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The Time Groucho Marx Did the Charleston on Hitler’s Grave

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Groucho Marx is unmatched in wit and humor. But one of his most poignant moments wasn’t remotely funny, nor was it caught on camera like so many of his one-liners and zingers.

During the summer of 1958, Groucho and his You Bet Your Life director and close friend Robert Dwan toured Europe for six weeks to perform Time for Elizabeth, a play Groucho had co-written, on the summer stock theater circuit. Groucho thought it was the perfect opportunity for his 13-year-old daughter Melinda to see a bit of the world, and offered to take Robert’s 16-year-old daughter Judy along as a companion and babysitter.

Groucho had been very close to his mother – she was instrumental in launching her sons’ careers – and wanted Melinda to see Dornum, Germany, where her grandmother had been born. When they got to the little town of less than 5,000 people, the group wandered into a pub to inquire as to the whereabouts of the city cemetery. Dornum wasn’t exactly a tourist hotspot, so the locals were understandably curious about the visitors from the U.S. When Groucho explained, he found that no one in the pub had heard of the famous Marx Brothers. After going through a couple of his routines, he left with new fans and directions to the cemetery just down the hill.

Though the group arrived at the Dornum Cemetery in good spirits, that quickly dissolved when they discovered that the entire Jewish section had been utterly destroyed. Though they went to the church on the grounds to locate burial records for Groucho’s grandparents and other relatives, the records were nowhere to be found.

Shortly thereafter, Groucho hired a chauffeur to take the four of them to East Berlin, about five hours from Dornum, declaring he wanted to see the remains of the bunker where Hitler committed suicide. Judith Dwan Hallet, now 70, recalls that the mood had very much changed. Whereas Groucho had been passing the time between towns by singing and stopping the car to demand that the gang get out for silly photo ops, the ride to East Berlin was somber.

When they arrived, Hallet said, it was as if the war had happened the day before. Because of its proximity to the Berlin Wall, nothing had been cleaned up or repaired; piles of rubble made the landscape look positively post-apocalyptic. The ruins of the Führerbunker were about 20 feet tall, but Groucho climbed to the top and proceeded to perform what Hallet called “a frenetic Charleston, for at least a minute or two, in a gesture of defiance.” When he was done, the legendary comedian requested that they leave Germany immediately. The fun was gone.

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