Groucho’s Understudy

Sam Goldman’s career as a moderately successful singing and dancing vaudeville comedian was unspectacular. He was just one of thousands of turn-of-the-century teenagers who took to the vaudeville stage. Some became stars and others became journeymen performers. Many were gradually pushed out of show business and forced to make a living at something else. Vaudeville supplied the American workforce with plenty of manual laborers and salesmen. But Sam Goldman remained in show business, in some form or another, for the rest of his life. He started out doing a blackface act in minstrel shows and later specialized in Hebrew dialect. He was a headliner in small-time vaudeville for several years, but his most notable achievement was as Groucho Marx’s understudy for three seasons while the Four Marx Brothers toured the country and appeared on Broadway. But the job was notable only in the context of Goldman’s otherwise ordinary career. He only went on for Groucho a handful of times.

Samuel Isaac Goldman, born on June 4, 1883 in Buffalo, New York to Russian immigrant parents, started his show business career a month before his fifteenth birthday. A May 3, 1898 review in the Buffalo Evening News noted that an exhibition by two local dance studios at the Buffalo Music Hall included “a coon song and dance by Sam Goldman.” He got his first important job in the fall of 1900 as a member of the Al. G. Field Greater Minstrels company. During his first season with Field he partnered with Tommy Hyde as the song and dance team Goldman & Hyde. Goldman would spend three years with Field. For the 1902-03 season he teamed with new member Billy Murray in an act called “The Gold Dust Twins, Will Do Your Work” – in deference to the then-current Gold Dust soap advertisements featuring a cartoon image of two black children (“Goldy” and “Dusty”) in a washtub full of soap bubbles. Murray & Goldman were not the only minstrel act to coopt the iconic image. Murray would soon move on and become one of the era’s most successful recording artists.

            

Goldman also moved on, and in the spring of 1904 he was touring with the International Vaudevilles Company. A publicity flyer for the show stated, “Mr. Sam Goldman was the leading song and dance artist of Field’s Great Minstrel Show for three years and has earned for himself a reputation second to none in this line of acting. As a singer of popular coon songs he stands preeminent, while his dancing is original, pleasing and a treat to all lovers of refined vaudeville.” As good as Goldman was, the big attraction of this show was British wrestler James Parr. Parr took on all challengers and paid $25 to any wrestler he couldn’t defeat within fifteen minutes.

Working as the opening act for a wrestler was beneath Goldman’s talents. For the fall season in 1904 he found a much better job. Lew Dockstader and His Own Great Minstrels were billed as “the largest and best minstrel show in the world.” (A few years later a young up and comer named Al Jolson would join Dockstader.) When Goldman joined the company, it boasted a cast of seventy people – including Tommy Hyde, so the Goldman & Hyde team was reunited. In his second season with Dockstader, Goldman began doing the Hebrew dialect act that would come to define him.

Dockstader thought enough of Sam Goldman that he produced a new act for him outside of the minstrel show. The Knickerbocker Quintette featuring Sam Goldman debuted at Pastor’s Theatre in New York on June 19, 1905. The act, titled “Setting an Interior” was billed as “Lew Dockstader the Minstrel King’s Latest New Production.”  Jean Havez, who at the time was the treasurer of the Dockstader Company, wrote the act. Havez was also a prolific songwriter. Among his compositions was “Everybody Works But Father,” a hit in 1905 for Billy Murray that was also performed in small-time vaudeville by young Julius Marx, years before he became Groucho. Havez would go on to write silent film scenarios for Fatty Arbuckle, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd.

His apprenticeships with Al. G. Field and Lew Dockstader prepared Sam Goldman for stardom on his own. In the fall of 1906 he joined the cast of the popular touring show Down the Pike, which starred husband and wife team, Johnny and Emma Ray. Goldman did his Hebrew dialect and eccentric dance act in the role of Uncle Cohen.  A Columbus, Ohio critic singled him out: “Sam Goldman, he with the pipe-steam legs, who does a Hebrew stunt, is particularly clever, his winding of himself around himself bringing down the house.” One of Goldman’s costars, Ford Sterling, would go on to a successful film career as part of Mack Sennett’s Keystone Cops. Sterling would also work alongside Charlie Chaplin and W.C. Fields.

