The Bell Telephone Hour Mikado (1960)

The MikadoDennis King
Nanki-PooRobert Rounseville
Ko-KoGroucho Marx
Pooh-BahStanley Holloway
Yum-YumBarbara Meister
Pitti-SingSharon Randall
Peep-BoMelinda Marx
KatishaHelen Traubel

Bell Telephone Orchestra
Producer: Martyn Green
Conductor: Donald Voorhees

CBS Coronet KLL-1621
CBS Coronet KLL-1621
(Others are similar.)

In the 1950s and early '60s, the Bell System sponsored a now-legendary series of musical programs on NBC, among which was a Mikado condensed to television's obligatory one-hour length, with Groucho Marx as Ko-Ko, directed and adapted by Martyn Green. It is indicative of how far we've come, that such a program would be considered high-brow entertainment were it presented today.

Anyone familiar with Groucho Marx knows that he had essentially only one character in his repertoire, which he dutifully pressed into the service of any script that was presented to him. His Ko-Ko was no different, not withstanding the fact that he was reputedly a great admirer of the Gilbert and Sullivan Operas. It is also worth noting that this performance (April 29, 1960) occurred many years after the prime of the Marx Brothers' major creative period. This is not vintage Groucho, by any means. Still, if you can put any knowledge of the Mikado tradition out of your mind, this recording is an amusing hour's romp. The supporting cast are uniformly excellent, including Wagnerian Helen Traubel as Katisha and Groucho's daughter Melinda as Peep-Bo.

J. Donald Smith adds the following comments:

What is most obvious in listening to the record (and is even more obvious on viewing the video of this performance), is that Groucho was really unprepared. His timing is poor, as if he is always having to stop to think if his lines rather than being spontaneous. For me, the real star of the production is Stanley Holloway.

Don also pointed out that there are only three minutes of commercials in the program—a far cry from what we would see today. The commercials themselves are very funny in a quaint sort of way.

Stan DeOrsey is a bit more positive on this recording than Don Smith or I. Here are his comments:

Stopped at a flea market today and found a copy of the Groucho Marx Mikado. I was not expecting much from this, but when I played it I was very surprised that it was rather enjoyable. My main surprise, and the reason for writing this to you, was that the single record contains the entire show, including dialog. It runs for 50 minutes and was apparently divided into three acts. The jacket does not list the songs but the record label does. It breaks the show into Overture, Act I, Act II, Act III. [These divisions probably corresponded to the commercial breaks. --Ed.]

Also, the jacket notes are by Martyn Green, and it appears from his text that he actually "wrote" the show, that is, he made the cuts to fit to 50 minutes. He says:

The task of adapting and compressing this stage production of an approximate two-hour duration into one of fifty minutes at first presented what appeared to be an impossible task. Without being immodest I feel I may say that the many hundreds of times I have performed the role of Ko-Ko gave me such a particular and peculiar knowledge of the opera that I formed the opinion that both Gilbert and Sullivan in some strange way helped me to carry out a condensation that would still retain the best of the dialogue, the most popular musical items, tell the story, and continue to entertain the viewing public.

Joe Libby added:

For me, the highlight of this production is Dennis King's Mikado. I haven't seen a video of the broadcast, but his brief turn on the record (and given the cut down nature of the program, it's very brief indeed) is excellent and quite funny. It would be interesting to know if King ever performed elsewhere in Gilbert and Sullivan.

It might be worth mentioning that Dennis King was a British born singer and actor. He racked up some impressive Broadway credits including The Vagabond King, The Three Musketeers, and the 1932 revival of Showboat. He also made a few films, and is probably best known for co-starring with Laurel and Hardy in The Devil's Brother (Hal Roach-MGM, 1933).

While I will agree that, unfortunately, Groucho doesn't make an ideal Ko-Ko, I still think he comes off better than some of the "big names" who starred in the Brent Walker series (Peter Allen as the Pirate King? Puhleeze!).

Dan Kravetz added some comments on SavoyNet that put Groucho's work here in the larger context of his career:

There seems to be some disagreement on Groucho Marx's portrayal of Ko-Ko. Some say he provided not enough Groucho, others say far too much. Both are correct. Groucho was 69 when he played Ko-Ko. He and his brothers were vaudeville and musical comedy stars from the early years of this century through the 1920's. They concentrated on making Marx Brothers movies throughout the 1930's and 1940's. Groucho spent the 1950's hosting the TV quiz show You Bet Your Life, and at the time of The Mikado (April 1960) was apparently preparing to leave TV and, as all four of his brothers had virtually done, retire from show business.

