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The Boy Who Had a Seat at Groucho Marx’s Table

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
August 22, 2022 3:05 am

The Boy Who Had a Seat at Groucho Marx’s Table

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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August 22, 2022 3:05 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, the man behind Holiday Inn, Kemmons Wilson, had some hilarious interactions with Muhammad Ali, Sam Walton, McIlhenny's Tabasco, and Sam Phillips. In college, Steve Stoliar’s dad wanted him to get a job, but Steve didn’t want to work at Taco Bell… so he called up Groucho Marx.

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This is Lee Habib and this is Our American Stories, and we tell stories about everything here on this show, including your stories.

Send them to And now a story from Kemmons Wilson Jr. Kemmons is a second-generation leader of their third-generation family investment company that's out of Memphis, Tennessee, with the first generation being his dad, the founder of Holiday Inn. And by the way, we broadcast an hour south of Memphis in Oxford, Mississippi, a beautiful small town that's home to great writers like Faulkner and Grisham, and also the home to Ole Miss. Kemmons has previously shared with us the Holiday Inn story, which you can find at And today he brings us some lighter stories about his father and the unusual interactions that he's had with some pretty famous folks.

Here's Kemmons. I don't know if y'all remember back when they had the trampoline craze. Well, he decided that he wanted to put a trampoline that was on ground level. Our company here was manufacturing a round trampoline. It was about maybe four foot in diameter and had springs and you would just bounce on it.

And the idea was you would jog in place. So he put one in out on Lamar Avenue. And at the time our family company wrote the insurance for Holiday Inn. Back in the early days when you could do that, it wasn't a conflict of interest. So our head insurance guy said, hey, Kemmons, man, you can't do this.

There's all kind of liability here. He said, oh, get out of here. They're just having some fun. And so I think within a week, some kid had bounced something down and went through the plate glass window.

So they started tearing it all up. But he would try anything. And so my dad called one day. He said, hey, Muhammad Ali is in town. He's staying at the big Rivermont Hotel down on Riverside Drive. And I'm going to go by and see him.

Would you like to come? I said, absolutely. You know, huge fan. And so he comes by, he picks me up and he's got this trampoline in the car. And so I said, what's that for? He said, well, I want to see if he'll endorse it. And I said, oh, man.

Okay. So we get up there and he's got a huge suite and he's got an entourage that you've never seen. And finally we get Muhammad Ali out of his room and we meet him.

And my dad's got a camera. He said, Mr. Ali, get on that trampoline and start jogging a little bit. And so he did and took his picture. And he said, I'd like for you to endorse this thing for us. He said, well, Mr. Wilson, you're going to have to talk to my lawyer.

I got a Jewish lawyer and if you can get past them, we're good to go. And also we're going to need that picture you just took. So at any rate, it went nowhere. But there was no shame in whatever he did. He was really bold in doing that. My dad loved Tabasco and he loved it so much. He would get these little bottles and carry them in his pocket. So if the restaurant didn't have it, he had his own supply.

And this was in Halloween's hay day. He called Mr. McElhenny and asked him one day, he said, look, I love your product and I'd like to buy your company. I think that much of it.

And Mr. McElhenny said, Mr. Wilson, you don't have enough money to buy this company. And I don't know if you've ever looked on the back of Tabasco. It's salt, pepper and vinegar. I mean, it's the secret sauce.

And so no telling how profitable they are and have been. And they became great friends. And every year he would send him a personalized bottle of Tabasco that they were so big, it would take about a year to finish it off. I tell people, I think he put Tabasco on everything but ice cream. Later in his life, once he retired from Holiday Inn, he came to work for our family business and he got in the nacho business. He was making nacho chips. So he, he was good friends with Sam Walton. My dad starts making nachos. Well, he wants to sell them to Sam Walton. So, and I'm sure Mr. Walton was rolling his eyes like, listen, I don't have time to. So he puts him with one of his buyers, you know, and so we had the opportunity because of dad's relationship to have lunch with Sam Walton on a couple of different occasions. At the Ramada Inn, it was the buffet. He had a red truck with a bird dog in the back.