At the end the 1906-07 season with Down the Pike, Goldman immediately hit the road as a solo act, working steadily through the summer of 1907 and into the fall season. Only weeks after his last bookings with Down the Pike, Goldman was working small-time theatres in Indiana. Reviewing his June 17, 1907 opening at the Bijou Theatre, the Anderson Daily Bulletin wrote that Goldman’s “…eccentric dancing was the best seen here and he had to respond to several curtain calls.”  Goldman’s reviews kept getting better throughout his first season on his own.  An August 1907 review from the Minneapolis Journal said, “Relying on quiet methods and a few minutes, Sam Goldman has managed to work up a popularity for himself at the Unique this week that is amazing. Goldman offers a Hebrew monolog made up of short songs, short talk and short dances, all of which are irresistibly funny.”  During that Minneapolis engagement, Sam married one of his cast mates from Down the Pike, Grace Catherine Feltes, on August 25, 1907.

       

In Vancouver the Daily News-Advertiser on October 30, 1907 said, “Sam Goldman is one of the best Hebrew comedians seen here for many years. His humor is not forced; his parodies are all new, and much better than those generally heard here. But it is in dancing that he is simply splendid, and his quaint Yiddish dance brought down the house, and he had to respond to five or six encores.” A common theme in Goldman’s reviews is praise for the freshness of his material. He had become a prolific writer of vaudeville sketches.  His papers are housed at the University of Chicago Library. There are nearly 500 surviving manuscripts, including vaudeville sketches, full-length plays and short comedy routines.  Goldman wrote and performed a lot of topical material, parodying politicians, popular films, and plays of the day. There’s been speculation that many later comedians stole material from Sam Goldman. He may be responsible for early ideas that became Abbott and Costello’s famous “Who’s on First?” routine, as well as the stock vaudeville bit, “Slowly I Turned.”              

Goldman toured the small-time independent circuits of the Midwest, the South and the Pacific Northwest for the next couple of years as a solo act. His son Jack was born on November 12, 1908 in Grace’s hometown near Cincinnati, Ohio. Following Jack’s birth, Sam created a stock company and settled in Cleveland for an extended stay with bookings at the Majestic and Olympic Theatres. Goldman and his company presented a series of different acts for twenty weeks. He wrote original sketches like “Fun in a Courtroom,” “The Burglar,” and “Breaking into Society.” Back on the road with his rotating array of comic one-act plays, Goldman’s fortunes improved. Mortimer Theise, an established producer, took notice and hired Goldman as the principal comedian for his Wine, Women and Song Company. Theise ran a burlesque company, but employed vaudeville acts to create a hybrid show that played burlesque and vaudeville houses. This put Goldman in better vaudeville theatres in major cities – and also in burlesque theatres that might lean toward more risqué entertainment.  Grace retired from the stage and joined Sam on the road with their infant son. Their daughter Betty was born in 1910.

Sam Goldman on a bill with future Marx Brothers vaudeville company member Moe Lee when he was part of the Arlington Four.

At the Avenue Theatre in Detroit for the week of December 5, 1909, the Wine, Women and Song Company filled three spots on the bill with Goldman’s sketches. Two of them also starred Goldman: a straight dramatic piece called “Abrams’ Christmas,” and “The Pole Landers,” in which Goldman spoofed Admiral Robert Peary’s recent North Pole expedition, with his Hebrew character as the explorer. Goldman still did his single turn on occasion with the company. Throughout 1910 and 1911 the Theise Company presented a burlesque revue called “The Rollickers.” At the Empire Theatre in Brooklyn in October 1910, the company took two spots on the bill and Goldman, as a single took another. He was in good company as Will Rogers also did a single on that bill. In January 1911 Goldman and the Rollickers Company were on a bill in Pittsburgh that also featured an exhibition by heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson, who also occasionally worked for Mortimer Theise. Sam Goldman was living the dream – working steadily, building a scrapbook filled with excellent reviews, and earning a nice living in small-time vaudeville with his wife and children at his side.

