This archived news story is available only for your personal, non-commercial use. Information in the story may be outdated or superseded by additional information. Reading or replaying the story in its archived form does not constitute a republication of the story.
SALT LAKE CITY — In 1935, hardly any comedy act was bigger than the Marx Brothers. Groucho, Chico and Harpo had become insanely popular. But by this time, their zany, movie-making style was wearing thin at the box office, so the brothers came to Salt Lake City to prove they were serious about getting their comedy just right.
Two years earlier, the Marx Brothers hit a low point in Hollywood. Their latest film for Paramount Studios, “Duck Soup,” did not connect with critics or moviegoers. In fact, the film did so poorly, Paramount did not seek a new contract with the group.
Enter Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s “wunderkind” producer, Irving Thalberg.
“Thalberg wanted comedy in the MGM lineup. They didn’t have much of that,” said BYU film historian James D’Arc. “And, he figured, ‘we’ll catch the Marx Brothers at their low ebb, and I’ll put them into a situational plot.’ ”
A plot was something the Marx Brothers never had before.
“The Paramount films — ‘Monkey Business,’ ‘The Cocoanuts,’ ‘Horse Feathers,’ ‘Animal Crackers,’ ‘Duck Soup’ — were so loosely structured,” said D’Arc. “They were basically strung together gags that people liked, but not enough to create soaring profits for the producers.”
Thalberg wanted to hone and craft the Marxes’ comedy so it would work on the screen. He believed the Marx Brothers needed to balance their comedy routines with a good, simple plot that appealed to a broad audience. A-list writers were brought in to develop “A Night at the Opera.”
“The worst thing about comedy,” said D’Arc, “is to have something that drags, or a key payoff or punchline and not have roars of applause or laughs from the audience.”
That April, Thalberg, packed up the Marx Brothers and their team and sent them on a four-city road tour to work out the script's bugs in front of live audiences. He wanted to be sure the jokes were really laughable before shooting one frame of film.
D’Arc said, “This was the first instance I’ve ever heard of in my years of research where they actually did this to try to test and prove comedy situations.”
The road show’s first stop became Salt Lake City’s Orpheum Theater (now called the Utah Theater) on downtown’s Main Street. The former grand Vaudeville house had been turned into a movie palace, and the Marx Brothers were taking it over for a week-long engagement.
“Imagine the opportunity of coming to the Utah [Orpheum] Theater to see the Marx Brothers live — multiple times a day,” D’Arc said.
“There was a lot of anticipation with the Marx Brothers coming to Salt Lake City,” said Eileen Hallet Stone, who has written about the Brothers’ road show in Utah. “I think they wanted to know how regular people — everyday people — take their jokes, take their action. I think Salt Lake was perfect."
She said thousands of Utahns paid 40 to 55 cents to see them live at the Orpheum — considerably more than the average movie ticket. According to Box Office Mojo, the average price of a movie ticket in 1935 was 24 cents.
“It might have been an extravagance, but it was an exciting cost. They were going to be entertained like they’ve never been entertained before.” said Hallet Stone.
“When you look at Groucho Marx, you think automatically at the black coat and the cigar, and the false mustache and thick glasses,” said Hallet Stone. “How exciting is it to see him in person? And then to see Harpo — so sweet, so mellow, so funny — and he comes out, moves around like he doesn’t weigh a pound, but his facial expression is so charismatic. And then when you see Chico — Chico became Italian and that was his persona. So, you could go and make a day of it. It would be like going to Lagoon.”
When you look at Groucho Marx, you think automatically at the black coat and the cigar, and the false mustache and thick glasses. How exciting is it to see him in person? And, then to see Harpo — so sweet, so mellow, so funny — and he comes out, moves around like he doesn't weigh a pound, but his facial expression is so charismatic. And then when you see Chico — Chico became Italian and that was his persona. So, you could go and make a day of it. It would be like going to Lagoon.
–Eileen Hallet Stone
The Marx Brothers and company performed at least four 50-minute shows a day at the Orpheum while the writers carefully observed audience reactions.
“They timed from when the joke was told to the first laugh. And then, they timed how long was that laugh,” said Hallet Stone. “Was it a short laugh? Was it long? Was it somewhere in the middle?”
“Comedy is a science, because what is key to comedy is timing,” said D’Arc. “Between the 50-minute acts, they (the writers) could huddle together, figure out with the Marx Brothers what got laughs, what didn’t — what to trim, what not to trim. Then they would do the next 50-minute segment.”
In the end, it worked.
“Night at the Opera” helped save the Marx Brothers' movie career. That is, with a little assistance from Utahns.
“They didn’t sit back and watch this play happen to them,” said Hallet Stone. “They became a part of it. Not so funny … that was funny.”
“I love the entire film,” said D’Arc, “because it pokes fun at a high-class, nose-in-the-air institution — opera. And, I think, Thalberg and the writers picking the opera as a place for the Marx Brothers to co-exist was brilliant.”
Eighty years after Groucho, Chico and Harpo came to Salt Lake to hone their movie, “Night at the Opera” is generally regarded as one of their best films. Groucho himself considered it his favorite. The American Film Institute ranks it as No. 12 on its list of 100 Funniest American Movies of All Time. “Duck Soup” — which was panned by critics in 1933 — is listed on the same list as No. 5.
As for the Orpheum Theater, the Redevelopment Agency of Salt Lake City hopes to bring it back to its former glory.
It's looking for partners willing to put in the time and money needed to bring new life to the old theater.