So all these stories that you read about there are true. Two people cut out of the same mold. You know, I think, you know, my dad having grown up in the Depression and not really having anything, you know, I think that made an impression on him. And throughout his life, he was very, very frugal when he didn't have to be. But it was a mindset. I mean, he wouldn't pay two cents if he thought it was worth one cent.

Yeah. And money was just a number. He never really aspired to have second homes and boats. But he grew up in that era, you know, where you didn't know where your next meal was coming from. So money was just a number. And I'm telling you, on multiple occasions, he risked it all.

And I think if money had been that important to him, he probably would have done that. And you're listening to Kemmons Wilson Jr. with some fun and some fascinating stories about his dad, who founded Holiday Inn. So many more good stories to come. Kemmons Wilson Jr. sharing fun stories about his father here on Our American Stories. Folks, if you love the great American stories we tell and love America like we do, we're asking you to become a part of the Our American Stories family. If you agree that America is a good and great country, please make a donation. A monthly gift of $17.76 is fast becoming a favorite option for supporters. Go to now and go to the donate button and help us keep the great American Stories coming.

That's And we continue with Our American Stories and with Kemmons Wilson Jr. sharing some fun stories about his dad and Holiday Inn founder, Kemmons Wilson. Let's return to Kemmons on his dad's relationship and friendship with a fellow Memphian named Sam Phillips. Well Sam Phillips had a recording studio called Sun Studios and Sam Phillips actually discovered Elvis and Johnny Cash. Sam was a, he was an artist and he and my dad were good friends and he looked at my dad as a sort of a financial guy and so they got in business with radio stations. Sam was the operator and my dad, you know, put up some money. So as Sam's career in his studio went, he called my dad one night and he said, Kemmons, I've got to talk to you.

I've got maybe the opportunity of a lifetime. And you know, it was late at night and my dad said, well look, it's late. Why don't you just meet me at my office at six o'clock in the morning?

That's what time he got his office. So Sam said, no, Kemmons, I, you know, this is too big a deal. I got to come over. And he said, okay.

So Sam Phillips comes over. My father put on his bathrobe and the background story on this is my dad and my mother were very big band oriented back in those days. Tommy Dorsey, big bands. They, they liked that music. So Sam Phillips tells my dad that he has an opportunity to sell Elvis Presley's contract to, I think it was RCA for $35,000. And my dad of course knew who Elvis was, but you know, he certainly didn't follow him. If you're a big band guy, you don't follow rock and roll. So when Sam said, I've got this really great offer.

What do you think? Well, he told Sam Phillips, he said, well, I don't even think Elvis is professional. And I kid people today. It's, it's, it's tantamount to somebody asking me about a rapper.

And I would say, no, no, they're not, you know, I don't like them. So Sam Phillips actually took my dad's advice and my dad says, sell this contract. And to be fair, this was the highest, highest paid contract in the history of the industry at the time. And Sam Phillips, his business was not doing that great. So he needed the capital.

And so anyway, so he sells Elvis's contract. And I always tell people, I said, make sure you know who you're asking advice from, because he just asked the wrong guy. The right guy may have said, hey, you may want to hold on to this thing for a little bit longer and see what happens.

And my dad said, boom, cut it off. And he was, Sam was really, he was so keen on discovering talent. I mean, you know, he could listen to a demo record and go, bingo, that's going to be a hit. So he may have gone a little bit out of his comfort zone, you know, cause he may have thought that, hey, if I follow my intuition, I would have held him.

But again, you know, if you need the money, you need the money. And it was the highest offer ever paid at the time. So, you know, you can't say somebody's stealing him then, you can say it now.

So that happens. And we all know, Elvis went on to be a huge iconic star of the universe. And Sam Phillips and my dad stayed best friends until they died. And Sam Phillips had every right to never speak to my father again.

