious question: are these comic geniuses, who always had an opinion on public policy - whether the emigration of Jewish refugees after WW II, America's relationship with Israel or whether Truman's wife should run for President in his stead - still pulling the strings from beyond the grave ? Honk if you think so.

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