‘I Love Lucy’ and Harpo Marx: Harpo’s Son Recalls Working With His Dad on the Classic Episode

I Love Lucy fans, prepare to see something new. Well, not “new” as much as “newly colorized,” as CBS debuts a pair of classic Lucy episodes, giving fans a stunning new look at “The Dancing Star” and “Lucy and Harpo Marx,” two gems from Lucy Ricardo and her crew’s time in Hollywood.

The 1955 episodes have been colorized and seamlessly blended into one hour-long special, which finds Lucy trying to fool her visiting New York friend Caroline Appleby into believing she really knows all the Hollywood hotshots she’s been bragging about. Actor and dancer Van Johnson helps her out in the first half, before a surprise appearance from Marx Brothers legend Harpo nearly derails her hair-brained scheme in the second half.

Yahoo TV talked to Harpo Marx’s oldest son, musician Bill Marx, about the Lucy episode, which Bill worked on. Marx, who writes about his experiences working with his dad in his memoir Son of Harpo Speaks, shared memories of Harpo and Lucille Ball recreating the Marx Brothers’ famous mirror scene, Harpo’s delightful “bend-knee-feet” pantomime, and how his father impressed him with his professionalism and strength after weathering a major health crisis.

In your book, you mention you were working at I Love Lucy when the Harpo episode was filmed. Were you a network page?
I was working for a company called Desilu [Lucile Ball and Desi Arnaz’s company], which made a lot of sitcoms. I was 18 years old at the time. Dad said, “We’re going to do an I Love Lucy episode. I want you to write something for me to play on the show.” I [arranged] the version of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” that he plays on the show. I had this summer job at Desilu as a page or an usher, because they shot all these shows before a live audience. They had me as an usher for this episode, and at the same time, I was continuing on as I had since I was 12 years old, as my dad’s prop man. I went back and forth, doing both those jobs at the time.

I was there for the entire week of rehearsals, which were really most fascinating, because most people’s first awareness of the famous mirror sequence between Lucy and my dad was in Duck Soup, 20 years prior to [when the Lucy episode was filmed]. It comes from an old Vaudeville routine which a lot of mimes have used. For this show, it took a lot of rehearsal, because my dad had to play the part played by Groucho, so that Lucy could play the part usually played by Harpo. It was very intense rehearsing. I think it was beautifully done.

You worked as his prop master. For the I Love Lucy episode, what did that entail?
Suffice it to say that [my dad] had a magical coat. He’d pull things out from it. I don’t remember whether he used the rubber chicken or the carrot or the scissors or any of that, but they all had to be in the appropriate pocket that was inside his coat, so that he could get right at it, because he had to know where [everything] was when he needed it. That was one of my jobs. He used to do a rather famous bit where he would be accused of stealing silverware. It started falling out of his sleeve. My job was to load up his sleeve with 400 knives in such a way that when he jiggled his arm, they would fall out appropriately the way he wanted, with timing and everything. That’s when I first got started being his prop man, and there I was six years later doing various other things for him. I was his arranger and conductor when I was 16 years old, too. We spent a lot of time together. We recorded two albums for Mercury Records. He was a champion of my career. He had faith in me when I was a very young person. You don’t get that all the time from a father or a mother. I just want to pass that along to other people, that I’ve never met a more complete, compassionate, and passionate man in my life than my father. He was a great man.

Lucille Ball as Harpo Marx in ‘I Love Lucy’ (Photo: CBS)
Lucille Ball as Harpo Marx in ‘I Love Lucy’ (Photo: CBS)

The actual filming of the mirror scene, what was that process like?
He had to get it out of his mind, what he did in Duck Soup and in Vaudeville, whereas Lucy just had to learn for the first time what to do as Harpo. There was a lot of rehearsal that went into it to make as good as it was. I became very good friends with Bill Asher, who directed that particular episode, plus he created Bewitched with Elizabeth Montgomery. He was a task master. He saw to it that they rehearsed that until it became almost impeccable.

I really love the “benefit” scene, too, when Harpo pantomimes the word to Ricky and Fred. Was that improvised, or scripted for him to do?
That was a very popular bit, that Chico and Dad used to do in a lot of their movies, Dad trying to convey to Chico something that was important, that Chico should know. The same thing happened with Ricky, so he had to do a whole routine with Ricky. They rehearsed that one pretty good, too. Desi was a complete talent. He had musical ability, and had a nice comedic sense about him. It worked out just beautifully.

Your dad had a heart attack right before he did the “Harpo Marx” episode. It’s a very physical episode. He was 67 when he filmed it, and he was carrying a harp around, picked up and carried a woman over his shoulder… was he given a doctor’s okay to do such a physical episode?
Yes. He was given an okay on that one. When people see this show, that is… his professionalism. I mentioned earlier that they shot this in front of a studio audience. You can’t make a mistake. You have to do it, otherwise you have to do it again, and the audience has already laughed at it. It’s not as funny anymore. In this particular case, Dad had finished his “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” thing, got up and chased Caroline Appleby around the couch and grabbed her and slung her over his shoulder… his hat fell off… he reached over, grabbed his hat from the ground without letting Appleby go, stood up, put his hat back on, and went out.

This an example for me of what a good actor does. They live in the moment. Dad knew that he couldn’t afford to louse up a very, very good take. He just kept her on his shoulders. It was amazing. Yes, he had just had, six months prior to that, a heart attack. To me, that was the height of professionalism.

The New I Love Lucy Superstar Special airs May 19 at 9 p.m. on CBS. (Bill Marx shares more memories of his father at his official Harpo Marx site, Harpo’s Place.)

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