Groucho and the Tap Dancing Sisters
Like most children, I was enchanted and amused by the Marx Brothers' zany antics. Nothing was too silly to escape their attention: imperial domination, college football and even opera bouffe. I loved the Marx Brothers so much that my appreciation persisted through high school. I read a book about their careers when I was eighteen and later, another on Groucho himself. I was surprised to learn of his literary erudition and his fame for humorous personal letters and telegrams.
On a chilly, rainy November evening in the early Seventies, I decided to visit my Aunt Eileen whom I hadn't seen in a while. When I arrived at her house, she happened to be watching the Merv Griffin Show. His sole guest that night was his close friend, Groucho Marx. Though Groucho was obviously infirm, he was still as spritely, comical, charming and enchanting as ever. I was thoroughly entertained by his stories about his adventures with his brothers. At one point, he told a story about performing "I Lost My Shirt" at a Pittsburgh vaudeville theater in 1931. In the middle of the song, a "littul goil" came running down the aisle yelling "I find your shirt, I find it."
My aunt giggled and said "That was me." ??????? Her remark was so unexpected, my mind simply refused to react. After a few moments of mental struggle, I finally managed to stupidly ask "What?" Still giggling, she repeated her statement, "That was me!" It finally dawned on me what she meant and my mouth fell open. My aunt explained that at the ages of four and five, she and my mother had appeared as the opening act for the vaudeville show. They were billed as The Tap Dancing McBride Sisters. My Aunt Eileen really was the littul goil that had interrupted the Marx Brothers' song!
As such an ardent fan of the Marx Brothers and Groucho in particular, I desperately wanted to contact him to let him know that the little girl had heard his story and was overjoyed that he remembered. If I could just write to him, I knew he would be very pleased by the news. So I attempted to find some mailing address for Mr. Marx but my inept efforts were frustratingly unsuccessful. I even called the WTTG studio in Washington DC hoping for help. Unfortunately the station's operator wasn't able to provide any. With grave misgivings, I gave up after three weeks.
In 1974, Groucho was given a much deserved Honorary Academy Award. He was very frail by this time. He said he only wished that Chico, Harpo and Margaret Dumont could have been there to share in the moment. A few years later, his health confined him to a wheelchair. His longtime announcer on the "You Bet Your Life" television show, George Fenneman, came to visit him. Just before leaving, Fenneman picked up Groucho from his wheelchair and vertically carried him to the bed. Groucho whispered in his ear "Fenneman, you never were a very good dancer."
Groucho died on August 19th, 1977. I have regretfully carried the memory of my failure ever since. It cost me the opportunity to give back to my favorite entertainer a moment of pleasure the same way that he had warmed the hearts of millions for so long. I still have the highest esteem for the Marx Brothers and my failure still haunts me. My Aunt Eileen passed away ten years ago and my mother, Maureen, three years ago. Like most children who experienced the Great Depression, my mother developed a pack rat complex. So like most children, I had the task of cleaning out her bursting attic after the funeral. Amongst the bewildering arcana, I discovered a publicity photo of the two of them dressed in very silly Andy Hardy satin majorette costumes when they toured the country during World War II. The Tap Dancing McBride Sisters, sic transit somethingorother. Honk! And two hard boiled eggs.