Kevin Maynard, executive director of Galesburg's Orpheum Theatre (read more in the May/June 2018 issue of Art & Society), recalls the infamous story of how the Marx Brothers got their nicknames.
William J. Olson, owner of Galesburg’s Gaity Theater—and the man who eventually commissioned the Orpheum Theatre—was sitting down for a game of cards with Leonard, Arthur, Julius and Milton Marx. (Herbert, also known as “Zeppo Marx,” had not yet joined the act.) They decided to play a name game popularized at the time by Gus Mager’s comic “Sherlocko the Monk,” which involved adding the letter ‘O’ to the end of a nickname.
By the end of the game, the four brothers had new names: Leonard became Chico, due to his penchant for chasing after women (“chick” was a slang term for women); Arthur, a harpist, became Harpo; Milton became Gummo, likely because of the way he crept around theaters like a gumshoe detective; and Julius became Groucho, although the reason for the nickname is disputed.
“Groucho had a terrible memory,” Maynard says, smiling. Even though the essential elements of the story were always the same (“a card game in Galesburg”), he would change some of the details. “He said he got the nickname because he carried around a satchel that was called a ‘grouch bag,’” Maynard notes. “But his brothers said, No, it’s because he gets upset easily!” PS