I was barely 7-years-old in 1977 when Elvis Presley died. I remember sitting in the back room of my Aunt Jeannie's house, we were living there for a few months at the time between houses and this was my bedroom. While playing with a friend, the television was on and a newscaster announced that Presley had died. I wasn't sure why at the time, but I knew this was significant. Perhaps the news broke into a television show or the broadcaster seemed more grave than normal, or maybe they showed footage of the mass of people that had begun to collect outside the gates of Graceland. Whatever it was, I ran to the front of the house to tell my mother about it.
The days that followed were full of news footage of those crowds that refused to leave and a funeral procession miles long. There were editions of The Commercial Appeal and Memphis Press-Scimitar with bold headlines another mile high. It was as though royalty had died because, frankly, it had.
Being from Memphis, it's almost blasphemous to recognize August as the death month of anyone but Elvis Presley. But he does share it, and the worldwide news of this icon being taken at so young an age must have overshadowed the death of another icon of entertainment. On Aug. 19, 1977, only three days after the passing in Memphis, Groucho Marx died in Los Angeles at the age of 87.
Has there ever been anyone funnier? As much as Elvis did for music, surely Groucho and his brothers did the same for comedy; for Broadway; for film; for television. Is there anything more iconic than the swiveling hips, the hair, the sneer of Elvis? Sure: the greasepaint eyebrows and mustache, the cigar, the rolling eyes, the duck walk, the wisecrack of Groucho.
I began watching Marx Brothers films as a kid whenever I could catch them on television and I now own all of them on DVD. I still love them and my kids do as well. Growing up, we had a vinyl record of Groucho at Carnegie Hall telling stories and singing songs accompanied by Marvin Hamlisch. I wore that record out as a kid. Groucho could tell a story as well as he could impart a bawdy line to Margaret Dumont.
I don't mean to say one should be celebrated over the other. This isn't Elvis vs. Groucho. Just a way to remember both and thank them both for what they meant to pop culture, entertainment, joyous rebellion and my childhood.
[Stay tuned, 1977 and the death of the icon isn't over yet. Charlie Chaplin died in December of that year ... ]