I am Tom Freeland, a lawyer in Oxford, Mississippi. The picture in the header is my law office. I'm on Twitter as NMissC

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“Nacogdoches is full of roaches”

Yesterday, I was traveling through east Texas, headed to Houston and my wife’s family, and passed a couple of interesting milestones, which will be noted in this post and later ones as time permits.

How the Marx Brothers Became Comics

The Marx Brothers got their start as a vaudeville singing group. Comedy was not part of the act. One day, during their performance of a matinee at the opera house in Nacogdoches, Texas, someone ran in off the street and shouted, “There’s a runaway mule!”

The house immediately cleared to watch the excitement.

Groucho (who at this point was still called Julius) was thoroughly annoyed and began insulting the audience, at one point adding to a song the lyric “Nacogdoches is full of roaches.”

Instead of getting hooted he got hilarious laughter, and so he kept insulting the crowd and it kept working.

This raised a question in all their minds whether singing was their real strong suit. Anarchy was what worked best, and they made a career of reenacting the runaway mule.

Later in the day, Groucho was arrested at the hotel across the street while playing euchre (he remarked that it probably was a crime the way he played it).

And so the Marx Brothers became a comedy troupe. Through the rest of his career, Groucho used every opportunity to make a crack about Nacogdoches– if a Texan appeared on his radio show “You Bet You’re Life,” he’d make a joke about the town– and he couldn’t resist jokes about funny town names (“I shot an elephant in my pajamas. What he was doing in my pajamas, I’ll never know. And somewhere in Alabama, the Tuscaloosa.”).

I’d read all this headed toward Nacogdoches, and that there was a historical marker there dedicated to this pivotal moment in the Marx Brother’s career. The historical marker is even mentioned in an account on their Wikipedia entry, but I wondered if it was apocryphal .

There is a small marker on the side of the old opera house (picture above. The facade has changed but it’s the same building) and on the hotel across the street, and locals cannot believe it’s a coincidence that a main street in town is named after Fredonia, the 1820s rebellion against Mexico centered in Nacogdoches and also the fictional republic in the movie “Duck Soup”– “Hail, hail Fredonia, land of the brave and free!” And somewhere along the line, the brothers’ matinee at the opera house became a night at the opera.

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