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You Bet Your Life

Groucho Marx knew the secret word was enjoyment.
Arthur Marx
From the Print Edition:
Groucho Marx, Spring 93

(continued from page 3)

No fan of Kipling, Eden refused to sleep with Groucho for six months. "If you love your cigar so much, then sleep with it," were her parting words. "But in another room."

But as long as he could have his cigar fix after dinner, he didn't need a charming woman. He was happy. And God help any of us kids who insisted on going to a movie theater where smoking wasn't allowed.

Friday night was usually the night he liked to take my sister and me to the movies. The routine would always be the same. if I, for example, suggested going to the Warner Brothers Beverly Theater because I wanted to see the Jimmy Cagney gangster film that was playing there, Groucho would shake his head and reply, "How can we go there? They don't allow smoking. What's playing at the Marquis?"

The Marquis was a fifth-run movie house in a bad section of town, just outside the Beverly Hills city limits. Generally we would have already seen the movie that was playing there. But that wasn't important to Groucho. What was important was that you were allowed to smoke in the balcony of the Marquis because it wasn't in Beverly Hills, which had an ordinance against cigar smoking.

If we complained about going to the Marquis, Groucho would spend the next 30 minutes looking through the movie section of the paper, trying to find a theater that we all wanted to see and where something was playing where you could also smoke. Trying to please both us and him was virtually impossible. So, in the end, if we wanted to go to the movies we'd either have to sit through some turkey we didn't want to see or stay home and listen to him play Gilbert & Sullivan recordings on the hi-fi. Given the choice of listening to Groucho sing along with the Doyle Carter Company's renditions of "The Mikado" and "H.M.S. Pinafore," or seeing a bad movie we'd already seen or never wanted to see, we'd usually, out of sheer desperation, opt for the latter.

Groucho had been an inveterate cigar smoker since he was a 15-year-old adolescent playing in small-time vaudeville. He'd picked up the habit from an old vaudevillian who had tipped him off that a cigar was the most useful prop an actor could carry with him on the stage. "If you forget a line," my father once confessed to me, "all you have to do is stick the cigar in your mouth and puff on it until you can think of what you've forgotten." In his youth, Groucho was too poor to smoke anything but nickel cigars. Only once before he came into big money did he loosen up enough to spend a dime for one. This was the result of an advertisement he had seen for a brand of ten cent pure Havanas called La Preferencias. The ad fascinated him, for it promised the smoker "Thirty glorious minutes in Havana."

Twenty minutes later the cigar had burned down so short that it was scorching his fingertips. Feeling he'd been taken for a ride, he brought the remnants of the cigar back to the man who had sold it to him and laid it down on the counter.

"The ad said 'Thirty minutes in Havana,"' the irate, young Groucho complained, pointing to his watch, "and it's only been 20 minutes. What are you going to do about it?" In the face of such righteous indignation, the cigar salesman had no alternative but to give him a second stogie without charge. The second cigar survived the alarm clock for only 15 minutes. Again Groucho took it back and again the cigar merchant gave him a replacement.

The third and fourth cigars proved no better, and when Groucho trotted in with the fifth one burned down to a nub, hopeful of a sixth La Preferencia on the house, the salesman was convinced that he was the victim of a skin game and booted him out onto the sidewalk.

"You couldn't believe the advertising in those days any more than you can now," commented father, after telling me his sad story.


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