Mar 222019
 

Today is the birthday (1887) of Leonard “Chico” Marx, a member of the Marx Brothers (with Groucho, Harpo, and Zeppo). His persona in the act was that of a charming, uneducated but crafty con artist, seemingly of rural Italian origin, who wore shabby clothes and sported a curly-haired wig and Tyrolean hat. On screen, Chico is often in alliance with Harpo, usually as partners in crime, and is also frequently seen trying to con or outfox Groucho. Leonard was the oldest of the Marx Brothers to live past early childhood (first-born Manfred Marx had died in infancy). In addition to his work as a performer, he played an important role in the management and development of the act in its early years.

Name those Marx brothers.

Chico was born in Manhattan, New York City. His parents were Sam Marx (called “Frenchie” throughout his life), and his wife, Minnie Schoenberg Marx. Minnie’s brother was Al Shean. The Marx family was Franco-German Jewish. His father was a native of Alsace who worked as a tailor and his mother was from East Frisia in Germany.

Billing himself as Chico, he used an Italian persona for his onstage character; stereotyped ethnic characters were common with Vaudevillians. The fact that he was not actually Italian was specifically referred to twice on film. In their second feature, Animal Crackers, he recognizes someone he knows to be a fish peddler impersonating a respected art collector:

Ravelli (Chico): “How is it you got to be Roscoe W. Chandler?”
Chandler: “Say, how did you get to be an Italian?”
Ravelli: “Never mind—whose confession is this?”

In A Night at the Opera, which begins in Italy, his character, Fiorello, claims not to be Italian, eliciting a surprised look from Groucho:

Driftwood (Groucho): “Well, things seem to be getting better around the country.”
Fiorello (Chico): “I don’t know, I’m a stranger here myself.”

A scene in the film Go West, in which Chico attempts to placate an Indian chief of whom Groucho has run afoul, has a line that plays a bit on Chico’s lack of Italian nationality, but is more or less proper Marx wordplay:

Quentin Quayle (Groucho): “Can you talk Indian?”
Joe Panello (Chico): “I was born in Indianapolis!”

There are moments, however, where Chico’s characters appear to be genuinely Italian; examples include the film The Big Store, in which his character Ravelli runs into an old friend he worked with in Naples (after a brief misunderstanding due to his accent), the film Monkey Business, in which Chico claims his grandfather sailed with Christopher Columbus, and their very first film The Cocoanuts, where Mr. Hammer (Groucho) asks him if he knew what an auction was, in which he responds “I come from Italy on the Atlantic Auction!” Chico’s character is often assumed to be dim-witted, as he frequently misunderstands words spoken by other characters (particularly Groucho). However, he often gets the better of the same characters by extorting money from them, either by con or blackmail; again, Groucho is his most frequent target.

Chico was a reasonably accomplished pianist. He originally started playing with only his right hand and fake playing with his left, as his teacher did so herself. Chico eventually acquired a better teacher and learned to play the piano correctly. As a young boy, he gained jobs playing piano to earn money for the Marx family. Sometimes Chico even worked playing in two places at the same time. He would acquire the first job with his piano-playing skills, work for a few nights, and then substitute Harpo on one of the jobs. (During their boyhood, Chico and Harpo looked so much alike that they were often mistaken for each other.)

In the brothers’ last film, Love Happy, Chico plays a piano and violin duet with ‘Mr. Lyons’ (Leon Belasco). Lyons plays some ornate riffs on the violin; Chico comments, “Look-a, Mister Lyons, I know you wanna make a good impression, but please don’t-a play better than me!” In a record album about the Marx Brothers, narrator Gary Owens stated that “although Chico’s technique was limited, his repertoire was not.” The opposite was true of Harpo, who reportedly could play only two tunes on the piano, which typically thwarted Chico’s scam and resulted in both brothers’ being fired.

Chico became the unofficial manager of the Marx Brothers after their mother, Minnie, died in 1929. As manager, he cut a deal to get the brothers a percentage of a film’s gross receipts—the first of its kind in Hollywood. Furthermore, it was Chico’s connection with Irving Thalberg of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer that led to Thalberg’s signing the Brothers when they were in a career slump after Duck Soup (1933), the last of their films for Paramount.

