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Chico Marx

Worked as a Pianist and Met Wife Betty in Pittsburgh
Chico Marx before he joined the Marx Brothers to become an international film and comedy star spent a year working in Pittsburgh as a pianist and manager of a downtown music store. Returning to Pittsburgh with the Marx Brothers eight years later an old Pittsburgh friend introduced him to the woman who became his wife Pittsburgh native Betty Karp.

Leo Chico Marx, the oldest of the Marx Brothers, was born on March 22, 1887 in New York City. Leo's mother Minnie purchased a beat up old upright piano and hired a Viennese piano teacher at 25 cents a week to teach Leo popular songs. But the teacher could play only with her right hand -she faked her left hand. Leo was a quick learner who practiced hard every day. Brother Harpo said that by age 13 Chico was the best one-handed piano player in New York. He eventually learned how to play with both hands, but was an very accomplished unconventional pianist.

Chico began playing professionally in beer gardens and nickelodeons behind silent films. A showman he dazzled audiences playing blind folded and took requests playing with the keyboard covered by a sheet.  In his signature solos Chico 
ran his fingers across keyboard, formed a gun and shot the keys with his right index finger.  He played with "joyful abandon" (Eopinion) delighting audiences. 

Chico was hired as the pianist at a Yorkville nickelodeon to replace a young George Gershwin who was fired because the movie patrons complained that his playing hurt their ears. Gershwin eventually took a job as a song plugger for the Sharipo and Bernstein music publishing firm. Chico followed him there to also become a successful song plugger.

Piano-ing in Pittsburgh

In 1907 Chico Marx at the age of 20 was transferred to Pittsburgh by the Shapiro and Bernstein Company to manage their music store at 302 Fifth Avenue near the corner of Wood Street. In the days before radio and phonographs popular songs were sold in the form of sheet music. To promote sheet music sales "song pluggers" sang the tunes for customers. Chico hired the song pluggers and accompanied them on piano. Downtown Pittsburgh music shopper were treated daily to the crazy piano antics of Chico Marx.

Chico hired as a song plugger a 17 year old newspaper boy, Joe Hiller, who had sold him newspapers and ran errands. Chico accompanied Hiller and they sold a lot of sheet music. Hiller looking to make some money persuaded Bongiovanni's Italian Restaurant on Fifth Avenue in downtown Pittsburgh to let Leo and him perform. He told the owner Franceso B
ongiovanni that they would be a big draw. The duo billed themselves as Marx and Hiller and performed weekend evenings for free. On their first night someone passed a hat around and they collected $100 in tips. The Bongiovanni engagement was Joe Hiller's first ever booking in his long career as an agent.

While in Pittsburgh Chico wrote and published his first song "Mandy: Come Out In the Pale Moonlight"

When Mr. Shapiro died in 1908 Chico decided to return to New York City. He split the burg leaving a note for Joe Hiller: "You're now the manager".  Hiller went on to become a song plugger and song picker for Irving Berlin in New York City, a successful lyricist of several hit popular songs, a radio host, a night club owner, and a booking agent.  Chico gave Joe Hiller his start in the music business.

The Courtship of Chico

Chico joined the Marx Brothers in 1912. They toured the country in a play written by their uncle Al Shean entitled "Home Again."  Appearing in Pittsburgh in 1914 Chico was visited back stage by singer Sophie Miller who had worked for him as a song plugger at Shapiro and Bernstein's music store. Sophie brought along her 16 year old friend Betty Karp. Chico flirted with the attractive young Betty until she agreed to go out with him that evening. Leary of the older musician, Chico was 27, she stood him up.

Three years later the Marx Brothers were playing a show in Brooklyn. Betty Karp, now 19, made her way back stage to visit her one time acquaintance Chico. On seeing Betty Chico said "You're the little girl who stood me up in Pittsburgh". Their romance blossomed quicky and they married on March 17, 1917. Their daughter Maxine was born in January of 1918.

Chico returns to Pittsburgh

Chico returned to Pittsburgh in 1942 with the Chico Marx Orchestra.  They performed at the Stanley Theater in Pittsburgh on March 13 and March 16. Both concerts were broadcast locally over radio station WCAE.  On Nov 15, 1949 Chico brought his solo act to Pittsburgh for a week of shows at Jackie Heller's Carousel Club on Liberty Avenue in downtown Pittsburgh and had a reunion with his old friend Joe Hiller.  Chico returned to play the Carousel again on August 10th 1951. Chico passed away in Oct of 1961.
Chico, Wife Betty Karp, and Maxine Marx

Chico and Harpo Piano Antics
Fifth and Wood Street 1900
Chico and Betty