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THE GREAT GROUCHO HE WAS BORN 100 YEARS AGO, AND THE REST IS COMEDIC HISTORY

THE GREAT GROUCHO HE WAS BORN 100 YEARS AGO, AND THE REST IS COMEDIC HISTORY

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Take a letter, to T.S. Eliot:

``Dear Tom:``If this isn't your first name, I'm in a hell of a fix. But I think I read somewhere that your first name is the same as Tom Gibbons', a prizefighter who once lived in St. Paul.'

The one, the only person who could possibly have written such a note was born a century ago on Oct. 2, 1890, in the Yorkville section of Manhattan.

The mustache would follow some years later.

The third of Minnie Schoenberg's five talented boys, young Julius would grow up to be a world-famous African explorer, ruler of a land called Freedonia, president of a college called Huxley, senior partner of Flywheel, Shyster and Flywheel and a passable horse doctor.

Mainly, though, we knew him as the sultan of the surreal, the sayer of secret words, minister of the absurd, put-down artist nonpareil:

``I'll meet you tonight under the moon. I can see you now - you and the moon. You wear a necktie so I'll know you.'

``Why don't you bore a hole in yourself and let the sap run out?'

A G-rated mouth and lascivious eyebrows expressed his X-rated ideas:

``I want to register a complaint. Do you know who sneaked into my room at three o'clock this morning? Nobody, and that's my complaint.'

``Ah, Mrs. Rittenhouse! Won't you ... lie down?'

A man of letters.

This to President Truman:

``Dear Harry:

``I don't know if you will remember me, but I am the chap with the black mustache, glasses and increasing baldness who, I hope, convulses you every Thursday night on television.

``I just want to join with the thousands who have written you wishing you a speedy recovery and many happy years as our former living president. Oh, I forgot. Hoover is still around.'

By his own account, all this monkey business began in 1905, when at age 15 he answered a classified ad asking for a boy singer for a vaudeville act, paying room and board and $4 a week.

``Look at me,' he would later say, ``I worked my way up from nothing to a state of extreme poverty.'

Somewhere between Grand Rapids and Cripple Creek, mother Minnie decided that her boys should stage their own act. They became the Four Nightingales. By the time the brothers reached the vaudeville stage in New Orleans, such trademarks as the harp and the cigar were already appearing.

Around 1914, he was sitting backstage reading a popular comic strip, ``Sherlocko the Monk.' It featured a wisecracking character named Groucho.

A star was born.

The first film was a long-forgotten silent, ``Humor Risk,' made in 1920. A string of Broadway hits made them stars: ``I'll Say She Is,' ``The Cocoanuts,' featuring an Irving Berlin score, and ``Animal Crackers.'

The four brothers became three, decided to go west to Hollywood, spent nights at the opera and in Casablanca, a day at the races, raided a big store and ended up love happy.

The three brothers became one and - you bet your life! - off he went to radio and an 11-year television run. Where have you gone, George Fenneman?

``Hello, I must be going.

``I cannot stay

``I came to say

``I must be going.'

When he died in 1977, at 87, he left a son, Arthur, daughters Miriam and Melinda, and a weird bevy of characters named Captain Jeffrey Spaulding, Waldorf T. Flywheel, Rufus T. Firefly, Otis B. Driftwood, Quincy Adams Wagstaff and Hugo Z. Hackenbush.

Meanwhile, the rest of us plod along, suffering lesser comedians, content that somewhere he's devising exquisite new insults for rich, dumb, innocent Margaret Dumont.

``Marry me, and I'll never look at another horse.'

Glasnost be damned. Marxists of the world, unite.

Happy 100th, Groucho, wherever you are.

Lee Mitgang, education writer for the AP, walked out of a college anthropology final 21 years ago that conflicted with a screening of ``A Night at the Opera.'

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