Living History: Marx Brothers honed ‘A Night at the Opera’ on Utah stage

By eileen hallet stone

The Salt Lake Tribune

Published: April 14, 2013 07:35PM
Updated: April 14, 2013 07:34PM
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In 1935, the Marx Brothers and company were taking the business of laughter seriously when they arrived at the Orpheum Theatre in downtown Salt Lake City in 1935 to field-test material for a future film called “A Night at the Opera” before a live audience.

Two years earlier under Paramount Pictures, the Marx Brother’s now classic film, “Duck Soup,” charmed many, but lacking a solid plot, it riled critics and tanked at the box office.

Despite previous movie successes, including “Animal Crackers,” “Monkey Business” and “Horse Feathers,” Paramount frowned, and the Marx Brothers looked elsewhere for work. Groucho and Chico returned to the stage and broadcasting; Harpo embarked on a six-week tour of the Soviet Union.

The story goes that, over a friendly game of bridge, MGM producer Irving Thalberg and Chico Marx struck a new movie deal and the Marx Brothers were back in business.

Unlike “Duck Soup,” however, “A Night at the Opera” represents an operatic comedy and love story with sight gags, music, generous skits of spontaneous hilarity (you can catch the infamous stateroom scene online) and an everyday storyline that audiences could take to heart.

Working at breathtaking speed while taking pokes at high society, the brothers race to the rescue of two young opera singers — a leading lady and her unrecognized yet highly talented tenor boyfriend. Madly in love, they are separated on stage and in life by a pompous European opera impresario who has other ideas for his star.

“A Night at the Opera,” written by James Kevin McGuinness, was adapted for film by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind. To ensure the movie’s “laugh-worthiness” before committing any schtick to celluloid, Thalberg sent the script for a trial run in Seattle, Portland, San Francisco and Salt Lake City.

“We are kicking ourselves we didn’t think of this before,” Groucho said in the April 13 Salt Lake Tribune. “A successful comedy depends almost entirely upon audience reaction, and if anyone tells you he can sit in Hollywood and judge in advance how much Salt Lake or any other city is going to laugh at any given ‘gag’ — don’t hesitate, put in a hurry call for the psychopathic ward. We expect our greatest help from Salt Lake, for it is our first stop … and we will get a definite idea of the script’s value.”

Ryskind attended the weeklong performances at the Orpheum’s 1,160-seat vaudeville house. The Tribune ran ads: “The Marx Bros., on the Stage, in Person.” Tickets for the matinee sold for 40 cents, 55 cents for evenings and kids got in for a dime. The theater was packed.

Ryskind recorded audiences’ reactions, timed laughs, analyzed groans and reworked the script for the next day’s show.

That April 17, The Tribune reported failed gags were “‘blue-penciled’ so that by the time the organization has been around the four-city circuit, the writers and producers will know pretty well just what and what not to include in the final script for a bang-up picture.”

The film was a $3 million hit — and Groucho’s favorite.

From 1947 to 1961, Bob Dwan (my sister-in-law Judy’s father) directed Groucho’s “You Bet Your Life,” the radio/television quiz show in which the consummate comic’s stunning timing and rapid-fire improvisation captured national ratings.

In his retrospective, As Long As They’re Laughing, Dwan described Groucho as an intensely private man whose mother, Jewish immigrant Minnie (née Schoenberg), embodied determination and resolve.

In 1958, Groucho invited Dwan and young Judy to accompany his family to Minnie’s hometown in Dornum, Germany, in search of her roots. Stunned, they discovered Schoenberg and every other Jewish name had been stricken from the town’s records.

Days later, they were escorted to Hitler’s Berlin bunker where, Dwan wrote, a somber Groucho climbed to the top of the rubble, “stood for a moment and danced his eccentric, frenetic Charleston. It was not a casual gesture.”

Eileen Hallet Stone, an oral historian, may be reached at ehswriter@aol.com. Special thanks to Judith Dwan Hallet and the Utah State Historical Society. Notes: The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum is holding its National Days of Remembrance, April 7-14, 2013.