The Marx Brothers & the Runaway Mule
By Tim Bryant
In 1910, the Marx Brothers, who were touring America under the name The Nightingales, had just finished a short engagement at the beautiful Opera House in Galveston and headed north, finding themselves in the oldest town in Texas, Nacogdoches. Staying at the Redland Hotel on East Main Street, they were booked for an engagement at the Nacogdoches Opera House, directly across the street from their accommodations.
The Nightingales were doing the southern vaudeville circuit, one of four times they would come into Texas between 1905 and 1917. Their act in 1910 consisted mostly of singing. Lots of harmony singing, popular songs of the day with some dramatic recitation thrown in. The funniest thing, there was no real comedy to speak of. The story goes that during a weekend afternoon matinee, the brothers were right in the middle of what was probably a fairly slow performance to the local crowd, when the very first automobile in town careened into the downtown area and promptly backfired. This sudden, fortuitous blast frightened a mule that was tied to a pole on Church Street, running right alongside the Opera House. The mule broke from its tether, knocking over various and sundry things, starting a fire in the process according to some, but generally causing a commotion and then taking off, heading east.
Alarmed at the scene playing itself out on Church Street, a passerby, for reasons only he could know, rushed into the Opera House, mid-performace, yelling “Runaway Mule! Runaway Mule!” Perhaps he’d seen an earlier show and knew what odds the audience was up against. Whatever his intention, patrons began to unseat themselves and head for doors and windows to get a look at the street drama. Julius Marx, still a ways from becoming the Groucho that the whole world would know and love, took exception to this mass exit and launched into an extemporaneous fit of comedy. Singing some popular ditty of the day, they say he segued into a round of “Nacogdoches is full of roaches,” a chorus which proves not only that his famous ad-lib abilities were already formed, but that he’d been in town long enough to scope it out. Julius’ brothers caught on, and suddenly the stage came to life in a cathartic frenzy of nerves and slapstick energy.
“The Jackass is the Flower of Tex-ass!” was flung out into the crowd like a battle flag. Give the Nacogdochians their fair share of the credit. They knew a good joke when they heard one, and they had a quick ability to laugh at themselves, a trait still present in the best of us. The audience roared their approval, and both they and the performers knew a discovery had been made. Surely none of them could have known that they had all witnessed a moment in history that would resound down through the years of the coming century. That within little more than a decade, these same Nightingales would begin transforming the world of comedy and the world itself with their outrageous routines and films. That they would go on to salute their roots in Nacogdoches in their classic film “Duck Soup,” by naming its fictional country Freedonia after our city’s historic Fredonian Rebellion. And that Nacogdoches would grow and outgrow its charming downtown full of ghosts. That we might never agree exactly what happened at the corner of East Main and Church Street on that long ago day, but that we would always know that it was something small that led to something big, and that that big thing is still growing.
The small son of Diedrich Rulfs, the famed German-born architect responsible for most of the buildings populating early-twentieth century Nacogdoches, is said to have grabbed a couple of sugar cubes and run off to coral the wayward mule and bring him back to his hitching post. That post would seem to have been on Church Street, right about where my store, The Runaway Mule, stands today. We used to have a sign up on the wall which read “When truth comes up against a legend, always go with the legend.” It explains the way we do business. It explains the way a lot of things work in Nacogdoches. If you have a question about anything in the store, just ask. I’ll tell you. It might or might not be the truth. It will probably be a good story. Like the one that Groucho told on television, many years after leaving these whereabouts. After the whole mule incident, it seems, Groucho was safely back across the street at The Redland Hotel, where he was promptly arrested for playing a card game called Euchre on the front porch. Seems it happened to be a Sunday, and playing Euchre on the front porch of a hotel just happened to be against the law on Sundays. Groucho seemed to hold no bitterness against the officer though. “The way I played it,” he said, “they shouldn’t have allowed it on Saturday either.”
Hardly a day goes by that I don’t at least tell the story of the runaway mule that led to our Runaway Mule. It’s not the only story I know. If you want to hear more, come by the store on Church Street in Nacogdoches, right in the shadow of the old Opera House. I’m just getting started.
Note: If you Google the particulars in this account, you may find that certain things don’t add up. Wikipedia, for instance, says the whole thing took place in 1912. Where there are discrepancies, I would assume nothing more than a good-natured mistake on the other person’s part. As Groucho himself would have attested, if it’s a good story, it can’t be wrong.