Like, get out of my life, you've ruined my life. And we had a roast years later. We roasted my dad and Sam Phillips was one of the roasters. And he said, Kimmons, you know, we've been great friends.

I love you. And he said, but I just want to tell you one thing. He said, not if I kept 10% of Elvis's contract, not if I kept 5% of Elvis's contract.

He said, if I kept 1% of Elvis's contract, I'd be worth $50 million today. And of course, he got a big laugh from everybody. But again, that just goes to show you what kind of friendship they had.

And neither one of them looked back. Sam Phillips took that money. And he went on to sign Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins. And he went on to be very successful. And, you know, that had never happened.

You know, the story about his season, how dumb can you be? Well, you know, it worked out for him. And who knows if Elvis would have ever hit the mark again. And to be honest with you, I think my dad, even if he thought Elvis was going to be or could be a huge success at that point in time, I think he gave him the right decision about you need to sell and redeploy this money back into your business and you'll be able to sign a couple of guys onto your record label and, you know, go from there.

But it's a pretty good story when you tell somebody that Elvis is not professional. Another funny thing, he never had, as long as he lived, an unlisted telephone number. And so I can't tell you how many times we would get a call at two o'clock in the morning. My father would answer the phone and it would be some guy that's had too much to drink and peoria at the Holiday Inn. And he's complaining that they're closing the bar at two o'clock.

And he, I've never saw him got upset. He would just say, yes, okay, you know, okay, I'll call the manager and we'll get back with you. And this was back in the days where the general manager, they used to call them innkeepers, they had to live on the property. And so at 2.15 in the morning, he would call the general manager and just say, what in the heck is going on there?

And you've got some guy at a bar go take care of it. And I remember one phone call he had, again, had to be some intoxicated guest that was complaining about something. And my father said, well, who do you work for? Now let's say I work for IBM. He said, oh, really? And what's your name again? Well, he gave me his name. He said, well, great.

I know Mr. Watson, who's chairman of IBM. He'd probably like to know about that. You know, phone hung up. But I mean, but to just think that he never had an unlisted number. You could look in the phone book and call him.

And we got all kinds of crazy calls. When I look back, really, a lot of the milestones in his life were that, you know, he did have the largest hotel chain in the world at one time. He was on the cover of Time magazine. He was awarded the Rachel Alger Award, which is the rags to riches.

He was one of the thousand makers of the 20th century, as noted by the London Times. And he was in the National Business Hall of Fame. And really, you know, he got to meet presidents and popes and kings and queens and a bunch of celebrities. So I tell people, he had a absolutely wonderful life.

I mean, you look back and trace it and, you know, you couldn't have scripted it any better. And great job by Faith on the production of that piece. And a special thanks to Alex for bringing Kemmons Wilson Jr. to us. There have been any number of stories he's told about his father, about his family, and about his faith. The story of Kemmons Wilson Jr. and his father. And my goodness, it doesn't get better in terms of father-son stories and the influence of a dad on his son and shaping his outlook, his worldview, and so much more. Kemmons Wilson Jr.'s story here on Our American Stories. This is Our American Stories, and we've already brought you the story of how UCLA undergraduate Steve Stolier saved a Marx Brothers movie from extinction.

But here's the story of how Steve called up Aaron Fleming, Groucho's manager, and landed the job of his dreams. In the summer of 74, I had two or three summer jobs fall through, for which I remain eternally grateful. And my dad was pressuring me, I don't want you sitting around on your fanny all summer long. I want you to find some job.

There's a, they may need a busboy at this restaurant or you could go get interviewed at Taco Bell. And I thought, I don't want to do any of that, but he's never gonna let up on me. So I called Aaron Fleming, figuring I had nothing to lose.

