Saturday, August 18, 2007

Comedist Festival of the Ascention: The Captain is a Very Moral Man

Brothers, Sisters, and Transgendered Comedists Everywhere,

This week we celebrate one of the holiest days of the year, the anniversary of the day Groucho took his place at the head table in Comedy heaven. We'll have more biographical details in a few weeks on the feast day of Saint Groucho, but it is appropriate at this time to recall an episode from his last years.

As an old man, Groucho had become more and more frail and more and more isolated from the world. As often happens, he became depressed. His nurse and caretaker, a woman with whom the family would have legal squabbles over his estate, had an idea. She set up a one night engagement at Carnegie Hall called "An Evening With Groucho Marx." No script, no rehearsals, Groucho would simply tell stories to whoever would pay to listen to them. He would once again have his fans. He would feel connected. He would feel loved.

Needless to say, it sold out. Marvin Hamlisch came out and played a Beethoven piano sonata that slowly turned into "Hurray for Captain Spaulding." Dick Cavett gave a beautiful brown-nosed introduction and out came Groucho. The first joke of the night, however, was not by Groucho, but on him. Unbeknownst to the star of the show, upon entering the building, each member of the audience was supplied and encouraged to wear his or her very own Groucho nose and glasses, so upon taking the stage Groucho looked out over a sea of Grouchos. For all those assembled who loved the man and who had been given the gift of so many laughs through the years, some during the dark days of the Depression, to give one back to Groucho and help him out of his own depression was an example where turn-about was not merely fair play, but exquisite play.

The actor Frank Ferrante used this performance as a model for a one and a half-man play (he has a piano player) called "An Evening with Groucho." When it came to Frederick where I live, LilBro and I bought three tickets and took TheOldMan as a Father's Day present, a Comedist guy's night out. In deference to the original "An Evening With Groucho Marx," they decided to do the same audience gag, but since plastic Groucho nose and glasses would be cost prohibitive for a small show on the road, instead they handed out pieces of black electrical tape so everyone would at least have a Groucho Marx moustache.

Let me tell you a little about Frederick, Maryland. Equidistant from Baltimore to the east and Washington, D.C. to the south, the sprawl from both areas is overlapping at Frederick and it is now exploding with sub-development after sub-development. This is changing the character of the place a bit. When I was growing up, it was out in the sticks and nicknamed "Fredneck." The changing demographics have altered the character of the town somewhat, but there are certainly parts of the region where the old Frederick is still alive and well. Places where you go to buy sheets and don't ask for twin, full, or queen, but 42 regular. Places where the pillow cases already have the eye-holes sewn in.

So, it was a little off-putting when the people handing out the electrical tape were being a little cheap with the lengths they were distributing. Now, it was certainly an innocent mistake to hand out pieces far too small to make people look like Groucho, surely made out of concern for the amount of tape on hand and the number of people in the hall; but as we sat there, clearly the only three Jews in the joint, and the small pieces of tape were applied beneath the noses, we suddenly found ourselves in Frederick surrounded by hundreds of Adolf Hitler look-a-likes.

It was all a bit unsettling until my Dad gestured towards the man in the seat in front of LilBro, a chubby, balding man with a gray thinning comb-over (think Micheal Vale, the actor who played the "time to make the doughnuts" baker in the old Dunkin' Donuts commercials) and whispered to us, "Doesn't he look like the guy from the audition scene in 'The Producers'?" HE DID! That was it for the two of us until the show started. We were rolling. A holy man, my father.

So, in the name of my father, his son, and Groucho's holy spirit, I wish all of you a happy weekend. We'll close, today with some of Groucho's words from "An Evening With Groucho Marx."

I was in Italy, I was in Rome. Wonderful city. And I'd just lit a dollar cigar, and I was walking to the corner, and somebody bumped against me. It was a dollar cigar, I wasn't gonna let it lay there, so I reached down to pick it up, and I said "Jesus Christ!" And I turned around, and there is two priests standing next to me, and one of them had bumped against me. He reached in here and pulled out two cigars, and he said "Groucho, you've just said the secret word."

I did a bond tour during the Second World War. It was Hope and Crosby and Cagney - most of the big stars. Desi Arnaz. Yeah, he was on it. We were raising money, and we played Boston and Philadelphia and most of the big cities. And we got to Minneapolis. There wasn't any big theater to play there, so we did our show in a railroad station. Then I told the audience, that I knew a girl in Minneapolis. She was also known in St.Paul, she used to come over to visit me. She was know as the Tail Of Two Cities. I didn't sell any more bonds, but eh...they didn't allow me to appear anymore.

When we did "Animal Crackers" we needed two minutes for a change - a scenery change - so I wrote a ridiculous poem. And I always think of whether the audiences really listens to the actor on the stage. I wrote the most ridiculous poem, you could possibly write, and tried it on the audience. And the first three weeks we did the show, we used to get a sophisticated New York audience, and they used to laugh and they used to applaud at the end. Then we started to get the out-of-towners, people from the middle west, and they though I were serious. Here's the way it goes:

Did you ever sit and ponder, as you walk along the strand,
that life's a bitter battle at the best.
And if you only knew it you would lend a helping hand,
then every man could meet the final test.
The world is but a stage, my friend, and life's but a game,
and how you play is all that matters in the end.
But whether a man is right or wrong, a woman gets the blame,
and your mother is your dog's best friend.
Then up came mighty Casey, and strode up to the bat,
and Sheridan was fifty miles away.
For it takes a heap of loving to make a home like that,
on the road to where the flying fishes play.

Then I used to take a chair, which the vaudeville actors used to do in those days, and I would start walking off the stage, and the last line would be:

So be a real life Pagliac'
and laugh, Clown, laugh.

Live, love, and laugh, clown laugh,

Irreverend Steve