Monthly Archives: May 2015

The Old Bench

c 2015 by Jan MacKell Collins

Miniature Parsons bench

One day, I might yet find a photograph of the Parsons bench as it sat in my home. I find it ironic that the closest image I could find is this miniature bench, made for a doll’s house.

Many, many years ago, my friends Rob and Kathy had this bench. It was a simple little Parsons bench, hand-hewn over two centuries ago by some craftsman who merely wished to sit down. Made of cherry wood with only wooden pegs holding it together, this sturdy little chair held less than two adults. Children seemed more comfortable there. The legs and back dowels were hand turned with three rings in the center. Only the sloped arms of the bench gave it any sense of feminity, the hand rests curving gently to meet the palms.

I had never seen this bench until Rob and Kathy announced they were realizing their life-long dream of building a house. They asked if during the construction phase, would I keep the bench for them? I was reluctant at the idea of keeping someone else’s furniture, and the dilemna of where to put it in my cramped A-frame rose often. The bench finally found repose under my front window, next to the pellet stove.

Few people sat on the bench, largely due to my placing obstructing items like quilts and pillows on it. It was an antique. It was fragile. And it didn’t belong to me. So I dusted it often and moved around it carefully. When the rest of my house looked like a tribe of gypsies had moved in, the bench was kept out of harm’s way.

In the meantime, Rob and Kathy completed their house but had yet to reclaim the bench. Fate was on their side, for they woke up one night to discover their new-built house was on fire. As the family stood in the yard and watched their memories burn forever, the bench was probably the furthest thing from their minds. But it was first thing I thought of when I heard the news. How lucky, we all said later, that I had kept the bench. The family moved into a trailer far too small for them, and we assured each other that the bench would remain safe in my care until such time it could go to its proper home.

During the next few years, we lived our lives and met occasionally, always speaking of the bench and reminding each other of its presence. During that time, I experienced the break-up of a relationship that made me see things in an entirely different way. As I worked at getting my life on track, Rob and Kathy had their own miracle. Their third child was stillborn, but after fifteen minutes he was revived and grew up to be a healthy, happy and charming little boy.

Eventually, the nightmare of their burned out house faded and Rob and Kathy were able to buy a rambling 1912 farmhouse. By then, due to space restricitions, the bench had made its resourceful way to my bedroom. Not only was it useful as something to throw clothes on, it also blocked the view to the horrendous depths of my closet. Over the last seven months I had it, I learned to dance around it while remembering how fragile and special it was.

Finally the day came when, during what seemed like a random conversation, Rob casually informed me that he and Kathy were ready for the bench to come home to them.

After having the little bench in my life for so many years, I tried not to react like an adoptive parent confronted by the natural mother. But I did feel a wee bit sad as I pulled the bench out to the livingroom one evening to polish it up for the last time. I buffed it carefully, taking note of the simple wood pegs, the seat’s uneven underside and scars left by buttons and heels over the years. Even by the mellow light of the fire, the wood’s rich luster came out to smile at me one more time. Soon afterwards I wrapped it carefully in a blanket, carried it down the long set of stairs to my driveway, and tenderly put it in my jeep for transport.

Rob and I met up, fittingly, at an historic tavern nestled in the woods at a halfway point between our respective homes. It seemed like a truly historic moment. We reminisced about that five year space of time when the bench lived with me, and marveled at the way our lives had changed in such a short time. We told those around us our story, and they gathered to admire the bench before Rob carefully carried it out to his car. I penned a quick note to Kathy and thanked her for the unique memory.

On the way home, I pondered over that bench, missing it but knowing this was best, and that the bench was returning to the place where it belonged. My last thought about it was the absurd knowledge that out of the two hundred years this enchanting piece of furniture had existed, I had only known it for five of them. Nearly two decades have passed since I returned the bench, but to this day it is still the most favorite piece of furniture I have never owned.

“Quote me as saying I was misquoted”: Groucho Marx and Cripple Creek, Colorado


Groucho Marx at age 15, the year he began performing on the road.

C 2015 by Jan MacKell Collins

Portions of this article have appeared in the Colorado Gambler magazine.

Once upon a time nearly a century ago, there was a young boy named Julius who embarked on a show business career. He was the third oldest in a typical immigrant family of eight in New York City at the turn of the century. His parents, Minnie and the former Simon Marrix, had several children. Among them were Julius, Leonard, Adolf, Milton and Herbert.

In 1895, five year old Julius began singing at the urging of his Aunt Hannah. Little did he know that his performances were the ticket to his career at the time. The year 1903 found Julius leaving the 7th grade—and school—forever. His mother thought, as they did in those times, that Julius was better off supplementing the family income than learning things he probably would never use.

