After decades in vaudeville and films with his madcap brothers, GROUCHO MARX moved to TV in the 1950s hosting a weekly comedy-quiz program, You Bet Your Life. The series was less a game show than a carny-booth showcase for Groucho's humorous quips, eye-rolling double-takes, and sarcastic asides. The contestants were total strangers seemingly introduced backstage (though some were cult celebs such as Lord Buckley and Tor Johnson, or savants with odd talents); their physical features, accents, and names were fair game for Groucho's ridicule. The show debuted on ABC radio in 1947, moved to CBS in '49, and jumped to NBC-TV in '50, where it remained for a decade.
Groucho had two sidekicks: handsome emcee George Fenneman, who played the affable straight-man; and a marionette duck who bore a cartoonish resemblance to the host. The duck dropped from the ceiling on two occasions: 1) to reveal that episode's "secret word," and 2) clutching two $50 bills if either contestant uttered the word. In an era before puritanical tobacco bans, Groucho never appeared on-camera without a lit cigar.
Artist Drew Friedman recalls meeting Groucho three times: "The first was in 1970 at the production of the Broadway musical Minnie's Boys, a show based on the life of the Marx Brothers. Groucho had been hired as a consultant, and was sitting in the front row. I asked for and got his autograph on my Playbill. In 1973 my father, author Bruce Jay Friedman, and I attended a NYC restaurant party thrown in Groucho's honor by Teacher's Scotch, for whom the comedian was doing print ads. Groucho was a fan of my dad's work and talked to him at length; I got to join the conversation.
"The third was the charm. In 1975 my father was invited to Groucho's Hollywood Hills home, and my brothers and I came along. We spent hours with Groucho, who despite disabling strokes was as funny and sharp as ever at age 85. The only time he left the living room/party was to retire alone to his study to watch a re-run of You Bet Your Life, which had just returned to syndication thru Viacom. It was Groucho's daily ritual; he hadn't seen the shows since they first aired, decades earlier. My brother Josh would chronicle our visit in New York Magazine a few years later."