Arts & Life
4:42 pm
Sun May 6, 2012

When Dick Cavett Shared Carnegie Hall With Groucho

Originally published on Sun May 6, 2012 5:39 pm

Forty years ago Sunday, history was made at Carnegie Hall.

On May 6, 1972, comedian Groucho Marx made his debut at the famed New York venue to a packed house. Tickets sold out as soon as it was announced.

Marx was 81 at the time and had been out of the spotlight for many years. His one-man show only toured a handful of venues, and his Carnegie Hall show was later released as an album called An Evening with Groucho.

Talk show host Dick Cavett introduced him that night at Carnegie Hall. Marx was his biggest hero and the two of them had been friends for a few years; Marx would often appear on Cavett's popular TV show, "The Dick Cavett Show."

Cavett was nervous before the show began. He tells weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz that he was worried that Marx was too old and frail, too tired to perform, and, despite ticket sales, he also feared that maybe no one would show up.

But then, as he was pulling up to Carnegie Hall in his car, he saw a big mob, full of young people carrying Groucho photos.

"At least a dozen were made up in costume fully as Groucho Marx," Cavett says. "It promised to be a wonderful evening."

"That promise was reduced slightly when I went backstage, went up to the dressing room, and Groucho looked like a half-dead man," Cavett says.

"I thought, how in hell are we going to get through this? I just thought this is going to be a theatrical nightmare. It wasn't."

The night was a success. The audience went wild when Marx stepped on stage.

"That audience saw nothing wrong with him. They seemed to see no difference between the old and tired gentleman on the stage who read his evening off 3x5 cards — which I thought might even turn off that audience — they ate it up," Cavett says. "He seemed no different than the cavorting madman on the screen in the Marx Brothers' movies."

Throughout the night, Marx shared stories about his family as well as anecdotes from his stage, film and TV career. He also performed famous songs from his Marx Brothers' films, including "Lydia, the Tattooed Lady," from 1939's At the Circus.

Marx died five years after the Carnegie Hall performance, at the age of 86, from pneumonia. Cavett saw him intermittently during those years.

"Every time I left Groucho," Cavett says, "every time he came to New York to be on my show and I would say goodbye to him there or at the Sherry-Netherland where he liked to stay, when the hotel door would shut on his beaming face, I would think, 'Damn, this is the last time I'm going to see him.' And eventually it was."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

And if you're just joining us, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

Forty years ago today, history was made at Carnegie Hall. On May 6, 1972, comedian Groucho Marx, at the age of 81, made his debut at that famous hall. The house was packed, and tickets sold out almost as soon as the show was announced.

Groucho had been out of the spotlight for many years. He decided, though, to do a limited tour of his one-man show, and the Carnegie Hall show became one of the most important on that tour because it was also the first and only time that Groucho played Carnegie Hall. Now, another legend, talk show host Dick Cavett, was one of Groucho Marx's friends, and he introduced Groucho that night.

Cavett was nervous before the show began. He was worried that Groucho was too old and frail to perform. And despite the ticket sales, he also worried that maybe nobody would show up. But then, just as he was pulling up to Carnegie Hall, Dick Cavett saw a big mob full of young people...

DICK CAVETT TALK SHOW HOST: Carrying Groucho photos. At least a dozen were made up and costumed fully as Groucho Marx. It promised to be a wonderful evening. That promise was reduced slightly when I went backstage, went up to the dressing room, and Groucho looked like a half-dead man. And I thought, how in hell are we going to get through this? But I just thought this is going to be a theatrical nightmare.

It wasn't. I skipped up the stairs from a seat near the front before the show began and found myself in front of the gigantic proscenium and beautiful curtain at Carnegie Hall and surveyed the audience. And they knew me at that point, and I got a huge ovation that startled me somewhat.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOW, "AN EVENING WITH GROUCHO")

HOST: Thank you. It's nice to be wanted. I must tell you, for people in the back, it's Dick Cavett up here.

And then I did my introduction.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOW, "AN EVENING WITH GROUCHO")

HOST: I can't believe that I'm here tonight. It's not Carnegie Hall that gets to me, but I can't believe that I know Groucho Marx and that he asked me to...

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOW, "AN EVENING WITH GROUCHO")

HOST: ...to introduce him tonight. And I'll do that as quickly as possible. I...

