The Day My Grandfather Groucho and I Saved ‘You Bet Your Life’
“He’s right,” Jack Nicholson chimed in. “Groucho, that stuff is classic. Listen to your grandson. Let them send the reels to you.”
I hate to admit it, but I sometimes find it hard to imagine life without Netflix. Whether it’s watching all six seasons of “Lost” in a week or enjoying some cool documentary I otherwise never would’ve heard of, Netfix has, for better or worse, definitely become a part of my life. So, you can imagine my delight when I happened to discover Netflix had added the legendary ‘50s TV show, “You Bet Your Life” to its streaming service. The reason for my delight? The host of “You Bet Your Life” was none other than my grandfather, the one and only Groucho Marx.
It didn’t take long for me to devour all the episodes available on Netflix, and as I watched Groucho delivering his rapid-fire quips at the befuddled contestants, I couldn’t help thinking how amazing it was that I was sitting in the comfort of my den watching a TV show that made its debut in 1950, starring my grandfather.
But I also couldn’t stop thinking about how close every one of those classic episodes of “You Bet Your Life” came to being destroyed many years ago and how my grandfather and I managed to stop that from happening.
The year was 1973 and I was a 21-year-old right out of UCLA film school. Though most of my days were spent looking for a job, I did manage to squeeze in lunch with my 83-year-old grandfather at least once a week.
Lunches at my grandfather’s house in Beverly Hills in those days were usually full of surprises, especially since you never knew who might be there.
No longer out of the limelight, my grandfather was enjoying his status as a cultural icon now that such classic Marx Brothers films as “Duck Soup” and “A Night at the Opera” had been discovered by a whole new generation eager for something to go with the free-wheeling attitudes and politics of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Groucho and his brothers fit the bill perfectly and my grandfather was more than happy to oblige his new-found fans, many of them Hollywood celebrities. Among my favorite celebrity sightings at my grandfather’s house in those days were Alice Cooper and Rolling Stones guitarist Ronnie Wood.
This particular day, my grandfather asked me to be ready to accompany him on the piano, since he planned to sing for the invited guests: Jack Nicholson, Elliott Gould and the great French mime, Marcel Marceau. As I said, you never knew who would arrive for lunch with Groucho.
And I was always happy to accompany my grandfather on the piano, as he made his way through such songs, as “Lydia, the Tattooed Lady” and “Father’s Day.” Fortunately, I got some musical ability from my mother’s side of my family – my other grandfather was the legendary songwriter, Gus Kahn, who wrote such evergreens as “It Had to Be You,” “Makin’ Whoopee” and “Dream a Little Dream.”
I was the last to arrive that day and as I entered the dining room, Nicholson, Gould and Marceau were already seated.
As I took my seat next to Nicholson, he immediately raised his wine glass and offered a toast to my grandfather. As everyone lifted their glasses, Marcel Marceau turned to my grandfather and asked, “Groucho, if you don’t mind, is it okay if I mime the wine?
My grandfather nodded in approval and sure enough, Marceau, probably the greatest mime since Charlie Chaplin, proceeded to open a non-existent bottle of wine with a non-existent corkscrew, then pour the non-existent wine into a non-existent glass. Next, he lifted the glass to toast and then took an imaginary sip. I must admit, it was one of the greatest things I had ever seen, proving once more that lunch at my grandfather’s was always full of suprises.
As Nicholson began telling everyone about his latest movie, “The Last Detail,” which would be released in a few months, the phone rang and my grandfather, never one to have his lunch or a good story interrupted, asked me to answer it.
I walked into the kitchen and picked up the phone.
“Is Mr. Marx in?”, the voice at the other end said.
“Who’s calling?” I asked.
“I work at the NBC storage warehouse in Englewood Cliifs, New Jersey,” the man said. “We’ve got several boxes of 16mm reels of film from ‘You Bet Your Life’ and we were wondering if Mr. Marx wants any of it. If not, we’re going to destroy all of it tomorrow.”
“Destroy it?” I asked increduously. “Why would you do that?”
“We’re trying to clear space for the newer shows. There’s a lot of stuff from the ‘50s and ‘60s that we’re getting rid of. If Mr. Marx would like it, we’ll be happy to send all of the reels to him.”
I told the man to hang on and ran back into the dining room.