For the 1911 fall season Goldman starred in a new Theise production, The Real Girl.  Among the contributors to the musical score of the show were future Marx Brothers composers Irving Berlin and Bert Kalmar. In the spring of 1912 Goldman gave his last performances for Mortimer Theise’s Wine, Women and Song Company in “Knights of the Red Garter” – a sketch written by Goldman. Theise was an important figure in Sam Goldman’s early career, advancing him to a more lucrative level in show business. Theise had a relatively short career. He died on October 15, 1918 at age 52, a casualty of the flu epidemic.

Only two weeks after closing with Theise in 1912, the ever-prolific Goldman formed a company with comedian Sam M. Lewis. The Goldman & Lewis Company featured three new Goldman sketches: “Society Upside Down,” “The Coming Champion” and “Please Take It.”  Goldman was a valuable man to have in a vaudeville company if only for his acting, comedy, singing and dancing. But as a writer able to constantly deliver new material, Goldman was a goldmine.

The partnership with Lewis didn’t last and Goldman was back on the road as a solo act in the summer of 1912. He worked primarily in the Midwest – close to the home he and Grace had set up near Cleveland. But being on the road made family life difficult and the Goldman’s separated. They did not immediately divorce. Sam spent the next few years doing his Hebrew Comedian act with occasional engagements in productions like “College Capers,” a one-act musical comedy from the fall of 1914.  In the spring of 1915 Goldman briefly worked on the west coast, but there are several unexplainable gaps in his schedule throughout 1914 and 1915.  Trouble in his marriage may offer some explanation for the sporadic bookings of the otherwise regularly employed vaudevillian.

Scandal was easy to avoid a century ago when record keeping was greatly flawed and essentially on the honor system. Grace and Sam eventually got around to getting divorced on June 30, 1917. Grace quickly remarried nine days later.  Her new husband, William Elliot Trude, had also been previously married and had a six-year-old son. But Grace and Trude had started a family of their own while Grace was still married to Sam Goldman. Their daughter Winnifred Esslemont Trude had been born on January 7, 1917. They altered most of the records of her birth to keep things respectable. But a 1917 birth record indicates that the baby was born in Brandon, Manitoba, Canada – probably by design as no one they knew was likely to turn up there. To further obscure the 1917 birth record, the child’s name was soon changed to Bonnie Lee Trude. The Trude family settled in Akron, Ohio. Grace got custody of Jack and Betty, who are listed in the 1920 Census as Jack Trude and Betty Trude, the children of Grace and William Trude. There’s no surviving indication of a custody battle, but the implication is that a married mother impregnated by another man was the more suitable parent than her traveling vaudevillian husband. The prevailing sentiment at the time was that the vaudevillian would be the bad influence. Sam Goldman had lost his family.

The Trude family history has remained unclear for a century. Mark Bryner, the great-grandson of Grace and William Trude was not sure which children in the family were actually fathered by Sam Goldman. His grandfather, Fredrick Winston Trude, was one of three children born to Grace and William Trude. (Their brood of six also included the two Goldman children and William Trude, Jr. who remained with Trude’s first wife Hattie for much of his early life.) Bryner reports that the Trude family was never allowed to discuss Grace and William’s previous marriages. It was a taboo subject, although it was known that both were married when they met.

 

A scenario in which Grace Goldman took up with another man while her husband was constantly on the road would not be unique in vaudeville. Traveling the circuits with his family may have become a luxury Sam could not afford.  By the time Jack started school, Grace and the children were staying in Ohio while Sam worked all over the country.  He continued to exploit the Hebrew ethnic stereotype that had become his stock in trade even as ethnic characters began to disappear from the vaudeville stage around the time of the United States entering World War I in 1917.  There were numerous comedians doing German dialect at the time. The war resulted in an immediate crisis for those performers, many of whom simply redefined their characters as Hebrew. For Goldman there was no crisis, but the lingering ethnic stereotypes were on the way out. It was just a slower process for the Hebrew dialect comedians. But Goldman’s proficiency with the ethnic Hebrew character led him to a prime role in the touring company of a popular Broadway show.

