When the five Marx brothers and their parents, grandparents, and miscellaneous relatives lived crammed together in a tenement on East 93rd Street in New York, it was Minnie, the boys’ mother, who was always plotting and scheming to get them onto the stage.
A legend in show business, she had the energy and inspiration to launch the kids in a vaudeville act that would tour the country and finally hit Broadway. But in the early days everyone was hungry. Their father, Frenchie, was never guaranteed pay for the men’s suits he made at home on the kitchen table.
Groucho had already had a taste of show business as a singer, and then decided he wanted to write. Chico had selected the vocation of professional gambler when Minnie hired a large Viennese lady with a moustache to teach him piano. Chico was supposed to teach Harpo, but this cut into his time in the pool halls, so Harpo, then considered the least talented of the brothers, was left to his own resources. In fact, he never made it through his second try at second grade and learned to read from signs in the street.
Harpo was plunking out “Waltz Me Around Again, Willie” on the piano with one finger at the age of about eight, but in the corner of his grandfather’s room stood an old harp, warped, half-size, and without a string. Harpo’s “Grossmutter Fanny,” now dead, used to play that harp in the spas and music halls of Germany, as people danced. “All that remained of its old luster were a few flakes of golden dandruff,” Harpo recalled in his autobiography. “But to me it was a thing of beauty. I tried to imagine what it must have sounded like when Grandma played it, but I couldn’t. I had never heard anybody play a harp.”
Fifteen years passed before Harpo plucked a string, during which time he worked as a pie sorter, cigarette boy, ragpicker, delivery boy, and piano player in a rowdy bar with a brothel upstairs and in a stuffy nickelodeon parlor on 34th Street.
It was one day when the brothers, Harpo included, were out on the road, struggling to survive with their singing act, that the indefatigable Minnie decided the act needed more class and shipped Harpo a $45 harp. The novel instrument joined the act immediately, and “after a year of hunt and pick, ponder and pluck, and trial and error,” said Harpo, “I played my first solo on the harp, Annie Laurie.” This was in Gadsden, Alabama. “I got a big hand and a demand for an encore. The only encore I could think of was doing ‘Annie Laurie’ over again, with fancy long swoops on the strings (I didn’t know yet that these were called glissandos) between phrases of the melody.”
Thus the harpist who enchants us, who pours forth the Mozart C Major Sonata before the mirrors of an 18th-century salon in The Big Store, taught himself everything, and never read a note of music. At first Harpo didn’t even know how to tune his instrument, and only when he spotted a picture of an angel with a harp in a Woolworth’s window in Missouri did he discover he was resting the harp on the wrong shoulder. But “the presence of the harp (the harp alone, and not the harpist),” explained the musician modestly, “raised our average monthly income by five dollars,” so he continued to learn.
After eight years of professional playing Harpo decided to take his first lesson. This happened by accident when an admirer came backstage after a matinee on Broadway and turned out to be the harpist for the Metropolitan Opera.
At Harpo’s request the gentleman agreed to teach him for $20 a shot. On arriving at the first lesson Harpo played the sextet from Lucia. “The maestro,” wrote Harpo, watched me so closely his nose was practically sticking through the strings, and he kept talking to himself: Ah, yes! Ah, so! Extraordinary! The teacher merely shrugged when Harpo suggested that he learn to read notes, and for an hour just watched, analyzed, and learned from Harpo’s technique. That, of course, was the end of Harpo’s studies. “I was always willing to demonstrate,” he conceded, “but damned if I would ever again pay twenty bucks to give any teacher a lesson.”
A harpist named Mildred Dilling, whom Harpo met in a music store, introduced him to Bach and Mozart and gave him some pointers. When he couldn’t get a particular chord, he’d call her up, no matter what the hour, and she’d put the phone next to her harp and play, until he got the same sound at the other end.
Such virtuosos as Salzedo and Grandjany have been thoroughly mystified by Harpo’s unusual technique. However he developed it, whatever long hours of experiment and practice it took, the method was his own and the music he made highly original because of it.
“Whenever I touched the strings of the harp,” admitted the famous comedian, “I stopped being an actor.”