Sunday, May 3, 2009

Zeppo Marx: FAQ

Zeppo Marx

In comupterspeak, FAQ is an acronym for "Frequently Asked Questions." This clever diversionary device was created by tech support people to trip up unsuspecting consumers seeking help with computer problems. Let's say your computer freezes up any time you press the tilde key. A more plausible example may be that you don't know what the tilde key is. You go to the tech support page of the computer manufacturer, as you were too cheap to buy a service contract which would permit you to talk to a nice Indian person whose real name is Paramvir, but who identifies himself as "Larry" at work in an effort to put American callers at ease. Arriving at the tech support page, you click on "FAQ," only to find a list of questions and answers that have nothing to do with your problem. Giving up in disgust, you vow never to use the tilde key again--a goal which is surprisingly easy to achieve.

By the way, this is the tilde: &#126. If instead of a wavy line, you see the characters &#-126, you may be using the HTML-4 standard. Please go to our tech support page and click on "FAQ."

In keeping with the spirit of Marx Brothers comedy, this post is based on the absurd premise that questions about Zeppo Marx are frequent. Zeppo is the third most obscure of the Marx Brothers. The most obscure is Manfred, who didn't live long enough to acquire a nickname; he died in infancy. Second would be Milton (Gummo), who left the stage act when he was drafted into the army during WWI, and never returned to performing.

Since interest in Zeppo isn't sufficient to generate frequent questions, we might adjust the acronym "FAQ" to stand for "Fairly Asinine Questions," or "Far Afield Queries," or any number of phrases unsuitable for a PG rated site such as this blog.

Without further ado, let us proceed to the questions.

Where and when was Zeppo born?
The youngest of the Marx Brothers, he was born in New York City on February 25, 1901.

What was Zeppo's real name?

Why did he change his name?
Research has shown that Herbert is one of the least humorous names in the English language. With the exception of Herb Shriner, nobody with the name has had a successful career in comedy.

When did he start performing with his brothers?
Herbert briefly joined the act in 1915, when Julius (Groucho), Arthur (Harpo), Leonard (Chico), and Milton (Gummo) were performing the show written by their Uncle Al Shean, Home Again. Thus Home Again is the only show featuring all five Marx Brothers at once. When Gummo left to join the service in 1918, Zeppo became a permanent member of the act.

How did he get the name Zeppo?
The answer to this is uncertain. Groucho, in his old age, claimed it had to do with the fact that the zeppelin was introduced around the time Zeppo was born. This isn't totally impossible, since the first zeppelin was built in 1898 and Zeppo was born in 1901. It seems unlikely, however. Harpo, in his autobiography, claimed that Herbert was originally called Zippo, after Mr. Zippo, the star of a famous chimpanzee act, because Herbie was "always chinning himself and practicing acrobatics." He didn't like being named after a chimp, and insisted on being called Zeppo. However it happened, he became Zeppo for good. Occasionally, one finds on eBay cancelled checks from his account signed "Zeppo Marx."

In how many movies did he appear?
Five Marx Brothers movies --The Cocoanuts, Animal Crackers, Monkey Business, Horse Feathers, and Duck Soup. Joe Adamson, Marx expert extraordinaire, has reminded me that Zeppo was in two other movies--A Kiss in the Dark (1925) and The House That Shadows Built, a promotional film released by Paramount in 1931. And he was in the long-lost Marx Brothers film Humor Risk, which was never released.

Why did he stop performing?
His stated reason was that he did not enjoy acting. His acting ability has been called into question, although some critics believe his wooden style was intended as a parody of the junevile romantic leads of the day. He proved his acting ability in the stage version of Animal Crackers, when Groucho has hospitalized with appendicitis and Zeppo stepped into the role of Captain Spaulding. Although he played the role at least as well as Groucho, smoking cigars in five shows a day made Zeppo sick.

What did he do after he stopped performing?
He started a talent agency, which was very successful. In 1941, he founded the Marman Products Company, Inc., which produced clamping devices and straps. Marman clamps were used to secure the atomic bombs on the Enola Gay during WWII. The company also built a motorized bicycle, the Marman Twin. Zeppo was also an inventor, and held three patents:
-Vapor Delivery Pad for Delivering Moist Heat
-Method and Watch Mechanism for Actuation by Cardiac Pulse
-Cardiac Pulse Rate Monitor

Was he married?
Twice. First to Marian Benda in 1927. They adopted two boys and divorced in 1954. In 1959 he married Barbara Blakeley. She had a son by a previous marriage, who took the last name of Marx, but was not formally adopted by Zeppo. Zeppo and Barbara divorced in 1972 or 1973, and Barbara then married Frank Sinatra in 1976. They remained married till Ol' Blue Eyes died in 1998.

When did he die?
The last surviving Marx Brother, Zeppo died of lung cancer in 1979 at age 78.


  1. I have a rarely asked question (RAQ?)
    When exactly did he leave the act? Was it when they finished making Duck Soup? When it came out? Sometime in the interim between Soup and Opera?
    Or when the Thalberg deal was being set up for Opera, was it on the assumption that it would have been for all four of them?
    I mean, it would have been very interesting if he had actually turned down an MGM contract. Impressive enough that he didn't try to wangle his way back in when the deal was struck...
    Shame he's not in Love Happy, too. Or The Story of Mankind.

  2. Matthew,
    I'll have to do a little research into the timing of Zeppo's departure. I believe I read somewhere that MGM wanted to pay less for 3 brothers than for 4, and Groucho responded that the group was funnier without Zeppo.

  3. Further research indicates that Barbara was granted a divorce from Zeppo in 1973,

  4. FAQ's in this case are followed by VFA's -- Very Funny Answers!

    By the way, I did not know he filled in for Groucho during the stage run of Animal Crackers. I have to say, that casts him in a different light. Hmm, now I'll have to write a post about it -- I'll be sure to link back here when I do.

  5. Thanks. You might also want to read the related post The Legend of Zeppo's Name and associated comments.

  6. Zeppo always seemed underused, even as a straight man.

  7. Zeppo divorced Marion Benda in 1954. From what I have found she passed in 1951. Died penniless? How can that be? She had two children with Zeppo . I am confused . The dates? I can't believe she died penniless with two children from Zeppo.

  8. Now I have read there were two Marion Benda's. Both Zeigfield girls. Zeppo married Marion Bimberg ( Benda ) . Very confusing.

  9. Barbara Marx's autobiography, as quoted at the blog Althouse confirms the following facts:
    Zeppo's ex-wife Marion was alive at the time of Chico's funeral in 1961.
    They were divorced in 1954.
    They adopted two sons.

  10. Thanks David, I am starting to understand this better. She may still be alive.

  11. If you look on the IMDb, you'll see that you've missed 2 Zeppo film performances: A KISS IN THE DARK (1925) and THE HOUSE THAT SHADOWS BUILT. He also appeared in the unreleased HUMOR RISK (1921), and some say they've spotted him in TOO MANY KISSES (also 1925).