Edit ModuleEdit ModuleShow Tags
Edit ModuleShow Tags

The Soundtrack to Downtown — by Chico Marx

Rick Sebak breaks down the many connections between the legendary pianist and comedic performer and Downtown Pittsburgh.




photo: shutterstock

 

You know the Marx Brothers. They really were brothers — America’s greatest comic siblings — and they all were born in New York City.

The eldest of the famous Marxes was Leonard — better known as Chico — and with minimal instruction, he became an accomplished and distinctive pianist in his teens. Some of his earliest jobs were playing piano in movie theaters to accompany silent pictures (supposedly even once replacing George Gershwin, whose playing wasn’t popular among patrons). In the days before phonograph records and radios, when sales of sheet music were the only measure of a song’s success, he was hired by the music publishing company of Shapiro, Bernstein & Co. in New York to play in its store. He would accompany singers known as “song pluggers,” who showed off new songs to entice people into buying the music.

The young Chico was so skilled at promoting songs, Shapiro, Bernstein & Co. asked him to move to Pittsburgh in 1907 to manage its music store at 302 Fifth Ave. He hired singers here and played to allow customers and passersby to hear new songs, undoubtedly adding bright sounds to Downtown streets. That year, he also composed an original hit song titled “Mandy,” which was published here. The next year, Maurice Shapiro died. Chico decided to move back to his hometown.

By 1912, he and his brothers had put together a vaudeville act and soon became known for their wacky combination of comedy and music, using improvisation, satire and songs to win over audiences. In 1914, all of the Marx Brothers came to Pittsburgh while touring the country with a new play titled “Home Again.” It was on that trip that Chico met a young Pittsburgher named Betty Karp, whom he would marry three years later.

In the 1920s, the Marx Brothers became Broadway stars. When Hollywood started making “talkies” in the late ’20s and early ’30s, the boys grew into movie stars. They started with adaptations of “The Cocoanuts” in 1929 and “Animal Crackers” in 1930, both of which had been born as Broadway productions with scripts co-written by Pittsburgh-born playwright George S. Kaufman.

Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, the Marx Brothers became icons of American cinema. Chico played the piano at some point in almost every movie, demonstrating his dexterity by playing with one hand, sometimes using a grapefruit to roll across the keys and often playing notes by pointing his finger like a pistol.

When their movie-making days slowed down, Chico put together a band and started touring America. The Chico Marx Orchestra played at the Stanley Theater (now the Benedum) in March 1942, and the show was broadcast on WCAE radio here. Then in November 1949, Chico was back as a solo celebrity piano player to perform for a week at the Carousel, Jackie Heller’s nightclub on Liberty Avenue (approximately where the Arcade Comedy Theater is now.) He must’ve impressed; he came back in August 1951 to help re-open the Carousel, performing two shows every night at 8:30 and 12:30. Ten years later, in October 1961, Chico Marx died in Hollywood.

It’s still fun to think of him as a 20-year-old tickling the ivories Downtown. His old music store was on the block of Fifth Avenue, where the new Tower at PNC Plaza sits today. His piano probably was not far from where the cool, fun-to-watch sculpture known as the Beacon sits in the lobby. I think it could be a fitting memorial if we started calling the Beacon “Chico” in his honor.  
 

 

Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit Module

Edit ModuleShow TagsEdit ModuleShow Tags
Edit Module Edit ModuleShow Tags

The Battle of The Hollywood

Dormont's historic Hollywood Theater faces an uncertain future after news of a potential sale prompted an immediate public furor.

Three Rivers Champion: Cecile Springer

A self-proclaimed “loudmouth,” Springer says her favorite part of volunteering is meeting other people and persuading them to do what she wants them to do.

Phantom Thread Is, Somehow, Both Unpleasant and Lovely

Reviews of "Phantom Thread," "Call Me By Your Name," "Den of Thieves" and new animated releases, plus local movie news and notes.

Nominate the Best! Pittsburgh Magazine's 2018 Readers' Poll

What is Pittsburgh's best breakfast joint? Dive bar? Yoga studio? Local singer? Meteorologist? It's time to nominate your local favorites in multiple categories.

Amazon Includes Pittsburgh in its Top-20 List for HQ2

The list of 20 was narrowed from 238 proposals Amazon received in October. So which other cities made the cut?

Restaurant Review: or, The Whale

The Downtown restaurant is a captivating, if costly, catch.

Celebrating 5 Pittsburghers Who Built Careers Behind the Bar

Pittsburgh is a city that celebrates its neighborhood bars. In some of those spots, second- and third-generation regulars are pulling up their stools to be served by someone who started pouring drinks decades ago.

Second Chances: Crossroads in the Kitchen

People working to overcome substance abuse problems and ex-offenders discover a welcoming environment in restaurant kitchens.

How to Pamper Yourself in Pittsburgh

Looking to beat the winter doldrums? We round up the best places and experiences for a little personal indulgence.

Miss Pusadee's Garden? We Have Some Good News.

