December 30, 2016

Hail, hail, Fredonia — and Nacogdoches

Texas history was made in this area 190 years ago. That's when one Benjamin Edwards rode into Nacogdoches and proclaimed the Republic of Fredonia. 

“Hail, hail Fredonia!” 

Well, yes, but not for that reason. 

Approximately 90 years later (the date is uncertain), national comic history also started in Nacogdoches. And, that “Hail, hail Fredonia” eventually became a song because of it. 

You'll hear it in a “classic,” well, no, not quite that, but, a groaner of sorts of a movie called “Duck Soup.” A movie by a certain Groucho Marx and other members of his family. 

The story's been told plenty a time before, but it doesn't hurt to retell the basics. After all, Groucho Marx is one of my two main inspirations for bad puns, along with Alan Alda in his persona as Hawkeye Pierce on “M*A*S*H.” 

Sidebar: There is no such thing as a “bad pun.” The worse they are, the better they are. And, people who are around me regularly know that I love to tell them. 

About 1910, the Marx Brothers were still in their relatively young, salad days, on the vaudeville circuit. And, they were scheduled to play the Nacogdoches Opera House. 

At that time, the Marx Brothers weren't the people we know from the movies. They did a lot of barbershop quartet-type singing, a few skits, and other similar things. A comedy troupe they were not, though.  

So, they took to the stage, and reportedly, were not quite “knocking 'em dead” in the aisles. Then, what may well have been the first automobile in Nacogdoches backfired. A mule tied outside the opera house broke its tether, somebody yelled “Runaway mule,” and the crowd, or less than a crowd, inside the opera house decided the ruckus outside was more entertaining than the vaudeville act inside. 

But, when they came back in, eventually, Groucho started showing his comic chops. “Nacogdoches is full of roaches” is a rhyming ditty he reportedly hurled at the audience in his next song. He then started changing other lyrics, singing, “The jack-ass is the finest flower of Tex-ass.” 

And things went downhill from there, right? No. The crowd reportedly ate it up. 

And, Groucho, along with the rest of his brothers, started thinking that maybe their future was in comedy as well. 

“Our act was so lousy,” Groucho said in his memoir decades later, “that when word passed through the audience of numbskull Texans that a mule had run away, they got up en masse to go out and see something livelier. We were accustomed to heckling and insults, but that made us furious, so when those guys wearing ten-gallon hats over pint-sized brains came back, we let them have it.”  

And the rest is indeed history. 

For those not totally familiar, Groucho (Julius) is the third brother, not the oldest. Chico (Leonard) came first, then Harpo (Adolph, later known as Arthur), then Gummo (Milton), who didn't appear in any movies, then finally Zeppo (Herbert), who played a straight man in some of the earlier movies. 

By the end of the 1910s, with the help of their uncle, himself a vaudeville comic, they had crafted the personas that would lead to Broadway, and then the movies. 

“Duck Soup” is the highest-ranked Marx Brothers movie by the American Film Institute. And, while Nacogdoches may have laughed at the original joke, and appreciated the hat tip in the movie, the town of Freedonia, New York, most certainly did not appreciate the Republic of Fredonia as skewered in the movie. 

Meanwhile, Alan Alda had “M*A*S*H” provide his own hat tip to Groucho. A Capt. Spaulding, played by Loudon Wainwright, does some some introductory/set-up work for various scenes in the first year of the show. The original Capt. Spaulding was a Groucho character in “Animal Crackers.” 

And, with both Groucho Marx and Alan Alda, I've thought that good puns were a sign of good intelligence. 

Hail, hail, Fredonia indeed!

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