Harpo Marx Adolph Arthur Marx, popularly known as Harpo Marx, (November 23, 1888 - September 28, 1964) was one of the Marx Brothers, a group of Vaudeville entertainers who later achieved fame as comedians in the Motion Picture industry. He was well known by his trademarks: he played the harp, never talked, and frequently used props in sight gags - for instance, in one of the Marx Brothers films he is told that he cannot burn a candle at both ends. He immediately produces, from within his coat, a candle burning at both ends.
In January of 1910, Harpo joined two of his brothers to form "The Three Nightingales". Harpo was inspired to develop his "silent" routine after reading a review of one of their performances which had been largely ad-libbed. The theater critic wrote, "Adolph Marx performed beautiful pantomime which was ruined whenever he spoke".
Harpo got his stage name during a card game at the Orpheum Theatre in Galesburg, Illinois: the dealer called him "Harpo" because he played the harp. His other brothers were given names to match their personalities or hobbies; his brother Leonard became "Chicko" (Chico) because he was always chasing women ("chicks"), and his brother Milton became "Gummo".
He taught himself to play the harp (for he couldn't sing, he couldn't dance, and he didn't talk too well so he needed something to do. Al Shean sent him a harp and Harpo learned how to hold it properly by going to a five-and-dime store and found a picture of a girl playing a harp. No one in their town knew how to play the harp so Harpo tuned it as best as he could starting from one basic note and tuning it from there. Three years later he found out he had tuned it incorrectly but he couldn't tune it properly because if he did the strings would have broken each night. His way had much less tension on the strings. While he did go on to play this way the rest of his life that is not to say that he didn't try to learn how to play correctly. In fact he spent good money hiring the best teachers but they just spent their time listening to him, fascinated by the way he played. In the movies he is actually playing the harp out of tune in relation to what it should be.
Harpo changed his name to Arthur shortly before World War I. There was a great deal of anti-German sentiment in America during the first World War, and he thought Adolph sounded "too German".
Harpo married actress Susan Fleming on September 28, 1936. The couple adopted four children (Bill, Alex, Jimmy and Minnie.)
Harpo was good friends with theater critic Alexander Woollcott and because of this became a regular member of the Algonquin Round Table. Harpo, who was quiet in his personal life, said his main contribution was to be the audience in that group of wits. The character "Banjo" in the play The Man Who Came To Dinner was based on Harpo and his friendship with Woollcott, who was the inspiration for the lead character.
In 1955, Harpo made a memorable appearance on Lucille Ball's popular sitcom, I Love Lucy, in which they re-enacted the famous mirror scene from the classic Marx Brothers movie, Duck Soup.
In 1961, Harpo published his autobiography, Harpo Speaks. In it, he tells one story of a man who did not believe that Harpo could actually talk. Many people believed he was mute. In fact, recordings of his voice can be found on the Internet, documentaries, and on bonus materials of Marx Brothers DVDs. In one story, he had a fairly distinguished voice like a professional announcer, though he did have a New York accent his entire life (for example: "girls" he would pronounce "goils.") See, for instance, this audio recording.
On September 28, 1964, Harpo died after open heart surgery.