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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

"Ten-Gallon Hats / Pint-Sized Brains"
Otis P. Driftwood recalls Nacogdoches

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

A 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 “Fire!”

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.

Once 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.

After 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 through 1961.

The Nacogdoches 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.

First 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.”

A final piece of at least circumstantial evidence is the fact that the fictional republic in the 1933 Marx Brothers’ hit movie “Duck Soup” was called Fredonia. That, of course, was the name of a real-life if short-lived republic founded in Nacogdoches by filibusterers in 1820. And even if Groucho hadn’t known about that, a major thoroughfare called Fredonia Street intersects Main Street downtown not far from the opera house where he had played only a couple of decades before.

Now known as the Nacogdoches Art Center, the old opera house still stands at 329 E. Main. Built in the 1880s and remodeled considerably over the years, the place hasn’t seen a vaudeville act, not to mention a runaway mule, in a very long time.

Marx died on Aug. 19, 1977 in Los Angelo at 86. But his ad-lib, as risque-as-he-could-get-away-with style lives on in his movies and in Youtube snippets from “You Bet Your Life.”

© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales"
July 4, 2012 column

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