For a while in the 1930s and 1940s, Chico led a big band. Singer Mel Tormé began his professional career singing with the Chico Marx Orchestra. Through the 1950s, Chico occasionally appeared on a variety of television anthology shows and some television commercials, most memorably with Harpo in “The Incredible Jewelry Robbery”, a pantomime episode of General Electric Theater in 1959.

Chico playing cards with himself.

His nickname (acquired during a card game in Chicago in 1915) was originally spelled Chicko. A typesetter accidentally dropped the “k” in his name and it became Chico. It was still pronounced “Chick-oh” although those who were unaware of its origin tended to pronounce it “Cheek-oh”. Numerous radio recordings from the 1940s exist where announcers and fellow actors mispronounce the nickname, but Chico apparently felt it was unnecessary to correct them. As late as the 1950s, Groucho was happy to use the wrong pronunciation for comedic effect. A guest on You Bet Your Life told him she grew up around Chico (California) and Groucho responded, “I grew up around Chico myself. You aren’t Gummo, are you?” During Groucho’s live performance at Carnegie Hall in 1972, he states that his brother got the name Chico because he was a “chicken-chaser” (early 20th century slang for womanizer). “In England now, they call them birds.”

As well as being a compulsive womanizer, Chico had a lifelong gambling habit. His favorite gambling pursuits were card games, horse racing, dog racing, and various sports betting. His addiction cost him millions of dollars by his own account. When an interviewer in the late 1930s asked him how much money he had lost from gambling, he answered, “Find out how much money Harpo’s got. That’s how much I’ve lost.” Gummo Marx, in an interview years after Chico’s death, said: “Chico’s favorite people were actors who gambled, producers who gambled, and women who screwed.”

Chico’s lifelong gambling addiction compelled him to continue in show business long after his brothers had retired in comfort from their Hollywood income, and in the early 1940s he found himself playing in the same small, cheap halls in which he had begun his career 30 years earlier. The Marx Brothers’ penultimate film, A Night in Casablanca (1946), was made for Chico’s benefit since he had filed for bankruptcy a few years prior. Because of his out-of-control gambling, the brothers finally took the money as he earned it and put him on an allowance, on which he stayed until his death.

Chico had a reputation as a world-class pinochle player, a game he and Harpo learned from their father. Groucho said Chico would throw away good cards (with the knowledge of spectators) to make the play “more interesting”. Chico’s last public appearance was in 1960, playing cards on the television show Championship Bridge. He and his partner lost the game.

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Chico was married twice. His first marriage was to Betty Karp in 1917, and produced one daughter: Maxine (1918–2009). His first marriage was plagued by his infidelity, ending in divorce in 1940. He was very close to his daughter Maxine and gave her acting lessons. Chico’s second marriage was to Mary De Vithas. They married in 1958, three years before his death.

Chico died of arteriosclerosis at age 74 on October 11th, 1961, at his Hollywood home. He was the eldest brother and the first to die. Chico is entombed in the mausoleum at Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California. Chico’s younger brother Gummo is in a crypt across the hall from him.

According to a book of recipes by famous people (Eat Like the Stars), Chico’s favorite dish was pasta alla lido (spelled wrong). I don’t have the cookbook, but pasta alla lido is will enough known. It is rigatoni (or macaroni) with swordfish and eggplant. No idea why this was his favorite, but being Italian seems apt, and it’s palatable enough.

Pasta alla Lido

Ingredients

600 gm rigatoni (or macaroni)
400 gm sliced swordfish, cut in cubes
1 kg plum tomatoes, chopped
2 eggplants, cubed
3 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced
mint leaves
½ glass dry white wine
olive oil
salt and pepper

Instructions

Boil the rigatoni while you are making the fish and eggplant sauce.

Fry the eggplant cubes in oil over medium heat until they take on some color, then remove them with a slotted spoon and drain on absorbent kitchen paper. Then brown the garlic in the oil, remove, and discard.

Turn the heat to high, add the swordfish and brown on all sides. Add the wine over high heat and add the chopped tomato. Season with salt and pepper to taste, and finish the sauce over high heat. At the end, add the eggplant to heat through.

Drain the rigatoni well, and mix with the sauce.  Serve garnished with mint leaves.