 

Potash and Perlmutter opened on Broadway in 1913 and ran for 441 performances. Based on the short stories and books by Montague Glass, the play spawned several sequels, all featuring the original stars, Barney Bernard and Alexander Carr. By the fall of 1914 producer A.H. Woods had eight companies performing Potash and Perlmutter on the road. All of the stories in the series revolved around the various business partnerships of the two unabashedly Hebrew characters. The third Potash and Perlmutter show, Business Before Pleasure opened on Broadway in 1917 and had a 357-performance run. This time the characters were in the movie business. For a spring 1920 road tour of the show, Sam Goldman landed the key role of Mawruss Perlmutter. As usual, multiple companies fanned out across the country for the Potash and Perlmutter shows. Goldman’s troupe mostly toured the southern states with a tough schedule of one-night-stands through Georgia, South Carolina and Virginia. They did get to spend a full week in Pittsburgh in late April but that was rare. The company spent a lot of time on trains. When the season ended Goldman resumed his solo endeavors with a short engagement at the Gem Theater in Little Rock, Arkansas starring in his own one-act plays, “The Rehearsal” and “A Trip to Saratoga.” Local advertising noted that Goldman, “Comes direct from A.H. Woods’ Business Before Pleasure Co.”

 

Goldman returned to Business Before Pleasure for the new season in the fall of 1920, when the company welcomed a new cast member. Allie Ellsmore from Superior, Wisconsin would play Goldman’s on stage wife, Ruth Perlmutter, on a tour that began with a series of one-night stands that took them through Iowa, Nebraska and Kansas. They continued through the end of 1920 with bookings in Colorado, Idaho and Montana – and some of the roughest travel vaudeville had to offer – with great distances between cities. The company in general and Goldman in particular received good reviews and were compared favorably to the original Broadway cast. But it wasn’t always easy. A stop in Helena, Montana – certainly an unlikely place for Hebrew humor in 1920 – was not well attended. The Helena Independent critic wrote on December 18, 1920, “Sam Goldman as Mawruss Perlmutter, was weak, evidently disappointed in the small house, tried to hurry the show by crowding his lines to the limit.”

Goldman and Allie Ellsmore began a romance during their time on the road in Business Before Pleasure. But there was the small problem of Miss Ellsmore actually being Mrs. James Harrington, the mother of a fifteen-year-old daughter. In an oddly familiar circumstance, the Harringtons divorced on August 12, 1921 and Sam Goldman and Alice Ellsmore Harrington were married eleven days later in Cleveland.  In the late part of 1921, Goldman formed a stock company, which included his new wife. They settled in San Antonio, Texas and performed several different shows at the Grand Theater before moving to the Strand Theater. The Goldmans appeared in Safety First; The Time, the Place and the Girl; The Girls from Gay Paree; September Morning Glories; Nearly a King and several others. They did solid business in San Antonio from December to February.

The Goldmans returned to Cleveland in the spring of 1922 and gave up the stock company. Sam, now prominently trading off of his time in the very popular Potash and Perlmutter show in his advertising, took jobs in several productions. And he continued relying on his stock Hebrew character. In a show called Love and Peaches, presented that summer in Columbus, Ohio, Goldman got a good notice in The Columbus Dispatch: “The best laughs of the show come when Sam Goldman acts the part of a typical pawnbroker…” In vaudeville parlance a “typical pawnbroker” was a stingy, elderly Jewish man with a heavy accent. This sort of thing had suddenly become anachronistic in the vaudeville world. Goldman couldn’t be faulted for taking work that was available, but the era of the ethnic stereotype was coming to an end.

