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Groucho Marx's typically unflattering description of Jacksonville, Florida


(From his essay "Up from Pantages," published in the June 10, 1928 edition of The New York Times)


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(At left, The Four Nightingales [c. 1909]: Groucho, Harpo, Gummo, and "one-time Marx Brother" Lou Levy.)

I can remember playing a movie and vaudeville house in the business section of Jacksonville, Florida. It was a dark, long, narrow hall, filled with yellow folding chairs, the kind that are used by undertakers to make the mourners more uncomfortable...It wasn't really a theatre, but a gent's furnishing store that had been converted into a theatre simply by removing the counters, shelves and some of the rubbish, and by installing an electric piano.

There was no stage. There was, however, a long, narrow platform about as wide as the scaffolding used by painters and stone masons, and it was on this precarious ledge that most of the performance was given...The dressing room was large and roomy and had perfect ventilation. It was, in fact, a trifle too roomy, as it comprised the whole backyard and was shared alike by a grocer, a butcher and a blacksmith. It was not much for privacy but great for congeniality and comradeship. One had for companions a crate of chickens, three pigs that were about to be slaughtered, some horses waiting to be shod, two girls who later became known as the Dolly Sisters and a covey of the largest rats that ever gnawed at an actor's shoes...

The first performance began at noon and then every hour on the hour until midnight, or longer if the business warranted it. The manager was a Greek who had been in the theatrical business only a few months -- just long enough to master such a childish profession -- and he had therefore set himself up as critic, censor, master of ceremonies, stage manager, ticket chopper, and frequently, bouncer...

The opening performance (as the Nightingales) had us Marxes singing lustily to what we imagined was a spellbound and enraptured throng. We had just arrived at the point in the chorus where we hit the big harmony chord, the chord that was supposed to put the song over with a bang, when we heard a terrific noise that might have come from a wild bull, but which turned out to be the manager running down the aisle, waving arms, head and hands, and shouting: "Stop it! Stop it, I say! It's rotten. Hey, you fellers, you call that singing? That's terrible. The worst I ever heard. My dog can do better than that. Now you go back and do it right or you don't get a nickel of my money, not a nickel...

While we cowered in the corner, the Florida Belasco announced to an audience which was entirely too sympathetic to suit us that these hams -- pointing to us -- could sing rotten in Tampa, could sing rotten in Miami and, if they so desired, could sing rotten in St. Petersburg, but when they sang in Jacksonville, the biggest and best town in the state, they would have to sing on key or they wouldn't get any money. Ordering us back to the stage, he jumped off the ledge and ran up the aisle to hearty applause and vocal encouragement from the local music lovers. Apparently there was no more than the usual amount of discords on our second attempt, except the customary jeers and catcalls which always accompanied our musical efforts.


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