Feb 152017
 

Today is the birthday (1797) of Heinrich Engelhard Steinweg, anglicized name Henry Engelhard Steinway, who  made pianos in Germany and the United States. He was the founder of the legendary piano company Steinway & Sons. He was born in Wolfshagen im Harz, Duchy of Brunswick in the Holy Roman Empire. He attended public school in his home town. At the age of 8, he was ostensibly orphaned on the death of his mother, and thrown upon his own resources, until his father and brothers, once thought to have been killed in action, returned and claimed him. Then, at 15, he was orphaned this time genuinely on the death of his father, and he joined the German Army. In 1814, he joined the Schwarze Schar, the volunteer corps of Frederick William, Duke of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel in the war against Napoleon’s occupation of parts of the German states but remained in the garrison throughout the Napoleonic  campaign of the Hundred Days in 1815.

He left service on 23 June 1822 and began work as a carpenter, and later he became an apprentice to an organ builder in the town of Goslar. During this time he developed a love for music and became a church organist. He started building instruments, though hidden in the kitchen of his house because of the strong rules of the instrument builders’ guilds. In Braunschweig (Brunswick), he started by building guitars and zithers, and then graduated to pianos, of small proportions initially and gradually increasing in size.

In 1835 he made the first square piano, which he presented to his bride Juliane at their wedding. In 1836 he built his first grand piano in his kitchen in the town of Seesen. This piano was later named the “kitchen piano”, and is now on display at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art with a Steinweg 1836 square piano. In 1839, he exhibited three pianos at the state trade exhibition in Braunschweig and was awarded a gold medal.

Because of the unstable political climate following the revolutions of 1848 in the German states and the limited economic opportunities for a man working outside a guild, Steinweg decided to leave the country. He emigrated from Braunschweig to New York City in 1850 with five of his sons, but before leaving he gave the company to his son, Christian Friedrich Theodor Steinweg. Later in New York, he anglicized his name to Henry E. Steinway upon advice from friends, who concluded that the German surname Steinweg would be disadvantageous for doing business. Steinway and his sons worked for other piano companies until they could establish their own production under the name of Steinway & Sons in 1853.

The overstrung scale in a square piano earned the Steinway Piano first prize at the New York Industrial Fair of 1855. In 1862 they gained the first prize in London in competition with the most eminent makers in Europe; and this victory was followed in 1867 by a similar success at the Universal exposition in Paris. Certain piano giants such as Franz Liszt and Anton Rubinstein praised Steinways to the skies for their durability, action, and tone-quality helping to make Steinway a household name in pianos.

This short infomercial about the Steinway product pretty much sums things up. The action and tone of  Steinway pianos are their most marked features:

It’s not at all sensible to give you a YouTube video of a Steinway in action because of the limited tone qualities of the recordings.  You need to hear one live. At Purchase College (SUNY) where I was a professor of anthropology and dance for 35 years, Steinways were everywhere. Every dance studio in the dance conservatory (claimed to be the largest in the U.S.), had its own Steinway, for example.  I might argue that this is a waste of great instruments given that neither the dance students nor their teachers were especially interested in the tone of the music they were dancing to, but the practice musicians enjoyed the experience (for the most part). One once complained to me about the “famed Steinway action” as an impediment to his playing style, which is near blasphemy and might be a comment on his capacities as a musician more than on the pianos themselves. I don’t play piano, so I will remain neutral.

The elevators in the music conservatory at Purchase College were designed to be large enough and sturdy enough to accommodate a grand piano because the instruments had to be shunted around quite frequently for rehearsals and performances, and the Steinways proved to be durable enough to be up to the task (with a piano tuner on call all the time).

Steinway’s home of Brunswick or Braunschweig gives its name to the eponymous Braunschweiger, but things are a little complicated. The name has never been subject to any kind of copyright, patent, or formal region of origin status, and hence is used indiscriminately for a variety of different sausages in different regions. In Germany Braunschweiger usually refers to a variety of Mettwurst that is made of coarsely ground fatty pork with flavorings added, then smoked, and is spreadable. In Austria, Braunschweiger is a type of Brühwurst that is cooked, while in the US Braunschweiger is a type of liverwurst.  Let’s focus on German Braunschweiger Mettwurst. You may have to travel to Germany to find it.