I was surprised how long my introduction was. I had told about meeting Groucho, the strangeness of meeting him right after the funeral of his god and hero in the world, the great George S. Kaufman, how we walked down Fifth Avenue together, how I had said to him, wittily, Groucho, I'm your biggest fan. Those are my first words to him.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

HOST: And he said: Well, if it gets any hotter, I could use a big fan. And from that point, we were off and running for years.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOW, "AN EVENING WITH GROUCHO ")

HOST: The only sad thing about Groucho's life is that there are so many thousands of funny things that have gone unrecorded. Luckily, there was someone along at the anti-Semitic country club when they told him he couldn't get in the pool and he asked: Since my daughter's only half-Jewish, could she go in up to her knees. I...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER AND APPLAUSE)

HOST: At the end of the introduction, I said: There are several other people backstage, of course - Captain Jeffrey Spaulding, there is Rufus T. Firefly - and at each name of a Groucho character from a movie, the audience burst into applause. I finally had to say, save your applause till the end.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOW, "AN EVENING WITH GROUCHO ")

RAZ: J. Cheever Loophole - hold your applause till the end, please - Dr. Hugo Z. Hackenbush...

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOW, "AN EVENING WITH GROUCHO")

RAZ: ...Otis B. Driftwood and Captain Jeffrey Spaulding. The one, the only Groucho.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

HOST: The place went wild. Groucho stepped out through the join in the curtain and shuffled out a bit.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOW, "AN EVENING WITH GROUCHO")

GROUCHO MARX COMEDIAN: First, I would like to take a bow for Harpo and Chico.

HOST: But that audience saw nothing wrong with him. They seemed to see no difference between the old and tired gentleman on the stage who read his evening on a three-by-five cards, which I thought might even turn off that audience. They ate it up. He seemed no different than the cavorting madman on the screen in the Marx Brothers' movies.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOW, "AN EVENING WITH GROUCHO")

COMEDIAN: (Singing) Hello. I must be going. I cannot stay. I came to say I must be going. I'm glad I came but just the same I must be going.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing) For my sake you must stay for if you go away you'll spoil this party I am throwing.

COMEDIAN: (Singing) I'll stay a week or two.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOW, "AN EVENING WITH GROUCHO")

COMEDIAN: (Singing) I'll stay the summer through. But I am telling you I must be going.

HOST: It was a triumphant evening, as it turns out.

RAZ: What do you remember that he said that night on stage that had the audience in stitches?

HOST: I remember he talked about his parents and the family, and he gave the accurate versions of things that other people had written about.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOW, "AN EVENING WITH GROUCHO")

COMEDIAN: Chico got a job at (unintelligible) company. And Chico never brought home his salary because he was always in the ballroom or he was someplace. He never brought a salary. And my father told him, he says, next week, if you come home without your salary, I'll kill you. They had a very close relationship.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

HOST: I can't come up with a specific thing he said because it all blends in with the six or seven or eight times I had him on the show and the times I went to movies with him and went to dinner with him. And one night at dinner, a guy comes over to the table with his wife and says: Groucho, say something insulting to my wife. And Groucho looked and said: With a wife like that, you should be able to think of your own insults.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

HOST: And of course they laughed heartily, and that depressed him. Afterwards, he said: You know, they should've told me to go to hell, but, you know, I can't insult anybody anymore. I say the vilest things to people, and they say: Oh, Groucho, and they giggle.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

RAZ: I mean, this was, quite possibly, your biggest hero. He was the guy for you. Why?

HOST: I guess you could say that, yeah. As George Kaufman was to him, Groucho was to me. I guess the most touching thing about me and Groucho happened only about three years ago in a letter from his daughter Miriam. And as I was reading this handwritten letter from her, my eyes suddenly dropped down eight lines to the line: My father thought the world of you.

And I'm moved now. Whenever I think about it, it gets to me. That's all I need.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

RAZ: He died five years later, 1977.

HOST: Yeah.

RAZ: Did you see him quite a bit or intermittently after that or what...

HOST: I saw him intermittently. Not enough. I knew he was ill. Every time I left Groucho, every time he came to New York to be on my show and I would say goodbye to him there or at the Sherry-Netherland where he liked to stay when the hotel door would shut on his beaming face, I would think, damn, this is the last time I'm going to see him. And eventually, it was.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOW, "AN EVENING WITH GROUCHO")

COMEDIAN: And I was caught walking off the stage. And the last line would be (singing) so be a real live Pagliacc and laugh, clown, laugh.

RAZ: That's Groucho Marx performing at Carnegie Hall 40 years ago today. We spoke with legendary talk show host Dick Cavett about that night.

HOST: What can I end with? A favorite Groucho line. He didn't get along with a director named Sam Wood. Grouchophiles will know which movie he directed. At one point, Wood disparagingly said about Groucho to him: You can't make an actor out of clay. And Groucho said: Nor a director out of Wood.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

HOST: May flights of angels have sung him to his rest.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: And for Sunday, that's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. We say goodbye tonight to our intern Lauren Benichou. She heads back to Berkeley, California. Listen for her on your radio someday. And don't forget to download our podcast, the best of. It's called WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Find it on iTunes or at npr.org/weekendatc.

We're back on the radio next weekend with more news, personal stories, books and music. Until then, thanks for listening and have a great week. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.