Friday, October 24, 2008

Greater Fredonia

Photo - East Texas Research Center, Stephen F. Austin State University

Back in 1912, the building on the corner of Main Street and Church Street in my Mom's East Texas home town, was the Opera House. The building faced the brick-paved town square. There were retail stores on the ground floor, and a wide staircase brought patrons up to the second floor auditorium.

The town was on the circuit for touring vaudeville artists - just another stop between Houston and Shreveport, Louisiana. One day in 1912 a musical group performed at the Opera House.

They were five brothers, German Jewish immigrants from New York City. Their uncle had gotten them into show business. Leonard played the piano. Adolph played the harp. Julius played the guitar and sang, and younger brothers Milton and Herbert sang, too.

The show was interrupted by a disturbance in the street below - a runaway mule was loose in the town square, and the audience rushed out to watch. Annoyed at such a bunch of rubes, Julius started goofing around onstage. When the audience returned to their seats, he started cracking jokes at their expense, hurling wild and crazy insults at them. "The jackass is the flower of Tex-ass!" he laughed. "Nacogdoches is full of roaches!"

Instead of getting angry, the audience thought it was hilarious. They loved it!

From that day on, the brothers were famous for their zany, free-form improvisational comedy and musical routines.

Photo from the Library of Congress Print and Photographs Online

Julius soon took on the stage name Groucho, and Adolph became known as Harpo. Brothers Chico, Gummo, and Zeppo were the other three Marx Brothers.

It's funny to think that this sleepy little East Texas town started the careers of the Marx Brothers, famed for their hit Hollywood comedy movies. The films they made for Paramount include "The Cocoanuts" (1929) "Animal Crackers (1930), "Monkey Business" (1931), "Horse Feathers" (1932), and "Duck Soup" (1933).

In "Duck Soup," the highjinks, slapstick, and comedy revolves around a plot about impending war between the two fictitious countries of Sylvania and Freedonia.

Freedonia seems a crazy, mapcap, fantasy place, but in fact, for a brief time, it really existed, right here in East Texas. On December 21, 1826, Haden Edwards, a Nacogdoches settler formed a Committee of Independence to propose the founding of a new, independently governed republic in East Texas. He named it Fredonia.

The Republic of Fredonia alas, came to an end just a month later, squelched by the army of Mexico, which ruled Texas at the time.

It makes you wonder, though, whether the Marx Brothers had their experiences in Nacogdoches - and the ill-fated Republic of Fredonia - in mind when they created the crazy battle scenes in "Duck Soup."

Today, the site of the Marx Brothers' first success at comedy is commemorated on a plaque mounted on the wall of the Ed and Gwen Cole Arts Center at the Old Opera House, now an art gallery for the College of Fine Arts at the Stephen F. Austin State University.

I'm not sure if it means anything, but - the plaque also notes that later that same day, the Marx Brothers were arrested for playing cards on the porch of their hotel.


Tristan Robin said...

Wonderful post!

These second floor opera houses (which rarely - if ever - performed opera) were quite common at the turn of the (last) century. But so many were burned at that time that there are (I believe) only 9 left in the U.S.

I believe a few of them only survived by becoming movie houses in the 1940's and 1950' very small towns, of course. That is the way the Earlville Opera House in upstate New York survived. Luckily, very little money was spent "renovating" it, so most of all the original wood workings, turnings, details, etc. are still intact.

Thanks for posting this - and pointing me towards it!

Tristan Robin said...

I forgot to mention - the balcony in the older photograph looks EXACTLY like the one on the E.O.H.

I think this was a blueprint sold through some company all over LOL.