Inspiration & Influence: Harpo Marx
When someone first learns that I play the harp, the typical reaction is, “Wow, I’ve never met a real live harp player before!” People don’t often have an image or person in their mind to associate with the word “harpist.” Once in awhile, I’ll get the “Like King David?” response, or “Oh, my aunt’s neighbor’s cousin’s niece played the harp…I think.”
And every so often, someone will exclaim, “OH! Like Harpo Marx? I love Harpo Marx!”
“Was Harpo Marx really a good harpist?”
I tell them that Harpo was a genius — an unconventional one, for sure. But a genius. Last year, I did some research on Harpo as part of my master’s degree, and the more I learned about him the more my admiration for this zany comedian/musician grew.
Harpo was largely self-taught and spent his first two years as a harpist playing with the harp on the wrong shoulder. He realized his mistake after seeing a picture of an angel in a department store window. He played his harp tuned much lower than the normal pedal harp because his first instrument (purchased for $45 by his mother, who thought her family needed to add “class” to their act) was so terrible that the strings would have broken if tuned any higher. He could never get used to “conventional” tuning, even when he had a decent instrument.
Harpo couldn’t read music and learned all his repertoire by ear. Extremely dedicated, he typically spent two to three hours a day practicing. After 8 years of soloing onstage, Harpo attempted to get formal training from (according to his autobiography Harpo Speaks) a harpist with the Metropolitan Opera. The harpist was evidently too fascinated with Harpo’s technique to teach him anything. Harpo did take some lessons with well-known harpist Mildred Dilling, whom he met by chance in a music shop. She introduced him to Bach, Mozart, Ravel, and Debussy but never tried to change his way of playing.
By all accounts, Harpo was as affable offstage as he appeared onstage. Extremely good-natured, he was well-liked by all and the “favorite uncle” amongst his many nieces and nephews. He married actress Susan Fleming in 1936, a happy union that last until Harpo’s death in 1964.
Comedian George Burns said of Harpo’s family life, “One thing [Harpo] said to me that was so, so nice… He adopted four children, you know. So I said to him, ‘When are you gonna quit? How many children are you going to adopt?’ He says, ‘I’d like to adopt as many children as I have windows. So when I leave, I want a kid in every window, waving goodbye.’… I think that was about the greatest marriage that I know of, Susan Marx and Harpo.”
Harpo was extremely generous, giving many benefit concerts for orchestras around the US (under the name Arturo Harponini). His two harps were also donated, per his will, to the nation of Israel after his death. He was also a talented painter and played the piano and clarinet (also self-taught skills).
Harpo loved being onstage and was clearly a natural performer. The Marx Brothers’ career spanned more than 40 years in vaudeville, movies, and TV. They made 14 movies as a team. In addition to his movie solos, Harpo also made numerous concert appearances around the world. He also guested on TV shows of Red Skelton, Donald O’Connor, Ed Sullivan, and Lucille Ball:
Despite his extensive performance experience, he often suffered from stage fright. So he developed an onstage thought process to calm down, which went something like this:
“Oh, my God! I have to play for all these people. Hey, wait a minute! I’m up here and they’re down there. If there’s someone out there who should be up here, let him come up and play the harp. But if someone were out there who should be here, he would be here. But he’s not! I am. I guess I’ll play the harp.”
And so he did.