Groucho Marx : biography
In the mid-1940s, during a depressing lull in his career (his radio show Blue Ribbon Town had failed, and the Marx Brothers as film performers were well past their prime), Groucho was scheduled to appear on a radio show with Bob Hope. Annoyed that he was made to wait in the waiting room for 40 minutes, Groucho went on the air in a foul mood. Hope started by saying "Why, it’s Groucho Marx, ladies and gentlemen! (applause) Groucho, what brings you here from the hot desert?" Groucho retorted, "Hot desert my foot, I’ve been standing in the cold waiting room for forty minutes!" Groucho continued to ignore the script, and although Hope was a formidable ad-libber in his own right, he could not begin to keep up with Groucho, who lengthened the scene well beyond its allotted time slot with a veritable onslaught of improvised wisecracks.
Listening in on the show was producer John Guedel, who got a brainstorm. He approached Groucho about doing a quiz show, to which Groucho derisively retorted, "A quiz show? Only actors who are completely washed up resort to a quiz show!" Undeterred, Guedel explained that the quiz would be only a backdrop for Groucho’s interviews of people, and the storm of ad-libbing that they would elicit. Groucho said, "Well, I’ve had no success in radio, and I can’t hold on to a sponsor. At this point, I’ll try anything!"
You Bet Your Life debuted in October 1947 on radio on ABC (which aired it from 1947–49), sponsored by costume jewelry manufacturer Allen Gellman;Charlotte Chandler. Hello, I must be going: Groucho and his friends. Doubleday, 1978, p 190 and then on CBS (1949–50), and finally NBC, continuing until May 1961—on radio only, 1947–1950; on both radio and television, 1950–1960; and on television only, 1960-1961. The show proved a huge hit, being one of the most popular on television by the mid-1950s. With George Fenneman, as his announcer and straight man, Groucho entertained his audiences with improvised conversation with his guests. Since You Bet Your Life was mostly ad-libbed and unscripted—although writers did pre-interview the guests and feed Groucho ready-made lines in advance—the producers insisted that the network prerecord it (instead of being broadcast live). There were two reasons for this: prerecording provided Groucho with time to fish around for funny exchanges and any intervening dead spots to be edited out; and secondly to protect the network, since Groucho was a notorious loose cannon and known to say almost anything. The television show ran for 11 successful seasons until it was canceled in 1961. Automobile marque DeSoto was a long-time major sponsor. For the DeSoto ads Marx would sometimes say: "Tell ’em Groucho sent you", or "Try a DeSoto before you decide".
The program’s theme music was an instrumental version of "Hooray for Captain Spaulding", which became increasingly identified as Groucho’s personal theme song. A recording of the song with Groucho and the Ken Lane singers with an orchestra directed by Victor Young was released in 1952. Another recording made by Groucho during this period was "The Funniest Song in the World", released on the Young People’s Records label in 1949. It was a series of five original children’s songs with a connecting narrative about a monkey and his fellow zoo creatures.
By the time You Bet Your Life debuted on TV on October 5, 1950, Groucho had grown a real mustache (which he had already sported earlier in the films Copacabana and Love Happy).
During a tour of Germany in 1958, accompanied by then-wife Eden, daughter Melinda, Robert Dwan and Dwan’s daughter Judith, he climbed a pile of rubble that marked the site of Adolf Hitler’s bunker, the site of Hitler’s death, and performed a two-minute Charleston. He later remarked to Richard J. Anobile in The Marx Brothers Scrapbook, "Not much satisfaction after he killed six million Jews!" In 1960, Groucho, a lifelong devotee of the comic operas of Gilbert and Sullivan, appeared as Koko the Lord High Executioner in a televised production of The Mikado on NBC’s Bell Telephone Hour. A clip of this is in rotation on Classic Arts Showcase.