He was originally nicknamed Chicko due to his reputation
as a ladies man, or a "chicken chaser" in the popular
slang of the day. A typesetter accidentally dropped the "k"
in his name and it became Chico. It was still pronounced [t??ko?]
although those who were unaware of its origin tended to pronounce
it [?i?ko?]. Radio recordings from the 1940s exist where announcers
and fellow actors mispronounce the nickname, but Chico apparently
felt it was unnecessary to correct them. As late as the 1950s, even
Groucho used the wrong pronunciation for comedic effect. A guest
on You Bet Your Life told the quizmaster she came from Chico, California
and Groucho responded that he had a brother named "Cheek-oh."
(Chico can sometimes be spotted in cutaways to the studio audience,
out of character and costume.)
Marx used an Italian accent for his on-stage character;
stereotyped ethnic characters were common with Vaudeville comedians.
All the Marx brothers at some point in their careers performed "dialect
characters," but Chico was the only one to continue this into
The obvious fact that he was not really Italian
was referenced twice on film. In their second feature, Animal Crackers,
he recognizes someone he knows to be a shady character, impersonating
a respected art collector:
Chico: "How did you get to be Roscoe W. Chandler?"
Chandler: "How did you get to be Italian?"
Chico: "Never mind—whose confession is this?"
In A Night at the Opera, which begins in Italy,
his character, Fiorello, claims to not be Italian, eliciting a surprised
look from Groucho:
Driftwood: "Well, things certainly seem to
be getting better around the country."
Fiorello: "Well, I wouldn't know about that; I'm a stranger
Chico was a talented pianist. He originally started
playing with only his right hand and fake playing with his left,
as his teacher did so herself. Chico eventually got a better teacher
and learned to play the piano correctly. As a young boy, he would
get jobs playing piano to earn money for the Marx family. Sometimes
Chico would even get work playing in two places at the same time.
He would acquire the job with his piano-playing skills, work for
a few nights, and then substitute Harpo on one of the jobs. (During
their boyhood, Chico and Harpo looked so much alike they were often
mistaken for each other.)
In the brothers' last film, Love Happy, Chico plays
a piano and violin duet with "Mr. Lyons" (Leon Belasco).
Lyons plays some ornate riffs on the violin; Chico comments, "Look-a,
Mister Lyons, I know you wanna make a good impression, but please—don't-a
play better than me!"
In a record album about the Marx Brothers, narrator
Gary Owens stated that "although Chico's technique was limited,
his repertoire was not." The opposite was true of Harpo, who
reportedly could only play two tunes on the piano, which typically
thwarted Chico's scam and resulted in both brothers being fired.
Groucho Marx one time said that Chico never practiced
the pieces he played. Before performances he would soak his fingers
in hot water before going on instead. He was known for "shooting"
the keys of the piano. As part of the act he would play passages
with his thumb up and index finger straight — like a gun (he appears
in the film A Year to Remember (1948) playing an extraordinary "shooting"
version of the famous Australian song Waltzing Matilda to a group
of Australian soldiers). Another charming example of his keyboard
flamboyance is found in A Night at the Opera. He captivates a group
of children whose faces light up with his digital acrobatics. The
looks of glee on their faces is reminiscent of Alfred Eisenstaedt's
"Children at Puppet Theatre", an example of pure childhood
pleasure, and suggests that they were not acting.
Chico became manager of the Marx Brothers after
their mother, Minnie, died.  As manager he cut a deal to get
the Marx Brothers a percentage of a film's gross receipts — the
first of its kind in Hollywood. Furthermore, it was Chico's connection
with Irving Thalberg of MGM which led to Thalberg's signing the
Brothers when they were in a career slump after Duck Soup (1933),
made at Paramount Pictures.
For a while in the 1930s and 1940s Chico led a big
band. Singer Mel Tormé began his professional career singing
with the Chico Marx Orchestra.
Chico Marx was a compulsive womanizer, and had a
lifelong gambling habit. His addiction cost him millions of dollars
by his own account. When an interviewer asked him how much money
he'd lost from gambling, he answered, "Find out how much money
Harpo's got. That's how much I've lost." Gummo Marx, in an
interview years after Chico's death, said, "Chico's favorite
people were actors who gambled, producers who gambled, and women
who screwed." Chico's lifelong gambling addiction compelled
him to continue in show business long after his brothers had retired
in comfort from their Hollywood income, and in the early 40s he
found himself playing in the same small, cheap halls in which he
had begun his career 30 years previously.