When Dick Cavett Shared Carnegie Hall With Groucho Forty years ago Sunday, history was made when talk show legend Dick Cavett introduced Groucho Marx at Carnegie Hall. The night marked Groucho's debut at the famed New York venue and became the record, An Evening with Groucho Marx.
NPR logo

When Dick Cavett Shared Carnegie Hall With Groucho

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/152028170/152151585" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
When Dick Cavett Shared Carnegie Hall With Groucho

When Dick Cavett Shared Carnegie Hall With Groucho

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/152028170/152151585" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

And if you're just joining us, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

Forty years ago today, history was made at Carnegie Hall. On May 6, 1972, comedian Groucho Marx, at the age of 81, made his debut at that famous hall. The house was packed, and tickets sold out almost as soon as the show was announced.

Groucho had been out of the spotlight for many years. He decided, though, to do a limited tour of his one-man show, and the Carnegie Hall show became one of the most important on that tour because it was also the first and only time that Groucho played Carnegie Hall. Now, another legend, talk show host Dick Cavett, was one of Groucho Marx's friends, and he introduced Groucho that night.

Cavett was nervous before the show began. He was worried that Groucho was too old and frail to perform. And despite the ticket sales, he also worried that maybe nobody would show up. But then, just as he was pulling up to Carnegie Hall, Dick Cavett saw a big mob full of young people...

DICK CAVETT: Carrying Groucho photos. At least a dozen were made up and costumed fully as Groucho Marx. It promised to be a wonderful evening. That promise was reduced slightly when I went backstage, went up to the dressing room, and Groucho looked like a half-dead man. And I thought, how in hell are we going to get through this? I just thought, this is going to be a theatrical nightmare.

It wasn't. I skipped up the stairs from a seat near the front before the show began and found myself in front of the gigantic proscenium and beautiful curtain at Carnegie Hall and surveyed the audience. And they knew me at that point, and I got a huge ovation that startled me somewhat.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOW, "AN EVENING WITH GROUCHO")

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOW, "AN EVENING WITH GROUCHO")

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOW, "AN EVENING WITH GROUCHO")

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CAVETT: And he said: Well, if it gets any hotter, I could use a big fan. And from that point, we were off and running for years.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOW, "AN EVENING WITH GROUCHO ")

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER AND APPLAUSE)

CAVETT: At the end of the introduction, I said: There are several other people backstage, of course - Captain Jeffrey Spaulding, there is Rufus T. Firefly - and at each name of a Groucho character from a movie, the audience burst into applause. I finally had to say, save your applause till the end.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOW, "AN EVENING WITH GROUCHO ")

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOW, "AN EVENING WITH GROUCHO")

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

CAVETT: The place went wild. Groucho stepped out through the join in the curtain and shuffled out a bit.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOW, "AN EVENING WITH GROUCHO")

CAVETT: But that audience saw nothing wrong with him. They seemed to see no difference between the old and tired gentleman on the stage who read his evening on a three-by-five cards, which I thought might even turn off that audience. They ate it up. He seemed no different than the cavorting madman on the screen in the Marx Brothers' movies.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOW, "AN EVENING WITH GROUCHO")

CAVETT: It was a triumphant evening, as it turns out.

RAZ: What do you remember that he said that night on stage that had the audience in stitches?

CAVETT: I remember he talked about his parents and the family, and he gave the accurate versions of things that other people had written about.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOW, "AN EVENING WITH GROUCHO")

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CAVETT: I can't come up with a specific thing he said because it all blends in with the six or seven or eight times I had him on the show and the times I went to movies with him and went to dinner with him. And one night at dinner, a guy comes over to the table with his wife and says: Groucho, say something insulting to my wife. And Groucho looked and said: With a wife like that, you should be able to think of your own insults.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CAVETT: And of course they laughed heartily, and that depressed him. Afterwards, he said: You know, they should've told me to go to hell, but, you know, I can't insult anybody anymore. I say the vilest things to people, and they say: Oh, Groucho, and they giggle.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

RAZ: I mean, this was, quite possibly, your biggest hero. He was the guy for you. Why?

CAVETT: I guess you could say that, yeah. As George Kaufman was to him, Groucho was to me. I guess the most touching thing about me and Groucho happened only about three years ago in a letter from his daughter Miriam. And as I was reading this handwritten letter from her, my eyes suddenly dropped down eight lines to the line: My father thought the world of you.

And I'm moved now. Whenever I think about it, it gets to me. That's all I need.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

RAZ: He died five years later, 1977.

CAVETT: Yeah.

RAZ: Did you see him quite a bit or intermittently after that or what...

CAVETT: I saw him intermittently. Not enough. I knew he was ill. Every time I left Groucho, every time he came to New York to be on my show and I would say goodbye to him there or at the Sherry-Netherland where he liked to stay when the hotel door would shut on his beaming face, I would think, damn, this is the last time I'm going to see him. And eventually, it was.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOW, "AN EVENING WITH GROUCHO")

RAZ: That's Groucho Marx performing at Carnegie Hall 40 years ago today. We spoke with legendary talk show host Dick Cavett about that night.

CAVETT: What can I end with? A favorite Groucho line. He didn't get along with a director named Sam Wood. Grouchophiles will know which movie he directed. At one point, Wood disparagingly said about Groucho to him: You can't make an actor out of clay. And Groucho said: Nor a director out of Wood.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CAVETT: May flights of angels have sung him to his rest.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: And for Sunday, that's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. We say goodbye tonight to our intern Lauren Benichou. She heads back to Berkeley, California. Listen for her on your radio someday. And don't forget to download our podcast, the best of. It's called WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Find it on iTunes or at npr.org/weekendatc.

We're back on the radio next weekend with more news, personal stories, books and music. Until then, thanks for listening and have a great week.

Copyright © 2012 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.