Harpo in the Holy Land
Stand for Israel | June 11, 2020
Eighty-three years ago, the beloved Jewish-American Marx Brothers released A Day at the Races. The film features the harp-playing of Harpo Marx, the silent and zany member of the Marx Brothers. And this story will tell you how Harpo’s harp ended up in Israel.
A Childhood Nickname
The Marx Brothers grew up the children of Jewish immigrants to the United States, and their career began on Vaudeville, inspired by the humor of early Yiddish theater. As a musician, Harpo taught himself. His brother Chico, whose own piano playing featured prominently in many of the Marx Brothers’ films, found Harpo a job at a young age accompanying silent movies on piano. Harpo’s piano playing can be seen in two Marx favorites, A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races.
But Harpo’s harp playing gave him his nickname. Born Adolph Marx, he disliked his given name, changing it to Arthur. At an early age, during a card game on the Vaudeville circuit in Galesburg, Illinois, Arthur’s playing earned him the nickname “Harpo.”
A Self-Taught Harpist
Harpo taught himself how to play the harp on an instrument not properly tuned. But he played that way for the rest of his life. As an aged man of means, he hired teachers to teach him the “proper” way to play, but they mostly watched and listened to the unique and peculiar method their student had used to master the instrument.
Harpo’s Harp in the Holy Land
The name – and the instrument which earned it – afforded Harpo a life that he might never have imagined as a poor son of immigrants at the turn of the century. But when he passed away in 1964, Harpo willed his instrument to the state of Israel. We at Stand for Israel, lifelong Marx Brothers afficianados, had long heard this claim, as well as the rumor that the harp was still being used at a university there. A story by two Marx fans who hunted down the instrument a couple years ago at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance confirms this.
So here’s to Harpo Marx, who provided millions with the gifts of song and laughter, and who even in death stands for the Jewish state and her people.