An Interview With Harpo Marx: Why He Was Taking Up The Bagpipes – 1943
During World War II Hollywood celebrities that were too old or unfit to be in the armed forces served in other ways. Almost without exception performers tirelessly traveled across the United States and all over the world to entertain the troops.
The Marx Brothers had not made a movie since 1941s The Big Store. After the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Harpo Marx threw himself into doing what he could to bring levity to those who served. During the following year Harpo appeared at over 150 military bases.
Of course Harpo could speak, though his screen persona never did. Writer Jean Meegan caught up with Harpo in New York City and this story appeared in newspapers on February 20, 1943.
NEW YORK — A plaintive, shrill wail erupted from a suite on the 35th floor of the Essex House and resounded down the hall—Harpo Marx was giving himself a music lesson—and on a bagpipe.
The practicing period may be a strain on his neighbors but the blonde wigged comedian, who’s been infallible for 25 years with a harp, is planning a gorgeous comical future for the bagpipe.
“Nobody ever kidded a bagpipe before,” says Harpo, who never has anything to say on the stage, “but I’m rigging up a Rube Goldberg contraption for laughs’—for laughs on the U. S. O. camp show circuit.
The floor plan of this new gag involves a bicycle pump, which will feed the bag instead of Harpo blowing out his brains.
“It will be funnier that way,” says the man who knows all about being funny because his family has been making a living at it for years—Groucho, Chico, Zeppo.
For the last year Harpo hasn’t appeared before any but military audiences. He’s been on a swing of the army camps and naval bases—150 of them, playing the same tank towns and whistle stops he played 20 years ago in the family quartet.
Have things changed much on the road since those days? “No,” says Marx, “you still feel as tho you can run faster than the train is going.”
The heat of the south last summer was his greatest hardship because it snaps the strings of the harp.
But the response of the boys in uniform was as warm as the weather and so Marx was playing two shows a night and a matinee afternoons at the hospital, calling a day coach home, and living on hamburgers and okra, when the show missed meals in the military reservation.
One night he was invited to dinner at the home of the chaplain at a marine base in the deep south. A tropical storm broke just as they sat down to the table; by the second course, rain was splashing into the dining room, and for dessert they had to sit tailor style because the rugs were washing up against each other. Such are the rigors of the road.
Harpo told too about Christmas day back in Hollywood. He had 15 soldiers home for dinner along with his brother Groucho and the Ritz brothers.
The high point of the day was to be a movie at Sam Goldwyn’’s house after dinner. When the party arrived at Goldwyn’’s in high Christmas spirits there was a sudden hush. The soldiers were struck dumb. A girl had walked in. It was Hedy LaMarr. No one can remember what the movie was about.
If Marx felt a long way from home when he was playing the camps, at least he saw familiar faces because “in every bunk there are fan pictures of Miss LaMarr. Lana Turner, Betty Grable, and Dorothy Lamour. The whole army is strung together with four girl’s pictures ”
He slouched back in a chair and picked up the bagpipe. Explaining his plan for the reed instrument he said, “I’m not going to play Scotch music on this, just some bad opera. You know, it’s practically human. You’ve got to spank it to play it.” Whatever its eccentricities, that bagpipe, for which Marx hunted all over Chicago and Boston and finally found in New York, will be a long ways from its source because Harpo’’s next port of call is a long ways from either New York or Scotland.