And I said, is there anything at all that you think maybe I could sort of help with? And she said, well, actually, it's funny you called, because I used to be Groucho's secretary, but now I'm his manager. And we need someone to handle all of the fan mail that's been coming in. And also to organize all of his memorabilia, which is going to be donated to the Smithsonian after he's gone.

And we need someone who really knows their Marx Brothers. And I'm thinking, please, please, please, please, please, please, please, please, and in my mind's eye, I have this sort of Tex Avery cartoon image of me zipping out of the house and instantly appearing on the doorstep of Groucho's house while Aaron is still on the phone, explaining the job to me. It wasn't quite like that, but that's how it felt. And I thought that I would be working maybe in an office building, maybe twice a month, he'd come by to sign checks or something. She said, oh, no, you'll have your own room to work in at Groucho's house, and you can make your own hours.

And I thought, and they're gonna pay me to do this? And so I drove to Groucho's house in Beverly Hills, and I was so nervous, but it worked out. And sure enough, there was a room that had been a painting studio that his last wife, whom he had divorced in 69, had used and that became my office. And Groucho would often shuffle down the hall to or from his room or the living room or dining room, and we would chat. And it was a very egalitarian household. I was to sit at the lunch table when Groucho would have lunch.

There wasn't a sense that the help ate in the kitchen or anything that haughty. And so I would be lucky enough to be there when George Burns would come over or Steve Allen would come over or some of his former writers or if it was just, just in quotes, Groucho and maybe a nurse or Groucho and Aaron, it would just be us. And I could ask him all these questions that I'd had that I thought if I could ever meet him, I'd want to know this. And he appreciated the fact that I cared about and knew about all of the things that he had experienced and that he cared about and that we had similar, you know, we both liked Tin Pan Alley and George Gershwin and Irving Berlin and the humorists of the Algonquin Roundtable. One time he called me into his room and gave me a $20 bill and he said, go down to the record store and get me some records.

You know what I like. And it meant so much to me that he had assumed that I would know what to get instead of having to explain it. But I mean, those days at the lunch table were so rich and I came to appreciate him on three different levels. First of all, he was Groucho Marx, the guy in the grease paint mustache swirling around on screen insulting Margaret Dumont in Duck Soup and Night at the Opera. And second, he was someone who personally knew people that to me didn't exist in three dimensions and in color.

People like, well, like George Gershwin in Irving Berlin, James Thurber. He was friends with W.C. Fields. The idea that he knew these people personally, you know, and I would get insight into what they were like from him firsthand, you know, not something he'd read or heard about, but he was there. And then on the third level, he was a man from 1890.

He was a 19th century human being, literally a Victorian since she was on the throne when he was born, although he was born in New York and not in England. And his firsthand memories went from before the Wright brothers to after the moon landing, which is a staggering chunk of American history, world history. I asked him once, what's the earliest you remember?

And he thought a moment and he said, I guess probably the Spanish American war, which was 1898. And he and his brothers had initially started out as a singing act in vaudeville in the early nineteen hundreds before they started adding comedy. They would sing harmony, popular songs, and, you know, they did OK at that. But Groucho's career went back so far that he actually was one of the performers at a special charity benefit performance at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. Enrico Caruso was also on the bill that night. And the money was to go to the aid of victims of the San Francisco earthquake of 1906.

For a history buff like me, and as I say, I had been a history major, although I shifted to motion picture television after I'd been working at Groucho's a while because it was just impossible to ignore how strongly I was drawn to that world. You know, he would have health problems now and again. He'd have a small stroke or something like that. And I would think, oh, geez, this is it.

This is I think about three weeks into my working there. He had a slight stroke and I thought it was great while it lasted. But now the coach is going to turn back into a pumpkin. You know, that that morning that I showed up that he'd had a stroke and the housekeeper said, please keep your voice down. Mr. Marx has had a stroke. But the nurse asked that you go back to his room because she needs some help. And I expected him to be, you know, lying on the floor, unable to speak, unable to move. And instead he was sitting in bed propped up in his pajamas and mukluks, reading the L.A. Times. And he said, is the ambulance here yet? I said, no, it figures and goes back to his reading. And I thought, gee, he's really taking this in stride. He's not banging at death's door.

