Schwartz Stories #5: "IF YOU'D SHUT UP...!" Stephen Michael Schwartz and the 1976 Dinner with Groucho Marx-EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW
Stephen is invited to Groucho's to help celebrate the crotchety curmudgeon's 86th birthday. "Duck Soup" may not have been on the legend's menu, but wacky mix-ups were served decidedly chilled!
Following his 1974 self-titled debut Stephen Michael Schwartz RCA album (about which more can be read here), and his Please Stand By network sitcom turn in 1977, Stephen was searching for a manager, another record deal, or even another TV gig.
Approaching his mid-20s, he knew he had to make some solid decisions regarding his music and acting skills, so he could be ready for his next career break.
He decided to enroll in an acting class taught by one of the most respected in the biz, and featuring young acting students who’d later make their names in comedic and dramatic circles in the ensuing decades.
Stephen’s engrossing tale of those acting classes (complete with the roll call of names you’ll know!) can be accessed here:
For this “Schwartz Stories #5,” we pick up the action in that particular acting class, and one of Stephen’s fellow students, as he tells it in his own words:
Stephen Michael Schwartz: “Another person in our class was Erin Fleming, a Canadian actress who, when she joined our class, was working as a companion, secretary, and manager for Groucho Marx during his final years.
“I knew her from a part she had played in a 1972 Woody Allen movie, Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask).
“She was sweet, but I never understood how she managed to pass the audition process to get into our acting class (maybe Groucho pulled some strings).”
Erin appeared with Groucho on ABC-TV’s The Dick Cavett Show on December 16, 1971:
“Speaking of Groucho, Erin asked our class if we would like to come to Groucho’s for dinner to celebrate his 86th (and, as it turned out, his last) birthday. I was so excited, being a huge Marx Brothers fan and this, for me, was the opportunity of a lifetime! The dinner, if not on the actual day, must have been close to his real birthday, which was October 2nd. [Groucho passed the following August 19, 1977]
“The evening came and Wendy [actress Wendy Schaal, Stephen’s wife] and I drove to his beautiful Beverly Hills home. I think we brought a bottle of red wine. We were graciously met by Erin at the door, and I could hardly contain my excitement.”
“I recall Wendy gently suggesting I ‘relax.’ She knew what this meant to me, and I guess I was a bit jittery with excitement. Walking through the hall and into the living room was like entering a Hollywood museum:
“There was an Oscar, Emmy awards, plaques alongside a myriad of amazing black and white photos of the Marx Brothers with kings, queens, presidents, dignitaries, and celebrities as diverse as Irving Berlin, Marilyn Monroe, Charlie Chaplin, and even Alice Cooper!
“Once in the living room we met up with a total of ten other people from our acting class. Like me, they were all milling around ‘oohing and ahhing’ over the memorabilia. Seriously, I would have been happy just to witness all this and head home, but things got even better.
“Erin asked us all to find a seat in the living room, for she had a surprise for us.”
“As if on cue, Groucho enters the room slowly, and with help from what turned out to be his piano player. He gently escorts Groucho over to the side of the piano, and then proceeds to take his seat at the piano bench.
“Groucho looked exactly like I expected an elderly version of Groucho Marx to look. All those iconic features were present only slightly less so.
“The mustache and eyebrows were more gray than shoe-polish black, but still expressive, with that ever-present cigar, not lit, but used more as a prop. He walked in not saying a word to us, which in itself, made us all titter a bit, partially out of nervousness, but mostly because it’s Groucho Marx, the funniest person on the planet!
“Groucho waited for a beat, then nodded to the pianist who launched into the intro to ‘Lydia, the Tattooed Lady,’ a classic song written by lyricist Yip Harburg and composer Harold Arlen [who wrote “Over the Rainbow” together, and many other Great American Songbook classics, including all the Wizard of Oz songs].
“‘Lydia, the Tatooed Lady’ first appeared in the Marx Brothers movie, At the Circus, and became one of Groucho’s signature tunes.”
Groucho, chatting a bit with Dick Cavett before performing “Lydia, the Tatooed Lady” (air date Friday, June 13, 1969, ABC-TV):
“And, here I am in his living room watching him perform it! It’s surreal! Groucho went on to perform three more songs before a nurse showed up to take him back to his room. We all applauded as he was escorted off, shuffling towards the back part of the house.
“Erin told us he would be joining us for dinner, but the nurse needed to check his heart and blood pressure.
“We were then told to head into the dining room where dinner would be served. Erin motioned to where she wanted to leave a space, and I assumed Groucho would be sitting there next to Erin. Wendy took her seat next to the open space, and I sat to her left, two seats away from where Groucho would eventually land.
“Once we were all assembled, Groucho made his entrance, first walking with his nurse, who then delivered Groucho over to Erin, who gracefully helped Groucho take his seat.
“Dinner was served. It was here that Groucho started talking and telling stories of his brothers and his adoring mother, Minnie. He shared about the early days in Vaudeville before the boys ‘made it.’
“I had read many books about the Marx Brothers, and I especially loved, Harpo Speaks! (originally published in 1962), a wonderful account of their wild and crazy ride to fame, but here I was hearing it from the horse’s mouth.”
“At one point in the middle of Groucho telling this amazing story about how his mother helped foster the career of a young violinist, Benjamin Kubelsky, giving him hand-me-down-clothes the Marx Brothers had outgrown, and making sure he had work wherever the Marx Brothers were performing. Minnie would even have the brothers bring him up onstage during their act.
“This young man later changed his name to Jack Benny.”
I was so enthralled, I don’t remember eating a single bite at dinner. I was hanging on every one of Groucho’s words and, at one point, I enthusiastically said to Groucho, ‘Wow, Jack Benny could have been the fifth Marx Brother!’”
“Groucho stopped talking, turned to me and gruffly shouted, “IF YOU’D SHUT UP, YOU’D HEAR THE REST OF THE STORY!”
“The room went silent.
“I went blank.
“Wait!!! Did Groucho Marx just yell at me? Did I just step on the punch-line to Groucho’s story? Did my hero, the King of Comedy, just tell me to shut up?
“At this point, all I wanted to do was slide under the big dining room table and never come out.
“Wendy saw me wilt, and grabbed my hand to help me bear the pain of ridicule. It was a nice attempt, but I was gone.
“Even Erin Fleming, to her credit, came over after noticing my state, and said, ‘Stephen, don’t take it personally. He’s like that with all young men.’ I don’t remember anything after that. I don’t remember even getting home.
“All I know is Harpo would have never told me to ‘shut up.’
“All that remains of that night is this amazing story. I haven’t watched a Marx Brothers movie since. I trust I will get over it one day.”