Lined with laughter, the spectators of the stage and the screen had never seen anything else like it, a circus confusing society mixing chaos and malaprops, song and slapstick.

Verbal and theatrical gymnastics spring from the lips and legs of the funny brothers Julius, Leonard, Arthur, Milton and Herbert – still known as Groucho, Chico, Harpo, Gummo and Zeppo. These weren’t just nicknames; Modern Madison Avenue would call it branding, as the Marx Brothers‘ whimsical nicknames garnered curiosity, fans, and fame.

But the monikers weren’t born out of an extensive marketing strategy, but from a moment of spontaneous silliness – by a second-rate vaudeville comedian during a backstage poker game in Galesburg.

When? Sources waive between 1914 and 1916. In the 1973 memoir “The Groucho Phile”, the most famous brother points to May 15, 1914. Yet Groucho sometimes played fast and loose with the facts. The 2003 book “Monkey Business: The Lives and Legends of the Marx Brothers”, pokes fun at the reliability of the date, deeming it “as good a day for legends as any”.

But there’s no problem about Galesburg as a crucial comic baptism site. Three theaters are considered as potential sites: the Gaiety, the Orpheus or the Auditorium. Most historical clues point to the latter, or possibly the nearby Hotel Union, where the deed often stayed.

At the time, Galesburg was a vaudeville mainstay and an easy getaway from Marx’s adopted home. Although the family is originally from New York, Minnie Marx – the brothers’ mother and manager – thought Chicago would make a better travel hub. In 1909 they moved to the south side of the Windy City.

Around this time, the act – which included a range of various singers and jokesters – became the star of the four Marx Brothers. Later in the talkies, the brothers would develop distinct personalities: Groucho as the maniacal ringleader, Chico as the fast-talking schemer, and Harpo as the silent clown.

But at the start of 1914, the ordinary-named brothers – at the time, Leonard, Arthur, Julius and Milton – were simply struggling to write gags and make money, while doing anything to make advertising. In May, the act stopped in Galesburg for a week. On May 17, according to the Galesburg Register Mail, the Marx Troop engaged the Knox College baseball team in an exhibition game that featured more antics than athletics. The buffoonery drew a large crowd, thanks in part to “a crowd of scantily clad chorus girls/cheerleaders” on Marx’s side, according to the Galesburg newspaper.

At the score of the match, won by Knox 14-1, the Marx brothers left the city as losers. Yet they carried away names that would grace marquees for decades.


On the fateful night – whatever the date – the four Marx Brothers were playing poker in a backroom in Galesburg. Occupying a fifth chair was Art Fisher, a member of the traveling ensemble whose fame – then as now – was next to nothing. It was billed as a “monologue,” a loose term that, in Fisher’s case, indicated jokes, chants, and facial expressions.

Despite mediocre talent, Fisher boasted of a particular quality. In “The Marx Bros. Scrapbook,” published in 1974, Groucho recalled Fisher, “He used to give people nicknames, and they stuck.”

When it comes to Fisher’s muse to the card game, two pop culture elements likely came into play. “Knocko the Monk”, a comic strip featuring ape-like characters whose names reflected their traits, such as Henpecko the monk, Sherlocko the monk and Groucho the monk. From there, a national fad spread: friends gave each other nicknames by adding “o” to the end of a word intrinsic to their personality; for example, if someone often acted crazy, they might be nicknamed “Crazyo”.

At the Galesburg poker game, Fisher shuffled the cards to start a new hand. He offered no explanation as he handed out cards and names, but the scene (as described by corroborating sources) went something like this.

n “First, a card for Harpo.” This one was obvious. Arthur had taught himself to play the harp.

n “Now a card for Chico.” Leonard loved and chased ladies. At the time, women were called “hens”, later shortened to “chicks”. At first he was introduced as “Chicko”. Yet, at one stop, a poster composer left the “k” in his name, and “Chico” stuck. Although the brothers kept the old pronunciation, journalists and fans called it “Cheek-o”.

n “Here’s a card for Groucho.” Why this name for Julius? Good question, three answers. One would be the character of “Groucho the monk”. Another would be the groucho bag, a small purse that many travelers (including Julius, the little thug) wore around their necks to keep their money. The last would be a reference to the often sullen behavior of Julius.

n “Finally, here’s a card for Gummo.” Milton wore rubber shoes – rubber-soled shoes also called galoshes – to ward off the humidity he blamed for the frequent colds. Harpo then offered another possibility for the nickname: Gummo liked to sneak up on people, like a detective sleuth.

The brothers called each other by the new nicknames as they left Galesburg on their quest to strike the big blow. The following year marked the only time the five brothers shared the same stage, in Flint, Michigan on September 2, 1915. The Daily Journal praised the crooning of 14-year-old Herbert, “who promises to become as many a favorite like the rest of the family.

Two years later, as the United States entered World War I, Gummo joined the army. Although he was the first brother to take the stage (with a ventriloquist uncle), he never felt comfortable with show business. Upon enlisting, he reportedly said, “Anything is better than being an actor!”

The hole in the act was filled by Herbert, who became Zeppo as part of the “o” schtick. Why this name? In ‘Lady Blue Eyes: My Life with Frank,’ Barbara Marx Sinatra – who divorced Zeppo to become Frank Sinatra’s fourth and final wife – highlighted the first zeppelin flight, in 1900, which preceded his birthday. ‘Herbert a few months old. In “Harpo Speaks”, Harpo recalled a popular vaudeville chimpanzee named Mr. Zippo, who (like Herbert) did acrobatics. And in the documentary “The Unknown Marx Brothers”, Harpo’s son Bill Marx talked about a circus freak called Zippo who looked vaguely like Herbert – and for which his brother taunted him.


During vaudeville’s later days, the brothers were often billed with the nicknames of Galesburg. But for their first Broadway show, 1924’s “I’ll Say She Is,” they went back to birth names. However, during the run, influential theater critic Alexander Woollcott heard the brothers refer to each other with silly nicknames. When asked why they didn’t use the catchy nicknames on the poster, they said, “That wouldn’t be worthy.” Woollcott, seemingly tickled by the goofy brothers’ concern over decorum, responded with a hearty belly laugh – prompting the act to rethink their billing.

From 1929 to 1941, the Marx Brothers enjoyed a thriving film career, with Groucho later adapting to television on “You Bet Your Life”. Zeppo, considered the funniest brother off-screen, left the act in 1933 and founded an engineering company that made a fortune. He also founded a theatrical agency with Gummo, whose clients included Groucho.

The brothers died decades ago: Chico in 1961, Harpo in 1964, Groucho and Gummo in 1977, and Zeppo in 1979. Yet their films and their legacy live on around the world, as do their names, sparked in a moment inspiration during a backstage poker game. in Galesburg, Illinois.

Sources for this story include Time magazine, Galesburg Register Mail,, “Harpo Speaks”, “The Marx Bros. Scrapbook”,,, “The Unknown Marx Brothers”, “Monkey Business: The Lives and Legends of the Marx Brothers”, the Flint Daily Journal, “Lady Blue Eyes: My Life with Frank”.

PHIL LUCIANO is a columnist for the Journal Star. He can be reached at [email protected], or (309) 686-3155. Follow him on Twitter @LucianoPhil.