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Harpo Marx's `confessions of a non-lady harpist'

Harpo Speaks!, by Harpo Marx with Rowland Barber. New York: Limelight Editions. 482 pp. Illustrated. Paperback. $9.95 By the mid-1930s, the Marx brothers were top-flight stars of vaudeville and movies. They still are seen on the late late show and at the film festivals.

Harpo, the silent one who played the harp and chased girls, and his brothers Zeppo, Chico, Gummo, and Groucho, made up one of the most surreal, slapstick, and lunatic acts that ever hit the world of entertainment over the head.

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Harpo said that his autobiography is really `the confessions of a non-lady harpist.' This reissue of his 1961 book is delightful reading, fun and funny.

He confessed to liking people. From George Bernard Shaw to George Burns, he respected, listened to, learned from, and gave joy to many, many people.

Alexander Woollcott, who was one of the brightest and most famous theater critics of the 1920s and a member of the celebrated Algonquin Round Table, felt he had discovered the Marx brothers, especially Harpo. He wrote in a review of one of their first Broadway successes, ``Surely there should be dancing in the streets when a great clown comes to town, and this man is a great clown.''

Although Harpo didn't like the fact that Woollcott hadn't said much about his brothers, they became fast friends anyway. For years they played croquet and jokes on one another.

This is another American success story, but you have to read between the gags and the outrageous routines to realize the long, tough, show-business apprenticeship.

The Marx brothers were born into a Jewish family held together and pushed ever forward by their beloved mother, Minnie. Father they called Frenchie, and Frenchie did most of the cooking. He was better at that than at his tailoring, and everybody hustled one way or another to help make ends meet in old New York.

The young brothers (Groucho was a boy soprano) developed from a singing act they called the Three Nightingales to another they called the Four Nightingales. Everybody shuffled parts and eventually they developed comic sketches. Music only came back into the act when Harpo learned to play the harp (with no formal instruction), stopped talking, and became an accomplished mime.

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Rowland Barber's professionalism nurtures Harpo's story; it's a very readable and charming book.

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