He began a residency at the Star Theatre, a burlesque house in Cleveland in July 1922. Shows like The Parisian Models and The American Beauties had large chorus lines of beautiful girls as their main attraction, but the comedy was always derived from Goldman’s character, Morris Levy, who the show’s programs describe as being “out for a time.” He continued to appear on traditional vaudeville bills doing his solo act, but Goldman liked to find situations where he could work in one place for extended periods. In the summer of 1923 he staged several different shows at the Lakemont Park Theatre in Altoona, Pennsylvania. Whether the show was The Triflers, Follies of the Orient or Keep Smiling, the program would show Goldman in the role of Izzy Cohen. But in one show Izzy might be “an office man” and in another he would be “a marooned sailor.” Goldman may have locked himself into a single role as a performer, but the work was good. Goldman wrote and staged all of the shows.

 

In late 1923 Goldman made an interesting move that can easily be connected to the steady decline of American vaudeville. Between December 1923 and June 1924 Goldman worked a series of residencies in eastern Canada. As had become his custom, he staged several different original shows in Newfoundland, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, playing larger cities like St. John’s and Halifax, but also smaller towns like Glace Bay and Sydney. During an engagement at the Academy Theatre in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia in March, Goldman and his cast participated in an early radio broadcast, a further indication of the coming pressure on the vaudeville business. Goldman worked with a partner in his comedy act during his Canadian residency. Cal West played a hick character from California, with Goldman of course playing the Hebrew character. After so many years in the role, it was probably expected of him, but Goldman likely cost himself the possibility of a better future by failing to extend his range. Work had become scarce for many performers making a living in small-time vaudeville – especially for those working with a dated act.

 

Goldman’s life as a struggling vaudevillian in the waning days of vaudeville continued for the next couple of years in much the same manner. The cities and the shows changed – The Bathing Beauties at the 12th Street Theatre in Kansas City, The Merry Maids at the Strand in Charlotte – but Goldman’s fortunes did not. Then in the fall of 1926 Sam Goldman was offered an opportunity that promised steady employment and good pay with little or no chance for any accolades.  Producer Sam H. Harris was about to take his Broadway hit The Cocoanuts on the road. He put the word out with several agents that he was in need of an actor who could be Groucho Marx’s understudy. Previously the Four Marx Brothers had managed to serve as each other’s backups in the event of illness, but Groucho was the most difficult brother to replace. With sold out houses around the country waiting for The Cocoanuts to get to their town, Harris was interested in protecting his investment from any cancelations that might result from his star missing a performance.

 

The recommendation that came back to Harris was Sam Goldman. After working the week of September 19, 1926 at the Palace Theater in his hometown of Buffalo, Sam Goldman joined the Four Marx Brothers and Company in Baltimore, the second stop on their tour. From September 27, 1926 until June 4, 1927, Sam Goldman watched the Four Marx Brothers perform The Cocoanuts up and down the east coast and through the Midwest. Groucho was never healthier. Goldman never went on. Not a single clipping was added to Goldman’s scrapbook for the entire season. He either opted out of the job, or was not offered it for the 1927-28 season. Goldman spent the fall and winter of 1927 doing his usual routine of a residency and several different shows in San Antonio, Texas while the Marx Brothers’ second season on the road with The Cocoanuts took them completely across the country after ironically opening in Goldman’s hometown, Buffalo.

 

In the fall of 1928 the Four Marx Brothers had a new show set to open on Broadway and once again Sam Harris called on Sam Goldman. He was engaged as Groucho’s understudy in Animal Crackers. Goldman joined the troupe for a month of tryouts in Philadelphia that preceded the 191-performance run at the 44th Street Theatre in New York. But this time things would be a little different for Sam Goldman. For three days near the end of the run, Groucho became ill. On April 3, 1929 Sam Goldman went on for Groucho for the first time, and continued in the show for two more days. There was hardly any notice in the press. A small item in The New York Times on April 7 did not find its way into Sam Goldman’s scrapbook. The news was probably only noteworthy because Animal Crackers closed on April 6. “After having been out of the cast of Animal Crackers for three days, Groucho Marx returned to appear in the second act of the show’s final New York performance last night… During his absence, Mr. Marx’s role was played by Sam Goldman, his understudy.” Probably not up to the caliber of the clippings Goldman preserved. But Goldman’s time as Groucho’s understudy would not go unheralded in his scrapbook.

