Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Groucho a Memorable Boss? Bet Your Life on It

September 02, 1996|NORMAN FRISCH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"How'd you meet your wife?" "Who is buried in Grant's tomb?" "Say the secret word and the duck will come down and pay you an extra $100."

Those lines were standard fare on the comedy quiz show "You Bet Your Life." Starring the late Groucho Marx, he of the bouncing eyebrows and the ever-present cigar, the show ran for 14 years, first on radio, then on TV.

Marx died 19 years ago last month; the show went off the air 35 years ago this month. Here are recollections of Marx and the show by its network publicist for its final six years, Norman Frisch of Mission Viejo.

On those rare occasions when Groucho Marx agreed to do a lunchtime interview with a member of the press, the routine went like this: The show's publicist would drive to Groucho's house and change cars. Groucho would then drive to the restaurant close by in downtown Beverly Hills.

When we neared the restaurant, Groucho would slow down and we would start looking for a parking place with minutes still on the meter. Sometimes we had to circle the block a time or two. Jack Benny was supposed to be frugal and wasn't. Groucho was.

The restaurant was the Beverly Hills Brown Derby, one of two there that Groucho would have lunch in. The other was Romanoff's. Both were on the expensive side and were patronized largely by show-biz folks to whom Groucho was no novelty. That would cut down on the autograph requests, he figured.

It worked, but not always. Once, in Romanoff's, a tourist wearing a cowboy hat bee-lined up to Groucho's table, pushed one of the restaurant's outsized menus at the comedian and smilingly asked him for his autograph. Groucho signed the menu. Then the man, possibly by way of thanks, extended his hand. Groucho shook hands, limply.

Beaming, the man said, "Groucho, you don't know what this means to me."

"You're right," Groucho said. "I don't know what this means to you, but I know what it means to me--probably a skin disease." The man laughed uproariously. Evidently he felt he had been insulted by the master and loved it. One could just see him telling his story over and over back in Iowa or wherever.

Not all publicity came from interviews. There were also stunts. Annually during Groucho's television days, a weekly TV magazine would have its "Day" at one of the Los Angeles racetracks. All TV publicists were invited to deliver their top star to the event. This publicist's star one year was Groucho.

Before his race began, the Marx man was escorted to the winner's circle. For the presentation, he was handed a shiny silver tray. While the horses were parading to the post, Groucho started improvising with the tray. First he used it as a mirror and combed his hair. Next he bounced sunbeams off the tray and into the eyes of giggling customers. Then he tucked the tray under his jacket and pretended to sneak away, using that famous bent-over walk of his. The crowd roared. It was the first time anyone could remember laughter, rather than cheers or boos, coming from a racetrack grandstand.

*

Groucho's show was filmed Wednesday evenings in the old NBC studios at Sunset and Vine in Hollywood. Before the show, Groucho would hold court, sort of, in his dressing room.

During one of these sessions, he mentioned that he was moving from a two-story to a one-story house and needed to get rid of a lot of things, including some of his daughter Melinda's "50 dolls."

The publicist said he had two daughters of the right age who had heard about Melinda coming to the show and would be pleased to take a couple of dolls off her hands.

If the week that followed were typical for Groucho, he would be dining a couple of evenings with prominent people who were visiting or living in Beverly Hills. And he would exchange correspondence a couple of mornings with leaders in politics and the arts around the world. There's a book full of this correspondence in "The Groucho Letters." The man stayed busier than he needed to.

Yet on the next Wednesday night, from an office overlooking the NBC parking lot, he was seen getting out of his car carrying two dolls.

Groucho's favorite people were children. They were honest, he said; they hadn't yet learned to be a phony. And Groucho's favorite child, of course, was Melinda. When he brought her to the show, he would always have her take a bow. Sometimes she would sing and dance for the studio audience. More than once she brought along her friend Candy. We know her now as TV's "Murphy Brown," Candice Bergen.

Groucho was, in a sense, two people. He would make you feel like two cents or two grand, demolish you with a quip or melt you with a smile. Typical was the way he autographed one publicist's copy of his book "Groucho and Me"--"To a goddam nuisance, Your Friend, Groucho Marx."

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|