Legends abound concerning the original maker(s) of Braunschweiger Mettwurst, none of them trustworthy – like pretty well all stories about origins.  Best guess is that a version of Braunschweiger appeared in Brunswick in the 1830s and has evolved over time in Germany and elsewhere.  Garlic is the most common flavoring.  For my money you can’t do any better then spread Braunschweiger plain on coarse German bread, but it’s also tasty with the addition of sauerkraut and mustard.  This is really where you have to decide for yourself – raw onions? tomatoes? cheese?  Your choice.

 

Jan 032017
 

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Today is the birthday (1909) of Børge Rosenbaum, known professionally as Victor Borge, a Danish and U.S. comedian, conductor, and pianist who achieved great popularity in radio and television in both the United States and Europe. When I was a teenager in the 1960s Borge was one of my absolute favorites. Sadly – for me – he did not vary his act much over his very long career, so I rather lost interest by the time I reached my 20s. But I can still look at his act on video nowadays and smile.

Borge was born in Copenhagen to Bernhard and Frederikke (Lichtinger) Rosenbaum who were both musicians.  His father was a violist in the Royal Danish Orchestra, and his mother a pianist. Borge began piano lessons at the age of two, and it was soon apparent that he was gifted. He gave his first piano recital when he was 8 years old, and in 1918 (age 9) he was awarded a full scholarship to the Royal Danish Academy of Music, studying under Olivo Krause. Later on, he was taught by Victor Schiøler, Liszt’s student Frederic Lamond, and Busoni’s pupil Egon Petri.

Borge played his first major concert in 1926 at the Danish concert-hall Odd Fellow Palæet (The Odd Fellow’s Lodge building). After a few years as a serious classical concert pianist he shifted into his now famous comedy act, with the signature blend of piano music and jokes. I can’t find any absolutely reliable information on how exactly the transformation occurred, but Borge himself reported that he once saw a pianist slide right off his bench in the middle of a concerto, and clearly this hit a (funny) nerve for Borge. His sense of humor must have always been latent, and when he experimented with it on stage it was immediately successful. Despite his comedy act overtaking his concert playing he maintained a small serious concert schedule as performer and conductor all his life.

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Borge married US citizen Elsie Chilton in 1933, and in the same year he debuted his revue acts which were immediately successful. He began touring extensively in Europe, where he began telling anti-Nazi jokes as one of his primary comedic vehicles. When the Nazis occupied Denmark during World War II, Borge was playing a concert in Sweden and managed to escape to Finland. He traveled to the US on the United States Army transport American Legion, the last neutral ship to make it out of Petsamo in Finland, and arrived 28 August 1940, with only $20. Disguised as a sailor, Borge returned to Denmark once during the occupation to visit his dying mother. This was an exceptionally courageous act because he was certainly on Nazi watch lists, as well as being Jewish.

Sometimes it is claimed that Borge did not speak a word of English upon arrival in the US, but I find that hard to believe given that he had been married to a US citizen for 7 years. However, his claim that he learned English by watching English language movies regularly seems perfectly plausible.  Very soon after arrival he managed to adapt his jokes to US audiences, and was a hit.  He took the name of Victor Borge in the US, and in 1941, he started on Rudy Vallee’s radio show. He was hired soon after by Bing Crosby for his Kraft Music Hall program.

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Borge rose quickly to fame, winning Best New Radio Performer of the Year in 1942. Soon after the award, he was offered film roles with stars such as Frank Sinatra (in Higher and Higher). While hosting The Victor Borge Show on NBC beginning in 1946, he developed many of his trademarks, including repeatedly announcing his intent to play a piece but getting “distracted” by something or other, making comments about the audience, or discussing the usefulness of Chopin’s “Minute Waltz” as an egg timer. He would also start out with some well-known classical piece like Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” and suddenly move into a harmonically similar pop or jazz tune, such as Cole Porter’s “Night and Day” or “Happy Birthday to You.”

One of Borge’s other famous routines is “Phonetic Punctuation,” in which he read a passage from a book and added exaggerated sound effects to stand for all of the punctuation marks, such as periods, commas, and exclamation marks. I used to howl with laughter at this 40 years ago. I am a little surprised to note that he delivered the routine without substantial change for decades. In fact just about all of his material remained the same, yet he continued to make audiences laugh.