 

Engaged again for the Animal Crackers road tour in the fall of 1929, Goldman would, this time get plenty of material for his collection of clippings. During the fourth stop on the tour in Baltimore, a combination of a cold and the stock market crash kept Groucho out of the show for four days.  (The Baltimore Sun also reported on November 3 that Goldman went on for Groucho twice the previous week in Newark, New Jersey.) Goldman went on for Groucho at the opening performance on October 28 at the Maryland Theater and continued in the role until Groucho returned on November 1. (Although Groucho later recalled performing on October 29, Black Tuesday – the night of the stock market crash – he did not.)

The anonymous review of the show in the October 29 edition of The Baltimore News provided the first acknowledgment that Goldman appeared instead of Groucho. “Because of a cold, Groucho Marx was unable to appear on the stage last night. His understudy Sam Goldman played the part so well that few persons in the audience realized a substitution had been made.”  Among those people not noticing Sam Goldman in Groucho’s place was Baltimore Post critic George Browning. His review that morning was slightly critical of the show’s script, but noted that the Marx Brothers saved the show through their disregard of the book. Browning wrote, “Especially is Groucho Marx successful in overcoming whatever the author hasn’t included. That unruly clown jumps smoothly through the paper hoops of the libretto and as he does so, he adds substantially to the sum of nonsense.” In some ways, it was the best review Sam Goldman ever got.

The October 29 Baltimore News review added, “Leonard B. McLaughlin, manager of the theatre, announced today that Groucho had recovered and would appear with the company tonight.”  McLaughlin was certain enough to make that statement but he couldn’t have predicted that the day he made it would be Black Tuesday. If his cold had gotten better, Groucho was probably even sicker over his impending financial ruin. Goldman’s opportunity continued. What was barely noticed by the New York media was big news in Baltimore. On October 30, items about Sam Goldman appeared in The Baltimore News and The Evening Sun. In the News, Norman Clark wrote, substituting for Groucho “…is about as easy as substituting for Thomas A. Edison or Babe Ruth. It’s a tough spot to ask any man to step into. But, I’m here to tell you, that the young man selected to fill the Groucho boots didn’t rattle in them at all. He did wonderfully well. He took the Groucho material, simulated the Groucho style – he even looked like Groucho – and he tickled the large audience mightily.”

 

Norman Clark was effusive in his praise of Sam Goldman but failed to learn his name. “I wish I knew the young man’s name that I might record it herein, but I do not. No one I asked knew his name. However, I herewith bestow upon him the Clark silver button with gold edges awarded for meritorious conduct upon the musical comedy stage. Just to identify the stranger in the records, let him be called ‘Subbo’ Marx.”  Gilbert Kanour, similarly praised Goldman in his October 30 review in The Evening Sun. He wrote “Groucho, it should be explained, is down on his back with a misery, and hasn’t been in the cast for the past two evenings; it has been announced he will be present tonight. But from some place or other Mr. Sam H. Harris, the producer, has discovered Groucho’s spittin’ image, and it is decidedly to the credit of this substitute that only those experts employed to detect such matters realized the difference.”

Baltimore News clipping from October 30, 1929 as notated in Sam Goldman’s scrapbook.

The Baltimore Sun finally gave Sam Goldman his due with a feature story about him on November 3. Donald Kirkley wrote, “People have been talking about the clever understudy who took the place of Groucho Marx for the first four performances of Animal Crackers here last week. It was such an extraordinary bit of pinch-hitting that there were many persons in the audience who were not aware of the substitution. Inquiry developed that the understudy is named Sam Goldman, a vaudeville comedian in his own right until two years ago, when he was called upon to double for the unhealthiest Marx Brother.”