He's reading the L.A. Times. And it was just that the nurse needed help getting him in to take a leak in the bathroom because his balance was off from that stroke. So I, you know, I was happy to help out. And he bounced back from that and from a lot of other health setbacks, even though he was in his mid 80s by then. And you're listening to Steve Stolyar's story. And in the end, Groucho Marx's story, too.

And what a lucky guy indeed that those summer jobs fell through. Because what an opportunity, an opportunity of a lifetime in Groucho's house, no less. His hero, so many Americans' heroes. By the way, he was a child of the Victorian age and his comedy was a rebuttal to the Victorian age, its properness. And boy, Groucho was a revolutionary in his day.

He really stretched the boundaries of what comedians were allowed to do and not do. And my goodness, what we learned listening to this is that even people like Groucho want to be appreciated, right? That legends appreciate appreciation.

And we can never forget that. When we come back, more of this remarkable story here on Our American Stories. And we're back with Our American Stories and the story of Steve Stolyar, a college student who saved a long lost Marx Brothers movie, and then landed the job of his dreams working as Groucho Marx's personal assistant and archivist.

Let's return to Steve and his story. And it just became this remarkably rich experience for me that ended up lasting not three weeks as I had thought that morning, but three years, the last three years of Groucho's life. And so I was able to get to know and talk with Groucho, my hero. I also got to meet Zeppo the night that he came up there for dinner from Palm Springs.

I had brought the young lady I was dating, a 19 year old blonde who was very bright and very personable and very attractive. And he really took a liking to her. He sort of picked up where Chico left off in terms of having an eye for the ladies. And he had recently lost his last wife to Frank Sinatra, who dumped him and went for Sinatra. And that was Barbara Marx Sinatra.

So he was back to being a bachelor. And he said, you know, Steve, you and Linda should visit me in Palm Springs sometime. And I said, well, I don't know. I was there when I was about nine and it just, it was sweltering. And he said, well, when were you there in the summer?

And I said, yeah. And he said, well, you know, Steve, it's also cold in Alaska in the winter. It was true that Zeppo did have a great sense of humor that really didn't get a chance to shine on screen. I had heard that he could be very funny and had a, you know, a charm and, and charisma. And people are always skeptical of that because he was sort of wooden and didn't have the lion's share of funny stuff to do in the few movies he was in. He was never happy as a performer. And once he, once he left the act after Duck Soup in 1933, he became a very successful agent handling such obscure has-beens as Clark Gable and Carole Lombard and Barbara Stanwyck and Robert Taylor and Lucille Ball and Lana Turner.

So he did really well and never looked back. But anyway, a few months later, Linda and I broke up. I had a couple of photos that I wanted Zeppo to sign.

So I mailed them to his address in Palm Springs. And in my cover letter, I said, by the way, Linda and I broke up. So I know you've been around the block a few times.

If you have any advice for the lovelorn. And a few days later, my phone rings, Steve is Zeppo Marx. I hope I'm not inconveniencing. No, no.

I got the photos you sent. God, I was good looking back then. But listen, I have a question for you. And I, I don't want to step on your toes.

You understand that because the last thing in the world I'd want to do would be something to upset you. Oh, do you think that Linda would go out with me? And I thought, what? I mean, she was 19.

I was 20 and he was 74, but, but a young 74, but 74. And I, I said, I don't know. I mean, she, she enjoyed, you know, she got a kick out because it really tell me honestly, Steve, if this is at all uncomfortable for no, no, no, no, no. I said, so let me, let me ask her and okay.

