The Marx Brothers’ 1990s Radio Comeback

The Marx Brothers remain one of the most beloved comedy teams of all time. Yet, they’re mostly remembered for film. While Groucho’s later years enjoyed a radio (and later television) resurgance with the hit game show, “You Bet Your Life,” the brothers as a team didn’t do a whole lot of radio work together.

The one big radio gig involving both brothers was the 1932-33 radio series, “Flywheel, Shyster, and Flywheel” (also known as the Five Star theater.)  starring Groucho and Chico as characters very similar to those portrayed in the Marx Brothers films with Groucho playing Flywheel, an attorney and Chico playing the role of Revelli, his faithful sidekick. The show had the feel of the Marx brothers films, partially because the show’s chief writer was Nat Perrin who wrote for several of the Marx Brothers films.

Like most radio produced in that period, transcriptions of Flywheel, Shyster, and Flywheel were not treated kindly. Most episodes were simply lost to the ages. What survives in common circulation is one full episode, and two partials.

While the episodes themselves didn’t survive, the scripts did.  And when 25 of scripts were rediscovered, it fueled an ambitious project by the BBC: remaking a lost Marx brothers classic for radio.

The BBC’s planned to hire two actors to play the scripts as Groucho and Chico. In some ways, it was  a daunting proposition as Groucho and Chico are iconouic figures. However, the actors chosen by the BBC, Michael Roberts as Groucho/Flywheel and Frank Lazarus as Chico/Revelli, were more than equal to the task. Lazarus’ Chico was dead on. Roberts sounded more like a Groucho impersonator, but he had the style of Groucho down well enough that it didn’t much matter.

The show ran for three six episodes series in 1990, 1991, and 1992. The episodes in the first series were composites of several different scripts and also added in some elements from the Marx Brothers films.  The second and third series episodes tended to be based on a single show.

The whole concept of the BBC’s efforts are to be commended. I wish there was more of it.  There are several radio shows  where a significant gap exists in available episodes, but scripts also exist. It would be great to see other shows revived. Although the BBC set a high bar with Flywheel.

And for my part, I give the BBC a transatlantic thank you for bringing two comedy legends back to life for 18 “new episodes.”

Additional Information:

BBC Episodes of Flywheel, Shyster, and Flywheel posted at Internet Archive

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