 

The Sun article shed some light on the life of Groucho’s understudy. “It is Mr. Goldman’s business to sit in the audience night after night and study his principal’s every mannerism and inflection. He regards Groucho as the greatest spontaneous comedian in the world, and reports that he never plays two shows alike, frequently inserting new gags and business. Thus his double must labor constantly to bring his mock portrayal up to date.” Goldman’s work in Baltimore was also noted in the November 16, 1929 issue of Billboard, which contained a small article headlined, “Sam Goldman Scores In Groucho Marx Role.”  That article also mentioned that Goldman was, “…formerly of the team of Goldman and Ellsmore in vaudeville.” But that seems to be an example of Goldman being chivalrous and getting his wife’s name in Billboard. Neither Goldman’s scrapbook or any contemporary research has provided a record of the couple as a vaudeville act.

 

In the first seven years of their marriage, Sam Goldman and Allie Ellsmore spent most of their time on the road – either together or apart. Their travels took them through the smaller towns on lesser vaudeville circuits with little if any luxury. When Sam was Groucho’s understudy during Animal Crackers’ Broadway run, they were able to live in New York City in relative comfort with a steady paycheck. It was certainly an odd form of success for a journeyman vaudevillian.

 

After closing in Baltimore Animal Crackers continued on the road for the next five months, with the final performance in Cleveland on April 5, 1930. Groucho never missed another performance and Sam Goldman spent the rest of the tour studying Groucho and taking notes – just in case another chance came for him. In the April 8 New York Daily News, columnist Sidney Skolsky noted the end of the tour and mentioned Goldman filling in for Groucho in Baltimore. “That was the last time Sam Goldman went on for Groucho. Animal Crackers has ended its tour and next year Groucho will have to get himself a new understudy. The business of keeping up with Groucho and learning almost a new role every night proved to be too much for Sam Goldman. He is now in a sanitarium taking a rest cure.”

 

When the cast said their goodbyes, the Four Marx Brothers headed to New York to film Animal Crackers for Paramount Pictures. Sam Goldman and Allie Ellsmore relocated to Allie’s hometown, Superior, Wisconsin. Sam took a job at Earl Braman’s Superior Conservatory of Music, teaching all styles of dancing and stage direction. He also started a business in nearby Duluth, Minnesota. Advertisements for the Sam Goldman Studio of Stage Dancing boasted of Goldman’s time with the Marx Brothers. A few years later Goldman opened a branch of his school in Chicago, and also taught at another dance school in Milwaukee. He still performed on occasion and staged some local talent shows at the Palace Theatre in Superior.  

               

In March 1938 Goldman was at the State Theatre in Seattle, and in October 1943 he was at the Mutual Theatre in Indianapolis. (Still prominently noting his association with the Marx Brothers in his advertising.) But his days of touring with steady work were well behind him. He was putting a show together for the Empress Theatre in Detroit in January 1945 when he fell ill.  Sam Goldman spent the last months of his life at the Maybury Sanitarium in Northville, Michigan, where he died of tuberculosis on April 27, 1945. He was 62 years old. His career in show business was routine. There were thousands of vaudevillians with similar credentials – although Sam Goldman was the only one who could claim to have stepped in to replace Groucho Marx on a handful of occasions. Billboard noted his death with a small obituary, but otherwise Goldman’s death was not newsworthy. His wife Allie Ellsmore Goldman died in Chicago in 1971.

 

Sam Goldman’s time with the Marx Brothers can’t be described as anything other than an extremely unusual career move. While he was good enough as a performer to pull off the near-impossible task of seamlessly replacing one of the most unique talents in history, he was also unable to continue his own career while idly waiting for Groucho to become ill.  As The Baltimore Sun noted during Sam’s four days of glory, “Groucho has been discouragingly well in recent seasons. Mr. Goldman sat on the bench during the entire run of The Cocoanuts.”  It would be safe to assume that Goldman found some irony in a scene from Animal Crackers that he only had a handful of chances to perform before an audience:

 

Spalding: What do you fellows get an hour?

Ravelli: For playing, we get ten dollars an hour.

Spalding: What do you get for not playing?

Ravelli: Twelve dollars an hour.

 

Sitting in a theatre, watching the Marx Brothers perform every night was probably the best job Sam Goldman ever had – although the complete lack of recognition would suggest he had to be an especially self-confident man to see it that way.

 

© 2018, Robert S. Bader