A die-hard G&S fan, Groucho saw The Mikado as the one opportunity to work in the realm of high art. Neither he nor the public at large appreciated Marx Brothers comedy as an art form then--the first guide to their films was not to be published until about 1966. In 1960, Groucho's films were relegated to the midnight-to-5:00 a.m. hours on TV stations, and he himself regarded his career in comedy as several decades of drudgery with a few bright moments now and then. G&S opera seemed to be nothing at all like the work he had been doing all his life.

Therefore, he had no reason to approach the role of Ko-Ko as anything like his Groucho character. The production was being directed by Martyn Green, the high priest of the high art, and Groucho's approach was one of extreme reverence. Meanwhile, his talent for quick speech and acrobatic movement had diminished, due to aging and the fact that a decade sitting on a chair in a TV studio demanded much less of him than cavorting as Captain Spaulding or Rufus T. Firefly. And he never could shake off the heavy New York accent ("Say the secret woid..."), nor could he play another role than the persona he had created for himself in vaudeville. The result was a very repressed Groucho paying tribute to a classic work without the virtuoso singing and pattering one would require from a decent Ko-Ko. Groucho was much better at G&S in Horse Feathers and Duck Soup; he was too much in awe of the real thing to make it his own, and he could never be another Martyn Green, but just seeing him decked out as a Lord High Executioner was silly enough, and quite endearing besides.

Writing in The New York Times on April 30, 1960, Jack Gould said:

For reasons anything but sublime, Groucho Marx was cast as the Lord High Executioner in The Mikado. On paper, his choice might have seemed an adventurous turn in casting, but to the eye and the ear, especially the latter, the experience only invited restlessness amoung the Savoyards.

Mt. Marx's selection undoubtedly was motivated by the belief that Gilbert and Sullivan needed help to win a popularity rating. But the result was a classic example of what can happen when the star is put before the show: both can get hurt in the confusion.

The comedian's heavy tortoise-shell glasses, the familiar leer in the form of fluttering eyebrows and his patented scamper about the stage were only jarring in the company of Katisha, Pooh-Bah, Yum-Yum, Nanki-Poo, et al.

But more to the point, an operetta, after all, does benefit from the use of singers, and Mr. Marx's lack of qualifications in this regard was merely embarrassing. To hear "I've Got a Little List," "A How-de-do" and "Tit Willow" subjected to a layman's flat chanting was not exactly enthralling. Moreover, the score was adjusted to Mr. Marx' faltering tempo, and this showed up the entire show.

More was the pity of Mr. Marx' misfortune because in other respects the "Bell Telephone Hour" approached G&S with taste and understanding. Robert Rounseville (Nanki-Poo), Babara Meister (Yum-Yum), Stanley Holloway (Pooh-Bah), Helen Traubel (Katisha) and Dennis King (The Mikado) all had the required lilt andd spirit for the occasion, compensating in considerable degree for the editing that had to be done to fit the production into less than an hour.

The settings were elaborate and the costumes singularly attractive and inventive. The Norman Luboff Choir was a special treat. Martyn Green achieved a good sense of spaciousness; despite the obstacles of casting it captured much of the Gilbert and Sullivan flavor.

Next time, perhaps, it will be realized that The Mikado can stand nicely on it's own and "You Bet Your Life" should continue in a separate spot in the TV schedule.

Louis Silverstein passed along the following quote from the February 1978 issue of High Fidelity, in an article by Richard Dyer:

Cleo Laine did her own baroquely ornamented version of Yum-Yum's song about this time (British RCA LPL 1-50??6), but by far the most bizarre of all Mikado recordings is the soundtrack of the television version Green produced in the late 60's. The Columbia LP has long since vanished, but a few tracts from the performance survives on a British Harmony Record (30060) called 'Gilbert and Sullivan's Greatest Hits.' If you can get through Nelson Eddy singing "I Am The Monarch Of The Sea," you will shortly come to a unique version of "Assume Day It May Happen" in which the one and only Groucho Marx delivers all manner of original inflections (such an 'irritating laugh') with the most endearing indifference to all notions of pitch, rhythm, tone, and style.

Issue History
1960 Columbia Mono LP OL 5480  
Stereo LP OS 2022
1970s Columbia Mono LP AOL 5480
1970s CBS Coronet Mono LP KLL-1621 New Zealand issue
2007 Koch/DRG CD B000U1ZIQK Available here