runaway mule in Nacogdoches
helped change American entertainment history.
No one has ever pinned down
the exact date, but it happened at some point before World
War One, with 1914 being the most-mentioned year. A vaudeville troupe from
New York, touring small towns across the South, hit Nacogdoches
for a gig at the opera house. Calling themselves “The Four Nightingales,” the
four brothers wore white duck suits picked by their manager, their mother Minnie,
and sang to the accompaniment of a variety of instruments.
As the audience sat politely if unenthusiastically listening to the quartet, someone
burst throughthe front doors of the theater and yelled, “There’s a runaway mule!”
At that, the house emptied as surely and as energetically as if someone had yelled
Sure enough, a mule had gotten loose from a hitching post only
to wildly stampede its way Ben Hur-style down Main Street. One version has the
crazed critter overturning the wagon it had been pulling, but the exact details
of the wreck have been lost to time.
all the excitement died down, most of the patrons filed back inside the opera
house for the rest of the performance. After all, the audience had paid a dime
apiece to hear the Nighingales do what their avian namesake is famous for – singing
sweetly. But when they got settled into their seats, the Texans found the four
young men from New York’s Jewish community in a bit of a snit. Having been cut
off in mid-song, the traveling musicians were not pleased to have been upstaged
by a mule.
Brother Julius was particularly steamed. How dare these Texas
hicks walk out on him just to see a mule!
So instead of acting like nothing
had happened, which is what professional performers have been trained to do since
Shakespeare first started puting on plays, Julius walked to the edge of the stage
and let loose with a double-barrel blast of sarcasm about Nacogdoches
and Texans in general.
Julius expected boos and calls of “Get a hook!”
Instead, his wisecracks netted explosions of laughter. These Texans thought his
disparaging ad-libbed remarks were funny. Just to make sure he wasn’t misjudging
the crowd, he piled on more shoot-from-the-hip insults. And the audience loved
it even more.
When he finally did start singing again, he managed to work
in this extra line to the lyrics: “Nacogdoches
is full of roaches.”
Later that day, maybe while cooling his heels in
jail after getting arrested for betting on a game of euchre at the hotel across
the street, a singularly bright light bulb suddenly illuminated itself across
his mind’s marquee: Maybe he was a better comedian than musician.
that incident in Nacogdoches,
Julius and his brothers reshaped their act into a mixture of music and comedy
and eventually transitioned into straight comedy. Not only did he change his act,
by 1920 he had adopted a stage name. He was Groucho, Groucho Marx. His brothers
were Harpo, Chico and Zeppo.
The Marx brothers went on to star in 14 movies,
including the classics “The Cocoanuts” and “Animal Crackers.” In 1949 Grocho moved
to the new medium of television and flourished as the mustachioed, ad-libing,
cigar-smoking, eyebrow-raising host of “You Bet Your Life,” a quiz show that ran
mule story seems almost too good to be true, reading suspiciously like a total
fabrication on the part of some whiskey-swilling if creative Hollywood press agent.
But there’s evidence that Groucho and his brothers really did get upstaged by
an East Texas mule.
reported in a widely published 1930 newspaper story with a New York dateline,
“Runaway Mules Gave Marx Bros. Cue to Comedy,” Groucho later told the tale himself
in his memoir.
“Our act was so lousy,” he recalled, “that when word passed
through the audience of numbskull Texans that a mule had run away, they got up
en masse to go out and see something livelier. We were accustomed to heckling
and insults, but that made us furious, so when those guys wearing ten-gallon hats
over pint-sized brains came back, we let them have it.”