BILL MARX/pbs.org

BILL MARX/pbs.org

There is a double meaning to the title of this book, which was published in 2010. This is the memoir of Bill Marx, oldest of the four children of Harpo Marx, so the book is, in a sense, Harpo’s son speaking. The title also is an allusion to Harpo Speaks, the 1961 autobiography of the silent comedian, written “with Rowland Barber.”

Harpo Speaks may be the best of the many books about this family, due in part to the detailed memories of Harpo Marx and the writing skills of Rowland Barber, who also wrote The Night they Raided Minsky’s and co-wrote Somebody Up There Likes Me with boxer Rocky Graziano. Son of Harpo Speaks is not in the same class. It’s not that Bill Marx didn’t have a story to tell, or even that he didn’t tell it. It’s that he told it without focus or precision. The grammatical and spelling errors, while trivial as individual faux pas, are distracting in the aggregate. The absence of a professional co-author and a rigorous editor is evident on every page.

BILL and HARPO MARX on a movie set.

BILL and HARPO MARX on a movie set.

Nevertheless, I’m grateful that Bill Marx wrote this book, because it preserves facts and insights about his parents and the rest of the Marx family that might otherwise have been lost. That’s important to me, because I have been a student of the Marx clan since I was about 13 years old and someone gave me a copy of The Marx Brothers by Kyle Crichton, which was published in 1950. I use the word “student” rather than “fan” because I have always been less interested in the Marx Brothers as entertainers than in the Marx family as a phenomenon of the American experience in the twentieth century. I have read most of the other books about them and I have interviewed Miriam Marx, the eldest child of Groucho Marx; Maxine Marx, the daughter of Chico Marx; and Gregg Marx, the grandson of Gummo Marx.

Bill Marx was the first of four children adopted by Harpo and Susan Fleming Marx, and he made his career as a Julliard-trained pianist, composer, and arranger. His account of his relationship with his adoptive parents confirms what one reads in every account of their lives, namely that they were genuinely nice people. Bill Marx unabashedly admired both of them, and he revels in the fact that for many years he served as Harpo’s props manager: “I had to see that the coat he wore was properly prepared for all of his sight gags; the carrot goes into the upper right inside pocket, the telescope must be in the lower left inside pocket, the scissors for immediate availability in the small middle right inside pocket, the rubber chicken accessible in the large left inside pocket, and on and on.”

Once Bill Marx got his sea legs as a musician, he collaborated with his father on several projects, including two albums of Harpo’s performances on the complicated instrument he mastered without a lesson and without the ability to read music. He also wrote arrangements for Harpo’s live performances and TV guest spots.

HARPO and BILL MARX in collaboration

HARPO and BILL MARX in collaboration

Bill Marx also devotes considerable space in this meandering book to his personal emotional and psychic history, including his struggle to find and understand his own identity, and the personalities that influenced him, including such icons as Buddy Rich and Margaret Hamilton. He also includes a fascinating account of how he learned the names and sad histories of his birth parents through a chance acquaintance he made at Dino’s, a club in Los Angeles where he was playing piano.

I’m glad to have read this book; my only regret is that I wasn’t the editor.

(Bill Marx presides over an informative and entertaining web site, The Official Arthur Harpo Marx Family Online Collection.)

Sign at a tavern in Portland, Ore.

One of the classes I taught last semester included a section on idiomatic expressions. A topic like that always calls attention to the difference in the ages of the students and the instructor. We came across many expressions that a person my age uses casually but that many or all of the students didn’t recognize. None of them, for instance, knew the expression “hocus pocus,” which refers to the things magicians do and say to create the illusion that they have paranormal resources.

Another example arose when, instead of instructing, I was telling the students about Marcello, the new cat at our house. We had met Marcello on the sidewalk outside a gift shop in North East, Md., and the chance acquaintance evolved into a permanent arrangement. Now, I told my students, Marcello is living “the life of Riley.”

Opening title of the television series "The Life of Riley"

As the words left my lips, I could read in the faces of the students that they didn’t know what that meant. My experience has been that students are a tolerant lot, and that they wouldn’t think of embarrassing the instructor by pointing that he had said something they couldn’t comprehend. They would have been content to go on living without knowing what that expression meant. So I asked them: “Do you know that expression?” They didn’t, and even though none of them asked, even then, what it meant, I told them.

That set me to wondering where that expression originated, but I didn’t have time until now to look it up. Apparently there is no definitive answer. One theory traces the phrase to a song written in 1898 by vaudevillian Pat Rooney Sr. In that song, a hotel owner named Riley looks forward the day when he strikes it rich. The phrase itself is not in the lyric of that song.

Rosemary DeCamp and Jackie Gleason

The expression does appear in a song called “My Name is Kelly,” which was written by Howard Pease in 1919. “Faith, and my name is Kelly, Michael Kelly / But I’m livin’ the life of Reilly just the same.” The fact that Pease used the phrase that way suggests that it was well known by that time. The author of a British web site, The Phrase Finder, writes that the first known instance of “the life of Riley” appearing in print in the United States occurred in 1911 in the Hartford Courant in a story about the demise of a notorious wild cow, something — I must confess — I have never heard of before: “The famous wild cow of Cromwell is no more. After ‘living the life of Riley’ for over a year, successfully evading the pitchforks and the bullets of the farmers, whose fields she ravaged in all four seasons.”