I would appreciate it. And, and again, if it's any, no, no, no, no, no. So I saw her at school and I asked her about it and she laughed also finding it strange and funny, but thought, you know, what the heck? I, I, I want to have the experience of going on a date with Zeppo Marx. So they went out once, uh, he took her to dinner in San Diego and then drove to Tijuana and attended a highlight game at a stadium and then took her home. And I talked to him afterwards and he said, Steve, I want to tell you, I never even kissed a good night. You should know that she's very nice, but all she did was talk about herself. And then I saw her on campus and she said, you know, Zeppo was really nice, but all he did was talk about himself.

And I thought that's a real interesting symmetry there. And then at parties at Groucho's whenever Zeppo would be there, he would make a point of introducing me to someone and say, this is Steve. He's a nice young man. He and I dated the same girl, but he got further with it than I did.

That was like my official introduction. So anyway, I have the distinction of being able to say that Zeppo Marx and I dated the same girl. I also got to meet the other living Marx brother, Gummo, who to those who aren't that familiar with the Marx brothers, it's even more obscure because Gummo was the straight man before Zeppo on the stage. And then he was drafted during World War One and left the act. So at the time, 17 year old Zeppo took his place and Gummo also became an agent and did very, he became Groucho's agent actually, and did very well.

He was never that much interested in performing. So I got to meet three out of five of the Marx brothers, which is, you know, approximately three more Marx brothers than most people ever got a chance to meet. Harpo and Chico had died in the early sixties, unfortunately, so I was never able to meet them. But when I would watch Groucho and Zeppo and Gummo talking amongst themselves, which was great, I thought, what must it have been like with all five brothers in their youth sitting around the table?

It must have been hysterical. Groucho had a cook named Robin who was tall and thin and blonde and young. When Zeppo and Gummo had come up for dinner and I was there for that dinner, Zeppo said, Robin said she'd marry me, but I don't know, I think she's too tall for me. Groucho said, well, what part of it do you want?

And Zeppo said, I'll take as high up as I can reach. And Gummo said, what do you want with her feet? So there's a Gummo anecdote, which is extremely rare, but evidence of the kind of goofy humor they had amongst themselves, that quickness.

It was just, it was all still there under various layers of rust. I was very fortunate because of my Groucho association. I became friends with Dick Cavett. That was another case where because of my insecurities, I thought when Groucho was gone, my link to Dick Cavett would be over. But instead he called me from New York the week Groucho died and he said, listen, I hope just because Groucho's gone, we're not going to lose touch. And by the way, I hope you don't mind, but I've shown some of your letters to Woody and he says they're very well written. And I sort of had to empty the urine out of my shoes that Cavett was calling me to say, hey, don't, don't drop me as a friend and saying, I hope you don't mind, but Woody Allen thinks your letters are well written.

So that was something. And in fact, I did end up moving to New York in 1982 and spending a few years there writing for Dick Cavett at HBO and had many remarkable adventures in Manhattan, including getting to meet Woody Allen and Katharine Hepburn and lots of other stuff before I returned to LA to take another job. And it was so great when I was working at Groucho's to be able to comfortably meet these people and converse, because I think they figured since I was inside the house, I must be okay. Whether I'm Groucho's grandson or something like that, if I'm sitting at Groucho's lunch table, it might must be okay.

So there wasn't any, nobody, there were no star trips there. There was people that were very down to earth. And I tended to find that the old people who were legends were much more down to earth and personable than some of the people who had recently become famous. Aaron Fleming tended to have younger friends, Elliot Gould and George Segal and Bud Court and Sally Kellerman and Streisand to a lesser degree. And I found myself instantly drawn to Groucho's old gang. I felt much more that I belonged there, even though I was 19 and they were in their 70s and 80s, than I did towards Aaron's sort of quirky group of nouveau stars. And a special thanks to Robbie for superb production and great storytelling. And a special thanks to Steve Stolyer as well. Steve Stolyer's story, Groucho Marx's story, here on Our American Story.
Whisper: medium.en / 2023-02-17 12:18:31 / 2023-02-17 12:31:30 / 13

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