In his stage shows in later years, he would include a segment with opera singer Marylyn Mulvey. She would try to sing an aria, and he would react and interrupt, with such antics as falling off the bench in “surprise” when she hit a high note. He would also remind her repeatedly not to rest her hand on the piano. After the routine, the spotlight would fall upon Mulvey and she would sing a serious number with Borge accompanying in the background.

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Borge played with and conducted orchestras including the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, and London Philharmonic, and was invited to conduct the Royal Danish Orchestra at the Royal Danish Theatre in Copenhagen, Denmark, in 1992.

Borge continued to tour until his last days, performing up to 60 times per year when he was 90 years old. Borge made several appearances on the long-running TV show What’s My Line?, both as a celebrity panelist, and as a contestant with the occupation “poultry farmer” (the latter was not a comedy routine; as a business venture, Borge raised and popularized Rock Cornish game hens starting in the 1950s).

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Borge died in Greenwich, Connecticut, at the age of 91, after more than 75 years of entertaining. He died peacefully in his sleep a day after returning from a concert in Denmark. “It was just his time to go,” his son, Frederikke Borge, said. “He’s been missing my mother terribly.” (His wife had died only three months earlier.) According to his wishes, his connection to both the United States and Denmark was marked by having part of his ashes interred at Putnam Cemetery in Greenwich, with a replica of Danish icon The Little Mermaid sitting on a large rock at the grave site, and the other part in Western Jewish Cemetery (Mosaisk Vestre Begravelsesplads) in Copenhagen.

I’ve chosen cherry cheese Danish as my recipe for Borge because it’s a U.S./Danish hybrid and because I used to make it around this time of year. It calls for rising overnight, so I would start it on Christmas Eve and bake it on Christmas morning to go with coffee whilst unwrapping the presents. Actually Danish pastry is really a Viennese tradition that was imported from Austria by the Danish, and from there to the U.S. But this kind of pastry is very common with coffee in Denmark, and has definitely made a home there and in the U.S. I make my own cherry filling using pitted bitter cherries simmered in a simple syrup which I reduce. You can use any canned filling you want. The thing about classic Danish pastry, quite different from commercial U.S. varieties, is that it is made with a layered style of puff pastry that is leavened with yeast. Usually in the U.S. you need to go to a local bakery to get the original. It’s worth it.

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Cherry Cheese Danish

Ingredients

Pastry

2 packages (¼ oz each) active dry yeast
½ cup warmed milk (approx 110°F)
6 cups all-purpose flour
⅓ cup sugar
2 tsp salt
1 cup cold butter, cubed
1½ cups half-and-half, warmed (approx 75°F)
6 egg yolks
10 oz cherry pie filling
10 oz cream cheese

Icing

3 cups confectioners’ sugar
2 tablespoons butter, softened
¼ tsp vanilla extract
salt
4 tbsp half-and-half

Instructions

Dissolve the yeast in the warm milk and set aside.

In a large bowl or food processor, combine the flour, sugar, and salt. Cut in the butter until the mixture resembles wet sand. I usually pulse 8 or 9 times with the food processor.  Add the yeast mixture, cream and egg yolks and stir gently, but thoroughly to form a soft dough. The dough will be sticky.  Cover the bowl and refrigerate overnight.

In the morning, punch down the dough. Divide the dough into four. Place each piece in turn on a lightly floured surface, and roll it into an 18”x 4” rectangle, and cut this into 4”x 1”strips.

Place two strips side by side and twist them together. Shape the twist into a ring and pinch the ends together. Place the rings 2” apart on greased baking sheets. Cover with kitchen towels and let rise in a warm place until doubled (about 45 minutes).

Preheat the oven to 350°F.

Make a ½”-deep indentation in the center of each ring with the back of a spoon. Spread a little cream cheese in the base of the indentation and top with cherry filling.

Bake the pastries for 14-16 minutes or until lightly browned. Remove from the pans and cool on wire racks.

While the pastries are baking make the icing. In a standard mixer beat together the confectioners’ sugar, butter, vanilla, salt and half and half until it is thick but pourable. Drizzle over the cooled pastries.

Yield: 30