Of  course, I associate the expression with the television comedy series that starred William Bendix as Chester A. Riley; Marjorie Reynolds as his wife, Peg; the gorgeous Lugene Sanders as their daughter, Babs, and Wesley Morgan as their son, Junior.

Lugene Sanders

Although the expression implies that a man is living a life of ease, Chester Riley worked steadily in the wing assembly division of Cunningham Aircraft in Los Angeles. He was the stereotypical bumbling father who was always in some kind of scrape. He didn’t have many happy endings, and his closing line on most episodes became one of the most popular catch phrases of the era: “What a revoltin’ development this is!”

A radio show with the same title that appeared for a few months in 1941 was not related to the later series. Film star William Bendix appeared on radio as Chester Riley from 1945 to 1951. One of the developers of that series was Gummo Marx. Bendix was making a film version of “Riley” when the show moved to television in 1949, so Jackie Gleason was cast as Riley and Rosemary De Camp as Peg. A contributing writer for that series was Groucho Marx, who had once been considered for the title role on radio. The series won an Emmy, but it ended after one short season because of a contract dispute.

Bill Bendix on the cover of a Dell comic based on the series.

The show was introduced on television again in 1953 with Bendix and Marjorie Reynolds leading the cast, and it was a hit, running for six seasons. A 2009 BBC series with the same title is not related in anyway to the American shows.

While I was looking around for information about this show, I came across two modern-day uses of the expression “Life of Riley,” both with more serious and somewhat ironic applications. One is a foundation headquartered in Sarasota, Fla., that raises funds to promote awareness of and seek a cure  for pediatric brain tumors. The organization is named for Riley Saba, a 7-year-old girl who died because of such a tumor. You can visit the foundation’s web site by clicking HERE.

Another site, this one located in Great Britain, was inspired by a boy whose first name is Riley. The youngster has a form of cerebral palsy, and a group of his family’s friends formed an organization to raise funds for charities that assist kids with that or similar conditions. Riley came by his first name because his dad was attracted to the song “The Life of Riley” by the Lightning Seeds. The song was written by Ian Broudie whose own son, Riley, now plays guitar with the group. You can learn more about the charity group by clicking HERE.

One hell of a sunset

December 9, 2009

DON HASTINGS

I see by the papers, as Phil Cook used to say, that “As the World Turns” has been cancelled by CBS after 13,661 episodes spread over 54 years – most of the history of commercial television. TV blogger Ava Gacser wrote about a sort of personal tie to the show, and there’s a link to her blog on the right of this page.

Like Ava, I took the news personally, and for a similar reason. I was never a daytime drama fan, but I watched “As the World Turns” several times because  I was prepping to interview performers who appeared on the show.

Chief among these was Don Hastings, who has been playing Dr. Robert Hughes for almost 50 years. Hastings has set some kind of record for hours on television. He started out when he was about 16, and in 1949 he started appearing  as the second banana on “Captain Video and his Video Ranger,” a live sci-fi show for kids – when I was a kid.  Among other gigs, he was on “The Edge of Night” for four years before signing on to “As the World Turns.” He has been one of the constants — maybe the most constant — on the TV screen for the past 60 years.

DON HASTINGS and AL HODGE (Captain Video)

I had lunch with Hastings many years ago. The occasion might have been his 25th annivesary on “As the World Turns.” He was a very pleasant man and had a lot of good stories to tell — including anecdotes about fans who had begun to confuse him with Dr. Hughes to the point that the would ask him for medical advice. As crazy as that sounds, that mentality was validated for me once by Joyce Randolph, who told me folks used to send curtains and table cloths to CBS because they thought the Kramdens actually lived in that drab apartment.

Hastings, who is 75, is the brother of Bob Hastings, who has also had a long acting career. His TV debut, by the way, was on “Captain Video.” Bob Hastings, who is about 11 years older than Don, has 144 credits listed on the International Movie Database site.

I also did a telephone interview with Eileen Fulton, when she was marking some benchmark in her “As the World Turns” resume, and I interviewed the gorgeous Lee Meredith, a New Jersey woman who had a short spin on the soap a long time ago. My interview with Lee didn’t have to do with that show, however, but with her role as the sketch nurse in a major production of “The Sunshine Boys.”

GREGG MARX

I also did a lunch interview with Gregg Marx, who in the 1980s had a recurring role on “As the World Turns” as a member of the Hughes family. He won a Daytime Emmy for that part. Gregg is the grandson of Milton “Gummo” Marx – the fourth of the five Marx Brothers. Like Don Hastings, Gregg is a sociable guy, and he was a pleasure to deal with.

For each of these interviews I had to tape the show for a week or so in order to talk intelligently about it to the actors. Fortunately I was working full-time back then. If I hadn’t been, I think I would have become addicted.

Maybe I’ll buy the boxed set.