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When Dick Cavett Shared Carnegie Hall With Groucho

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Forty years ago Sunday, history was made at Carnegie Hall.

On May 6, 1972, comedian Groucho Marx made his debut at the famed New York venue to a packed house. Tickets sold out as soon as it was announced.

Marx was 81 at the time and had been out of the spotlight for many years. His one-man show only toured a handful of venues, and his Carnegie Hall show was later released as an album called An Evening with Groucho.

Talk show host Dick Cavett introduced him that night at Carnegie Hall. Marx was his biggest hero and the two of them had been friends for a few years; Marx would often appear on Cavett's popular TV show, "The Dick Cavett Show."

Cavett was nervous before the show began. He tells weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz that he was worried that Marx was too old and frail, too tired to perform, and, despite ticket sales, he also feared that maybe no one would show up.

But then, as he was pulling up to Carnegie Hall in his car, he saw a big mob, full of young people carrying Groucho photos.

"At least a dozen were made up in costume fully as Groucho Marx," Cavett says. "It promised to be a wonderful evening."

"That promise was reduced slightly when I went backstage, went up to the dressing room, and Groucho looked like a half-dead man," Cavett says.

"I thought, how in hell are we going to get through this? I just thought this is going to be a theatrical nightmare. It wasn't."

The night was a success. The audience went wild when Marx stepped on stage.

"That audience saw nothing wrong with him. They seemed to see no difference between the old and tired gentleman on the stage who read his evening off 3x5 cards — which I thought might even turn off that audience — they ate it up," Cavett says. "He seemed no different than the cavorting madman on the screen in the Marx Brothers' movies."

Throughout the night, Marx shared stories about his family as well as anecdotes from his stage, film and TV career. He also performed famous songs from his Marx Brothers' films, including "Lydia, the Tattooed Lady," from 1939's At the Circus.

Marx died five years after the Carnegie Hall performance, at the age of 86, from pneumonia. Cavett saw him intermittently during those years.

"Every time I left Groucho," Cavett says, "every time he came to New York to be on my show and I would say goodbye to him there or at the Sherry-Netherland where he liked to stay, when the hotel door would shut on his beaming face, I would think, 'Damn, this is the last time I'm going to see him.' And eventually it was."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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