The Tongdee family now operates Burgh Thai in Verona.

The Growing Popularity of Shooting a Clay Pigeon

Skeet shooting is taking off as a favored western Pennsylvania hobby.

Steelers' No. 1 Problem Makes Others Pale in Comparison

Until they solve it, the Steelers are more of a Fantasy League team than they are a Super Bowl team.

New series ‘$1’ to be filmed in Pittsburgh

The mystery thriller is latest to cash in on the city’s filming opportunities.

Andrew McCutchen: Thanks for the Memories

It's hard to overemphasize McCutchen's impact on the Pirates and its fan base.

How to Make a Mt. Washington Wedding Proposal Even Better

A lot of grooms-to-be propose on Mt. Washington. Not many decorate beforehand.
Edit Module
Edit ModuleShow Tags


Amazon Includes Pittsburgh in its Top-20 List for HQ2

Amazon Includes Pittsburgh in its Top-20 List for HQ2

The list of 20 was narrowed from 238 proposals Amazon received in October. So which other cities made the cut?

Comments

New series ‘$1’ to be filmed in Pittsburgh

New series ‘$1’ to be filmed in Pittsburgh

The mystery thriller is latest to cash in on the city’s filming opportunities.

Comments


All the foodie news that's fit to blog
Miss Pusadee's Garden? We Have Some Good News.

Miss Pusadee's Garden? We Have Some Good News.

The Tongdee family now operates Burgh Thai in Verona.

Comments

Bitter End’s Chicken Dinner Fundraiser

Bitter End’s Chicken Dinner Fundraiser

Chefs Becca Hegarty and Rick Easton to cook comfort food to help Hegarty’s mother.

Comments


Not just good stuff. Great stuff.
Nominate the Best! Pittsburgh Magazine's 2018 Readers' Poll

Nominate the Best! Pittsburgh Magazine's 2018 Readers' Poll

What is Pittsburgh's best breakfast joint? Dive bar? Yoga studio? Local singer? Meteorologist? It's time to nominate your local favorites in multiple categories.

Comments

Best of the ‘Burgh Gift Guide for 2017

Best of the ‘Burgh Gift Guide for 2017

Here are some of our favorite ‘Burgh-inspired gifts for him, her, kids, foodies and more.

Comments


The Battle of The Hollywood

The Battle of The Hollywood

Dormont's historic Hollywood Theater faces an uncertain future after news of a potential sale prompted an immediate public furor.

Comments

Tequila Cowboy: Fine For Some, Apparently a Bad Idea for Others

Tequila Cowboy: Fine For Some, Apparently a Bad Idea for Others

The bar, which hosted a bizarre incident involving a top Steelers coach, is fine enough for the post-collegiate set.

Comments


Mike Prisuta's Sports Section

A weekly look at the games people are playing and the people who are playing them.
Steelers' No. 1 Problem Makes Others Pale in Comparison

Steelers' No. 1 Problem Makes Others Pale in Comparison

Until they solve it, the Steelers are more of a Fantasy League team than they are a Super Bowl team.

Comments

Steelers Must Avoid ‘Captain Ahab’ Approach to the Jaguars

Steelers Must Avoid ‘Captain Ahab’ Approach to the Jaguars

The Patriots are to the Steelers what Moby Dick was to Captain Ahab and that kind of obsession can backfire.

Comments


The movies that are playing in Pittsburgh –– and, more importantly, whether or not they're worth your time.
Phantom Thread Is, Somehow, Both Unpleasant and Lovely

Phantom Thread Is, Somehow, Both Unpleasant and Lovely

Reviews of "Phantom Thread," "Call Me By Your Name," "Den of Thieves" and new animated releases, plus local movie news and notes.

Comments

The Post is Quite Good, I, Tonya is Even Better

The Post is Quite Good, I, Tonya is Even Better

Reviews of "The Post," "I, Tonya" and "The Commuter," plus local movie news and notes.

Comments


Everything you need to know about getting married in Pittsburgh today.
How to Make a Mt. Washington Wedding Proposal Even Better

How to Make a Mt. Washington Wedding Proposal Even Better

A lot of grooms-to-be propose on Mt. Washington. Not many decorate beforehand.

Comments

These Elaborate Proposals Were Sure to Get a “Yes”

These Elaborate Proposals Were Sure to Get a “Yes”

Thinking of popping the question? Take a note from these grooms-to-be who set the bar high.

Comments


Weekly inspiration for your home from the editors of Pittsburgh Magazine
Former Art Institute Housing to Be Converted into Condos

Former Art Institute Housing to Be Converted into Condos

Downtown is booming as plans develop for yet another new apartment building.

Comments

Lesson Learned: How Design Changed a North Allegheny Classroom

Lesson Learned: How Design Changed a North Allegheny Classroom

Frustrated by his sterile white classroom, teacher Greg Geibel earned an A+ from students when he transformed the space into something resembling a modern coffeehouse.

Comments