Julius’ first job was scrubbing wigs with kerosene at Hepner’s Wig Factory in the theatrical district of New York. Laboring in the hot and flammable atmosphere of Hepner’s had its benefits, however, and Julius patiently waited for his chance to perform before a live audience. In the summer of 1905, he finally spied an ad the New York Morning World newspaper. “Boy Singer wanted for Touring Vaudeville Act,” the ad read.

The job paid $4 a week, which was nothing for a young performer to sneeze at in 1905. Julius lost no time in applying to a man named Gene Leroy for the job. For his audition, Julius competed against several other boys by singing “Love Me and the World is Mine.” The audition was a success. “[Leroy] smiled at me,” Julius later remembered, “and pointing an imperious finger at the rest, he shrilled, ‘Get out!’”

Indeed, Gene Leroy hired the boy, as well as Johnny Morris, or Morton, or Kramer—whichever version of Julius’ story one cares to believe. In any case, Johnny tap danced while Gene and Julius sang. The Leroy Trio was formed; Julius was barely fifteen years old.

Leroy told young Julius the troupe was booked to open at the Ramona Amusement Parlor in Grand Rapids, Michigan. There was also a performance scheduled at the New Novelty Theater in Denver. Julius set out with the men following a tearful goodbye to his mother, who sent along a box of sandwiches and hard-boiled eggs for her son.

Julius would later remember how Leroy and Johnny mistreated him from the very start of the trip. He also later deduced they were homosexual, a most naughty lifestyle for the time. To make matters worse, the opening night of the show didn’t go at all well. Johnny’s shoe flew off in the middle of the performance and sailed into the audience. The venue only paid $60, but the manager fined the act $25 for the shoe incident. The misbegotten trio left town in anticipation of a better show in Denver.

Julius was apparently unaware of the show’s circuit beyond Denver. “From there,” he later remembered, “we went to Colorado to some town where there was an Elks Convention. All the Elks were drunk.” Next the trio traveled south. By chance or because they couldn’t book a show, the Leroy Trio ended up in Cripple Creek.

Details of exactly what happened in Cripple Creek are sketchy. What is known is that the show, if there ever was one, was canceled. Julius woke up one morning to find that Leroy and Morris had left town. “…Leroy ran away with Johnny…They were stuck on each other,” he said. The final insult came when Julius discovered the $8 he had saved up in a chamois sack under his pillow (ironically called a “groucho”) was gone too. “I was stranded,” he recalled.

With the show folded and his money gone, Julius was forced to get a job driving a grocery wagon between Cripple Creek and Victor. “I didn’t know anything about horses except they ate sugar,” he later recalled, “The only horses I had seen up to that time were either on carousels or the broken down ones that pulled wagons on the streets of New York.”

With his limited experience, Julius was no match for a gold camp district. “I was scared,” he would later confess. “I was terrified because I had to go over this mountain and when I looked down, Christ, there must have been a 4,000-foot drop!”

Which road Julius actually took to Victor remains a mystery. But to a city boy at 10,000 feet above sea level, every valley and cliff must have looked perilous. “If I went faster it would be over sooner, I thought,” Julius recalled of his travels, “However, one of the horses went on a sit-down strike in the middle of the road.” According to one version of the story, the horse refused to budge until a new driver came along. At other times, Julius later claimed the horse actually dropped dead, but the truth has been lost to history.

Julius also claimed he lost the job because of the horse incident. His next job was at a store that had been converted into a movie theater. “I would sing to various slides which would be projected on the screen,” he later explained. Thus Julius’ new career was furthered, at least a little. But the wild atmosphere of Cripple Creek proved to be too much and Julius eventually wired his mother in New York. Upon hearing of her son’s desperate circumstances, Minnie sent him money to come back home.

A month after Julius’s frightening experience in Cripple Creek, Gene Leroy was back to performing as a solo act at the Crystal Theater in Denver. Where he went from there is anybody’s guess, but it hardly mattered to Julius. In time, he teamed up with his brothers to form a comedy act that is still some of the most popular wisecracking slapstick the world has ever seen. The five boys from New York christened themselves the Marx Brothers, led by their infamous sibling Julius—better known as Groucho.

After years of working vaudeville, The Marx Brothers ultimately hit the big time in 1924 with a production called “I’ll Say She Is.” Three years later, they even returned to Colorado for another production, “The Cocoanuts”, at the Broadway Theater in Denver.

Sometime after that, Groucho actually autographed a photograph to the City of Cripple Creek. He also recounted his Cripple Creek experience at least twice in his biographies and once on his television show, “Duck Soup.” That’s the story, anyway. It’s at least as plausible as Groucho’s varying accounts of his ordeal in Cripple Creek. And as Groucho himself would say, “Who are you going to believe, me or your own eyes?”