|The Marx Brothers c. 1900. Harpo is far left. Hard to say who's who otherwise. Groucho on right?|
Groucho Marx claims he and Harry Houdini were childhood neighbors, living across the street in a slum-full of future superstars.
We believe everything Groucho says, and anyway this is more than plausible.
|Earliest known photo of two Houdini brothers, Harry & Dash.|
Both families were denizens of Yorkville, now a tony Upper East Side neighborhood. Back in their day it was a foamy mess of Irish, Jewish and German immigrants - including many future stars, from Edward G. Robinson to the Gershwin brothers. The foam came from the neighborhood's main feature: barrels. Yorkville was home to the New York brewing industry.
|Straight Outta Yorkville?|
The earliest conceivable brush between Marxes and Weisses would be around 1890, when, according to Groucho, he was born at 217 East 78 Street. The Weisses were in Mrs. Loeffler's boarding house at 244 East 79. It wasn't across the street but it was indeed literally around the corner.
|Mrs. Loeffler's boarding house as it looks today - exterior virtually unchanged from when Houdini lived there, c. 1890.|
|On the same circuit.|
We're not convinced Groucho ever met Harry way back then, but he himself tells of the moment when the two not only appeared on the same bill but in the very same act - Houdini's:
There were times when I used to wear a mustache, and there were times when I didn't. I got tired of wearing it, and I would take it off, because if I didn't have a mustache on, people didn't bother me in the street. Then one night I went to the Winter Garden, and Houdini was appearing there, and I was sans mustache. That means 'without.' Gotta watch yourself at the Winter Garden. Anyway, I'm sitting in the second row, and Houdini is now doing a trick. He would take some needles and put them in his mouth, and a spool of thread, and then he would thread the needles. So he asked for a volunteer out of the audience, and who do you think went up on the stage? And he opened his mouth wide.
"I wanna prove that there is no trickery to this trick. What do you see in there?"
And I said "Pyorrhea!" and left the stage.
[Houdini photo © Sharon Kurlansky. Other images via Google.]