Bill Marx speaks of his famous father, Harpo, with measured intention, exuding a rare, genuine devotion that may surprise you, especially in an era where tech-savvy connections often seem to trump the ones that can be made in real time.
“My father gave me permission to give myself permission to do things I never knew I could do,” Marx says. “The greatest influence I ever had was that he actually bestowed himself upon me.”
It’s fitting then that Marx is loaning a stellar array of his father’s memorabilia to the Rancho Mirage Public Library. Dubbed “the highly anticipated Marx Brothers Collection,” the long-term exhibition is on vivid display at the David Bryant showcase located in the library’s front entry area.
Marx, a longtime local and who was one of Harpo and wife Susan’s four children, recalls casually meeting with former library director David Bryant, who recommended putting up a Marx Brothers Collection. Marx had begun divesting himself of his father’s memorabilia – archival and artifactual – having already turned over several items to the Smithsonian and a variety of artifacts to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences.
“I have been the caretaker of these items for at least 60 years,” Marx says. “I realized that if 12 people can come into my house each year and see this stuff, why can’t more people?”
Lucille Ball and Harpo Marx appeared on the I Love Lucy show on May 9, 1955.
The Rancho Mirage exhibit should generate smiles if not a refreshing trip down memory lane. On display are one-of-a- kind artifacts that can’t be seen anywhere else – from Harpo’s famous hairpiece and roller skate shoes to his practice harp and a plethora of other items used by the Marx Brothers, who, to this day, are widely considered to be among the greatest and most influential comedians of the 20th century.
“My main purpose and hope is to one day get a comedy museum out here,” Marx says. “There were so many gifted comedians and comedy writers that were actually domicile down here in the Coachella Valley; people who changed the landscape of comedy at the turn of the century and through the 20th century.
The Marx brothers (from left): Harpo, Zeppo, Chico, Groucho, and Gummo.
“I had access to a number of those people and I thought I could give up my dad’s things, and a few things from Groucho and Chico, and start a museum one day –for enjoyment but for research, too,” he adds. “Meanwhile, I decided to loan things from my house to the library. Maybe people can get a kick out of it.”
Marx says he’s been in possession of many of the items since 1949, the year he became a prop man for his father.
VIDEO: Bill Marx shows and describes the items he kept in his father's trunk as his prop man.
Which begs the question: Was it emotional to let some of those items go?
“Probably. I felt good about it when I gave some things to the Smithsonian and the Academy,” Marx admits. “But it’s just on loan for now. I plan, if there’s a go-ahead with the comedy museum, to gift it to them. Which is fine with me. Don’t forget: These are just things. Nobody can take your life’s thoughts and your life’s works away from you.”
The Marx’s have a treasured history locally.
The family moved to Rancho Mirage in 1956 and Harpo Marx was instrumental in helping launch the Tamarisk Country Club. Although his health declined, Bill Marx notes on his website (harposplace.com) that his father’s remaining years, “were spent strumming away at his beloved harp, making increasingly rarer professional appearances, painting with Mom and golfing buck naked in the hot desert sun (whenever the neighbors weren't looking).”
Harpo Marx died Sept. 28, 1964, after an open-heart surgery procedure – the same day as his and Susan Marx’s 28th wedding anniversary.
Susan was influential locally as well, having served on the school board for nearly 35 years.
Interesting tidbit: Harpo Marx did not know how to read sheet music. He relied on his son’s inventive ways to read new material. Father and son also created several albums together and Bill Marx went on to become a successful musician-composer-author.
The Harpo Marx family in the 1960s. Bill is in the back row on the left.
“Both of my parents made me realize that I was capable of doing something with the gift of music I had been given,” Marx says. “My dad, from the time I was 10, 11, 12 years old, validated my musical ability without pushing me too hard. He encouraged me. I was his arranger/conductor by the time I was 16 years old. He gave me a kind of confidence that I didn’t know I had. Imagine if more parents would be aware and look for the uniqueness in each child they bring onto this planet. That’s probably the most important thing he gave me.”
In the meantime, generosity abounds. Marx is also gifting his body of music works – movie scores and symphonic items – to Michael Feinstein’s Great American Songbook Foundation in Carmel, Indiana.
Was there one thing about his father that left an indelible imprint on his heart and mind?
“My father was of the belief that the only weapon you’re born with is your sense of humor,” Marx notes. “We all have it. It’s just that we misplace it. We need to use it because it’s the most valuable asset we have.”
The Marx Brothers Collection is on display in the David Bryant showcase, located in the front entry area, at Rancho Mirage Public Library, 71100 Highway 111 in Rancho Mirage. For more information, visit ranchomiragepubliclibrary.org or visit harposplace.com.