“Grandpa Groucho, there’s a man calling from the NBC warehouse in New Jersey, who says they’ve got several boxes of reels of ‘You Bet Your Life’ they’re going to destroy unless you want them.”
“Tell him to burn them for all I care,” my grandfather said, eliciting laughs from his guests. These days it was hard to tell if he was just doing his grouchy act for his invited audience or truly didn’t care.
“Grandpa, you don’t really want them doing the same thing they did to Oscar Levant’s show,” I said, referring to what had happened to all the copies of his good friend, Oscar Levant’s classic show from the ‘50s, “Information, Please,” when all of the kinescopes that existed were destoyed.
“He’s right,” Nicholson chimed in. “Groucho, that stuff is classic. Listen to your grandson. Let them send the reels to you.”
“Alright,” my grandfather said. “Maybe it’ll be fun to watch them again.”
Excited, I ran back and told the man to send the boxes to my grandfather’s house. And though my grandfather didn’t seem terribly excited about the prospect of getting a few boxes of 16mm prints, I couldn’t wait. My grandfather had a small screening room in his house with a 16mm projector and I figured I’d spend an afternoon watching the episodes that were now on their way to Beverly Hills.
As it turned out, it would take more than an afternoon to watch the episodes. Two weeks later, I got a call from my grandfather, who sounded more than a little angry.
“Get over here right now,” he growled. “There are five UPS trucks in front of my house. Each one of them is filled with boxes of 16mm reels of “You Bet Your Life.”
I rushed over to my grandfather’s house and sure enough, there were five UPS trucks parked in front. Each driver was wheeling dozens of boxes of film into the house.
“Where would you like us to put all of this?” one of the drivers asked me. “There are over 500 boxes and each box contains ten reels of film.”
5,000 reels of film, I thought to myself, as I watched the small army of UPS drivers putting boxes in any empty space they could find, including a now-vacated bedroom that once belonged to Groucho’s last wife from whom he was now divorced. I couldn’t help thinking this was beginning to resemble a scene from a Marx Brothers film, as boxes of film were stacked to the ceiling, literally taking up entire rooms. I also thought back to the man from NBC, who told me there were “a few boxes of film,” an understatement if ever there was one.
By the time the UPS drivers left later that day, my grandfather’s house – which was quite large – was filled from end to end with boxes of “You Bet Your Life” reels. And even though I knew my grandfather was angry, I was grateful that we had managed to save “You Bet Your Life” from extinction by NBC.
A month later, in early 1974, after checking the contents of the over 500 boxes and doing a little investigating, I had figured out that NBC had not only sent every reel of the original “You Bet Your Life” show, but also all the copies of “The Best of Groucho,” a syndicated version that included the show’s greatest episodes culled from the show’s original run.
Realizing there was a treasure trove of classic TV sitting in my grandfather’s house, I had a hunch that maybe other people besides myself would be interested in seeing some, if not all of it. After all, interest in Groucho was at a fever pitch, as the honors and accolades poured in from around the world -- the Marx Brothers were even set to receive an honorary Academy Award that year.
It turned out I was right. The next day, I, along with John Guedel, the show’s creator and producer were sitting in an office at local station KTLA, where we pitched the head of programming our idea of running “The Best of Groucho” in one of their latenight timeslots. Though the executive loved the idea, he had one demand: Someone was going to have to go through every show, so they would have an idea of what they were running.
That someone turned out to be me. As I said earlier, I had been looking for a job and now I had one. I was paid $150 a week and my duties consisted of spending eight hours a day at my grandfather’s house, watching as many episodes as possible and archiving every one. As an added bonus, I ate lunch with my grandfather every day and he even took time to watch several episodes a day himself. I never told anyone, but I probably would’ve paid them $150 a a week to let me do it.
Two months later, “The Best of Groucho” appeared on KTLA, the same week my grandfather received his honorary Academy Award, and was soon running on hundreds of stations throughout the country. Since then, the shows have been released on VHS, DVD and now the various streaming services for many millions to enjoy, all because of a phone call from some guy working in a warehouse in New Jersey asking if we wanted him to send us some 16mm reels of “You Bet Your Life.”
Am I glad I happened to answer that phone call that day? What else can I say but, “you bet your life,” I am.
Andy Marx is a writer and photographer living in Los Angeles. He can reached through his website, andymarx.com. Check out his Jazz Tribute CD to his other grandfather, Gus Kahn.
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