Although Groucho Marx was the third-oldest son of "stage mama" Minnie Marx, he was the first to take the plunge into show business. With his mother's blessing, the 14-year-old Marx took a job as a boy soprano with a group called the LeRoy Trio. This first engagement was nearly his last when, while on tour, he was stranded in Colorado and had to work his way back home. Marx was willing to chuck the theater and pursue his dream of becoming a doctor, but the undaunted Minnie organized Groucho, his younger brother Gummo, and a less than talented girl named Mabel O'Donnell into a vaudeville act called The Three Nightingales. Before long, Groucho's older brothers Chico and Harpo joined the act, which, by 1910, had metamorphosed into The Six Mascots (Minnie and the boy's Aunt Hannah rounded out the sextet). Fed up with indifferent audiences, Groucho began throwing jokes and insults into the act, directly addressing the crowd in as hilariously nasty a manner as possible. The audience loved it, and the four Marx Brothers eventually became a comedy team.
Through the many incarnations of their vaudeville act, the characters remained the same: Groucho, the mustached, cigar-chomping leader of the foursome, alternately dispensing humorous invectives and acting as exasperated straight man for his brothers' antics; Chico, the monumentally stupid, pun-happy Italian; Harpo, the non-speaking, whirling dervish; and Gummo (later replaced by Zeppo), the hopelessly lost straight man. During the run of their vaudeville sketch Home Again, Groucho was unable to find his prop mustache and rapidly painted one on with greasepaint -- which is how he would appear with his brothers ever afterward, despite efforts by certain film directors to make his hirsute adornment look realistic. After managing to offend several powerful vaudeville magnates, the Marx Brothers accepted work with a Broadway-bound "tab" show, I'll Say She Is. The play scored a surprise hit when it opened in 1924, and the brothers became the toast of Broadway. They followed this success with 1925's The Cocoanuts, in which playwrights George Kaufman and Morris Ryskind refined Groucho's character into the combination con man/perpetual wisecracker that he would portray until the team dissolved. The Cocoanuts was also the first time Groucho appeared with his future perennial foil and straight woman Margaret Dumont. Animal Crackers, which opened in 1928, cast Groucho as fraudulent African explorer Capt. Geoffrey T. Spaulding, and introduced his lifelong signature tune, the Bert Kalmar/Harry Ruby classic "Hooray for Captain Spaulding." Both Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers were made into early talkies, prompting Paramount to invite the Brothers to Hollywood for a group of comedies written specifically for the screen. Monkey Business (1931), Horse Feathers (1932), and Duck Soup (1933) are now acknowledged classics, but box-office receipts dropped off with each successive feature, and, by 1934, the Marx Brothers were considered washed up in Hollywood. Groucho was only mildly put out; professional inactivity gave him time to commiserate with the writers and novelists who comprised his circle of friends. He always considered himself a writer first and comedian second, and, over the years, published several witty books and articles. (He was gratified in the '60s when his letters to and from friends were installed in the Library of Congress -- quite an accomplishment for a man who never finished grade school.)