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Marx Madness Descends on Rancho Mirage

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There's more news about the landmark anniversary of the first U.S. stage performance by a group whose genius and significance is impossible to exaggerate, a group that's brought immeasurable joy and inspiration to billions of devoted fans -- a group about whom author David Misch wrote, "They only wanted to play music and destroy stuff."

That group, of course, is the Marx Brothers. You might say that if Monty Python were the Beatles of comedy, the Beatles were the Marx Brothers of music.

During a fateful poker game in 1914, monologist Art Fisher bequeathed 'O' stage-names to Leonard, Arthur, Julius, and Milton Marx -- Chico, Harpo, Groucho and Gummo -- to reflect their personalities. ('Chick'-O liked girls, etc.) A very young Herbert was later named "Zeppo." Shortly thereafter, Chico, Groucho and Harpo took to the stage at the Gaeity Theater in Galesberg, Illinois. (A half-century later, the Beatles, infused with Marxian mayhem, chose New York's Ed Sullivan Theater for their own U.S. bow, a milestone that has also not gone unnoticed.)

Show biz anniversaries can be silly affairs, and that's exactly the way the Marxes would have wanted it. So just for laughs, the CGH (Chico/Groucho/Harpo) Society has announced that Marx Madness will commence next month with two days of festivities (22-23) at the Rancho Mirage, CA Library Auditorium.

Groucho is America's most important Marxist/anarchist, more important in many ways than even President Obama. He exposed the absurdity bone/funny bone connection and his world-view has taken hold among our most powerful movers and shakers. In fact, one of Groucho's guiding principles -- "Whatever it is, I'm against it" -- defines the modern day GOP.

Harpo, the silent improvisational genius who spoke sweet music through his harp, could crack you up with the faintest inflection of an eyebrow. Chico played the piano effortlessly and hilariously when he wasn't deadpanning lines like, "I wasn't kissing her, I was whispering in her mouth."

Gummo was part of the act for about 10 years, and then Zeppo stepped in. When Zeppo left, C, G and H moved to MGM, where studio chief Irving Thalberg demanded a discount on the theory that he was paying for four Marxes, not three. Groucho said, "We were worth a million dollars with Zeppo. Without him, it's two million."

The Marx Madness kick-off on Saturday (22) -- hosted by CGH PrezO Bill Marx (aka BillO, aka Harpo's son) and co-sponsored by the City of Rancho Mirage -- will feature a plethora of puns; classic movie clips; a Q&A session with audience participation; semi-live music and a Blue Ribbon Panel with Minnie Marx (Harpo's daughter), Bob Marx (Gummo's son), Andy Marx (Groucho's grandson) and the above-mentioned Misch, comedy writer and author of the book Funny--the Book: Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Comedy.

At the Sunday matinee, BillO will subject the crowd to another barrage of puns (maybe even Attila the Pun) and then screen rare Marx Brothers footage, including early TV appearances, a Paramount audition tape, home movies, and commercials (Labatt's, Prell et al). A 75-minute video titled "The Unknown Marx Brothers" promises to be a highlight.

The CGH Society is a proudly goofy non-profit formed three years ago by BillO, music publishing pioneer Howie Richmond (who died at 94 in 2012) and freelance writer/blogger Audley Upton (aka Mrs. Rittenhouse) to raise awareness of the Marxian legacy -- especially to younger people -- and to spread the healing power of laughter throughout the world.

Other non-profits have offices, staffs and meetings; they throw fund-raisers and solicit donations. CGH operates from the timeless realm: no office, no paid staff, meetings that consist solely of smiling, giggling and guffawing; they throw "fun-raisers" and request chuckles in lieu of donations. If you try to contribute money, don't be surprised if they laugh in your face.

Asked how they make rent for the offices they don't have, Mrs. Rittenhouse said, "So many volunteers have come forward we literally have tens of participants." As for why CGH chose to partner with the City of Rancho Mirage, she said, "Trust me. We thought short and soft about accepting offers for network TV specials, Google meetups and flashmobs. But the Rancho Mirage folks had nicer smiles and proclaimed their city as CGH Society headquarters. Anyway, it seemed like a good idea at the time."

CGH membership spans 19 countries and attendees for the March gala are coming from England, Scotland, Rwanda, Canada and such other far-flung locations as Palm Springs. In the spirit of Freedonia, all events are free and open to the general public, though Mrs. Rittenhouse warns that CGH members "will be given inconsequential treatment when it comes to the musical-chairs seating arrangements." BillO adds, "Be veeery prepared!....The Brothers will be looking down from above at all of you fair Freedonians!!"

There's talk of producing another, even bigger event -- a laugh riot, perhaps -- this fall, although exactly who is doing the talking is anyone's guess. What we do know is that CGH has proclaimed May 15 -- the date of that century-old poker game -- an International Day of Laughter. The program is a simple one, based on the well-known fact that laughter is highly contagious. Folks will be encouraged to file outdoors at noon (in their respective time zones) and start laughing out loud for no discernible reason.