Chico Marx

Photo of Chico Marx

As part of the Marx Brothers, Chico Marx starred in some of the most important comedies of the early cinema. Often described as the “sanest” of the brothers, Chico’s on-stage character, with his sugar loaf felt hat, green jacket, yellow baggy pants, and stereotypical Italian accent, is forever part of American cultural history. What’s less known about the sanest Marx brother, though, is that he also led one of the top swing bands of the early 1940s.

In late 1940, the Marx Brothers announced that they would make one more picture and then go their separate ways for a while, with Chico stating that he would organize a band and go on tour. True to his word, in late 1941, Marx hired legendary bandleader Ben Pollack to build and rehearse an orchestra for him. The new group made its debut on January 15, 1942 at the Flatbush Theater in Brooklyn, drawing much critical acclaim. Audiences loved it, including dancers.

Marx put in the effort with his group and wasn’t simply trying to cash in on his name. Pollack hired top musicians and rehearsed them to perfection. Marx’s role in the band was as frontman. He would sometimes wave his baton, but when he got tired of doing so he would sit down. The band was so finely-tuned that they needed little direction, and when they did saxophone player Harry Sopp provided it. Marx, for his part, would wander across the stage, eating apples or heckling his singers, and occasionally he would play his trick piano. One early routine had Marx taking requests, which the band would then proceed to play, medley style, interspersed by Marx tinkling “Elmer’s Tune” on the piano between each section.

On the vocal front, the band was best noted for its male singers. Baritone Ziggy Lane was the initial warbler. When he felt the draft in March, Pittsburgh singer Skip Nelson took his place. Lane must have failed his physical, however, as he was back in the band by early May, staying through at least June and sharing vocal duties with Nelson. In late spring, Pollack hired a young, 16-year-old, wunderkind arranger from Chicago by the name of Mel Tormé. Tormé could also play drums and piano, but it was announced that he would not be working as a musician, though he may sing on occasion. When Nelson left in July, after Glenn Miller tapped him to replace Ray Eberle in his band, Tormé stepped up to take his place. When Miller disbanded in September to join the Army Air Force, Nelson returned to the Marx fold. Tormé, still in high school, was slated to return to the Chicago area that month.

Though Marx had good luck with male singers, he had a harder time keeping female vocalists. Barbara Leeds was hired at the last minute to sing during the band’s debut. Ginny Perkins was female singer by March, with Mary Lynn singing at some point prior to June when Elisse Cooper joined. Cooper remained until October when she left for Ben Bernie’s radio program. Bernie told the press that he had won Cooper in a game of gin rummy with Marx. After touring the country since the first of the year, though, Marx’s band planned to settle in for a long run at the Blackhawk Cafe in Chicago that month, and it was likely that Cooper wanted to remain in New York. Armine Whipple, a former Pollack singer and wife of Marx trumpet player Bobby Clark, was announced as Cooper’s replacement, but Kim Kimberly ended up with the job.

The band remained at the Blackhawk until the first of the year, with Tormé joining Nelson on the male vocal team. Tormé also sometimes sang harmony with two musicians from the band. In January 1943, when the orchestra started touring again, Nelson, Tormé, and Kimberly remained as vocalists. By March, Kimberly was gone. Nelson left in May for Tommy Dorsey’s band. Singers in early June were Tormé, Johnny Burke, and Phyllis Lynne. Tormé also took over as the band’s drummer that spring.

In late June, RKO signed Tormé to a picture deal. With Tormé gone, Marx, who had grown tired of traveling, decided to disband in July. He went back on the theater circuit later that year as a single.


  1. “Chico Marx Plans to Lead His Own Band.” Down Beat 15 Dec. 1940: 3.
  2. “Chico Marx Out In Front of a Sock Swing Ork.” Billboard 24 Jan. 1942: 9.
  3. “Vaudeville Reviews: Flatbush, Brooklyn.” Billboard 24 Jan. 1942: 22.
  4. “Pollack Builds New Marx Ork.” Down Beat 1 Feb. 1942: 1.
  5. “Marx Will Open Own Spot.” Billboard 4 Apr. 1942: 25.
  6. “25 Gees for Pollack Out Of Marx Orchestra.” Down Beat 15 Apr. 1942: 20.
  7. “Kim Makes Her Bow.” Down Beat 1 May 1942: 10.
  8. “Vaudeville Reviews: Palace, Akron.” Billboard 3 May 1942: 20.
  9. “Vaudeville Reviews: Oriental, Chicago.” Billboard 30 May 1942: 18.
  10. “Profiling the Players: Chico Marx's Band.” Down Beat 15 Jun. 1942: 19.
  11. “Bands Dug By the Beat: Chico Marx.” Down Beat 15 Jun. 1942: 20.
  12. Advertisement. “Capitol.” The Manitowoc Herald-Times [Manitowoc, Wisconsin] 17 Jun. 1942: 9.
  13. “Orchestra Notes.” Billboard 18 Jul. 1942: 21.
  14. “Skippy Nelson Takes Spot of Ray Eberle.” Down Beat 1 Aug. 1942: 4.
  15. “Talent Finder Unearths Great Young Arranger.” Down Beat 1 Sep. 1942: 6.
  16. “Nelson Back with Chico.” Billboard 3 Oct. 1942: 21.
  17. “On the Stand: Chico Marx.” Billboard 24 Oct. 1942: 22,57.
  18. “On the Air: Chico Marx.” Billboard 7 Nov. 1942: 22.
  19. “Bands Dug by the Beat: Chico Marx.” Down Beat 15 Nov. 1942: 12.
  20. “Night Club Reviews: Blackhawk Cafe, Chicago.” Billboard 28 Nov. 1942: 18.
  21. “Night Club Reviews: Blackhawk Cafe, Chicago.” Billboard 2 Jan. 1943: 68.
  22. “Vaudeville Reviews: Oriental, Chicago.” Billboard 6 Feb. 1943: 16.
  23. “Marx, Hawkins Find Philly Fat.” Billboard 27 Mar. 1943: 15.
  24. “Vaudeville Reviews: Roxy, New York.” Billboard 3 Apr. 1943: 14.
  25. “Vaudeville Reviews: Orpheum, Los Angeles.” Billboard 19 Jun. 1943: 16.
  26. “Orchestra Notes.” Billboard 8 May 1943: 23.
  27. “Orchestra Notes.” Billboard 12 Jun. 1943: 24.
  28. “Mel Torme to Make RKO Film.” Down Beat 1 Jul. 1943: 19.
  29. “Marx Breaks It Up, Pollack to Form Combo.” Down Beat 1 Aug. 1943: 1.