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A Place at Groucho’s Table

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
November 24, 2022 3:02 am

A Place at Groucho’s Table

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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November 24, 2022 3:02 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, 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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Our American Stories
Lee Habeeb
Our American Stories
Lee Habeeb
Our American Stories
Lee Habeeb
Our American Stories
Lee Habeeb

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Visit This is Our American Stories and we've already brought you the story of how UCLA undergraduate Steve Stolyer saved a Marx Brothers movie from extinction. But here's the story of how Steve called up Aaron Flemming, 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.

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 Flemming, 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. 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 going to 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 Round Table. 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 and 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 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 the coach is going to turn back into a pumpkin. And, 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 learn listening to this is that even people like Groucho want to be appreciated.

Right. The legends appreciate appreciation. And we can never forget that when we come back.

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Our iHeartRadio Jingle Ball coming live from New York to the CW app and on December 9th. Hey, you guys, this is Tori and Jennie with the 902.1 OMG podcast. We have such a special episode brought to you by NerdTech ODT. We recorded it at iHeartRadio's 10th pole event, Wingo Tango. Did you know that NerdTech ODT Remigipant 75 mg can help migraine sufferers still attend such an exciting event like Wingo Tango?

It's true. I had one that night and I took my NerdTech ODT and I was present and had an amazing time. Here's a little glimpse of our conversation with some of our closest friends. This episode was brought to you by NerdTech ODT Remigipant 75 mg. Life with migraine attacks can mean missing out on big moments with friends and family.

But thankfully, NerdTech ODT Remigipant 75 mg is the only medication that is proven to treat a migraine attack and prevent episodic migraines in adults. So lively events like Wingo Tango don't have to be missed. And we're back with our American stories and the story of Steve Stolier, 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, you know, 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, you know, a charm 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 Carol 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 marks. 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, okay. 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. Because really tell me honestly, Steve, if this is at all uncomfortable. No, no, no, no, no. I said, so let me, let me ask her and. Okay.

I would appreciate it. 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 want to have the experience of going on a date with Zeppo marks. 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 marks.

And I dated the same girl. I also got to meet the other living marks, brother gummo, who, to those who aren't that familiar with the marks 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 marks brothers, which is, you know, approximately three more marks 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 is 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 is 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 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 L.A. 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, I must be okay.

So 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, Elliott Gould and George Segal and Bud Cort 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 Stolyar as well. Steve Stolyar's story, Groucho Marx's story, is here on Our American Stories. Coming live from New York to the CW app and on December 9th. Mexico and the Caribbean with
Whisper: medium.en / 2022-11-27 11:36:02 / 2022-11-27 11:45:05 / 9

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