Early Life and Career
Harpo was born in New York City. He grew up in a neighborhood now known as Carnegie Hill on the Upper East Side (E 93rd Street off Lexington Avenue) of Manhattan. The turn-of-the-century building that Harpo called "the first real home they ever knew" (in his memoir Harpo Speaks), was populated with European immigrants, mostly artisans – which even included a glass blower. Just across the street were the oldest brownstones in the area, owned by people like the well-connected Loew Brothers and William Orth.
Harpo's parents were Sam Marx (called "Frenchie" throughout his life) and his wife Minnie Schoenberg Marx. Minnie's brother was Al Schoenberg, who changed his name to Al Shean when he went into show business. He was half of Gallagher and Shean, a noted vaudeville act of the early 20th century.
Harpo received little formal education, for he quit grade school during his second attempt to pass the second grade. According to Harpo's autobiography, he was once thrown out of the window of his classroom (from the first floor) by two big Irish kids, as he was the only Jew in the class and was very small for his age. Upon returning to the classroom, Harpo would lie to his teacher, saying he had gone to the restroom to avoid worse bullying. This happened about three or four times a day until Harpo finally left New York Public School 86 for good. He began to work, gaining employment in numerous odd jobs alongside his brother Chico to contribute to the family income some of which including selling newspapers, working in a butcher shop, or as an errand office boy.
In January 1910, Harpo joined two of his brothers, Julius (later "Groucho") and Milton (later "Gummo"), to form "The Three Nightingales". Harpo was inspired to develop his "silent" routine after reading a review of one of their performances which had been largely ad-libbed. The theater critic wrote, "Adolph Marx performed beautiful pantomime which was ruined whenever he spoke."
Harpo gained his stage name during a card game at the Orpheum Theatre in Galesburg, Illinois. The dealer (Art Fisher) called him "Harpo" because he played the harp. (In Harpo's autobiography, he says that mother Minnie Marx sent him the harp.) Harpo learned how to hold it properly from a picture of an angel playing a harp that he saw in a five-and-dime. No one in town knew how to play the harp, so Harpo tuned it as best he could, starting with one basic note and tuning it from there. Three years later he found out he had tuned it incorrectly, but he could not have tuned it properly; if he had, the strings would have broken each night. Harpo's method placed much less tension on the strings. Although he played this way for the rest of his life, he did try to learn how to play correctly, and he spent considerable money hiring the best teachers. They, however, spent their time listening to him, fascinated by the way he played. In his movie performances he played the harp with his own tuning.
In his autobiography Harpo Speaks (1961), Harpo recounts how Chico found him jobs playing piano to accompany silent movies. Unlike Chico, Harpo could play only two songs on the piano, "Waltz Me Around Again, Willie" and "Love Me and the World Is Mine", but he adapted this small repertoire in different tempos to suit the action on the screen. He was also seen playing a portion of Rachmaninoff's "Prelude in C# minor" in A Day at the Races and chords on the piano in A Night at the Opera, in such a way that the piano sounded much like a harp, as a prelude to actually playing the harp in that scene.
Harpo had changed his name from Adolph to Arthur by 1911. This was due primarily to his dislike for the name Adolph (as a child, he was routinely called "Ahdie" instead). Urban legends stating that the name change came about during World War I due to anti-German sentiment in the US or during World War II because of the stigma that Adolf Hitler imposed on the name are groundless.
Read more about this topic: Harpo Marx
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