Embalmed in Plastic: The Nuances of Groucho Glasses

Posted inFeatured Design History

A bulbous plastic nose, the color of day-old lunch meat. Bushy rectangles of blue-black synthetic hair, haphazardly glued to “wire” brown-black glasses frames. Slip on a pair to surprise a friend, and you’re sure to make ‘em laugh. Groucho glasses; a joyous novelty.

Like all design objects, novelty items carry a stratum of nuance. Designed for no practical purpose, our curios are timestamps of past and present, charged with histories often rooted in some of humanity’s ugliest habits. This particular silly toy has immortalized one of the greatest comedians of the 20th century.

Unless you’re a history buff, comedy-lover, or time traveler from Tin Pan Alley, very few people today still recognize the name Julius Henry Marx, but they certainly know his face. Better known as “Groucho,” Julius Henry Marx was a comedian who came up through the vaudeville circuit in the early 1900s with his brothers Leonard (“Chico”) and Adolph (“Harpo”). If you don’t recognize this classic trio, it’s through no fault of your own— the films, tv shows, and radio the Marx Brothers created are no longer in circulation. Groucho passed on years ago, but his iconic rubber face, with its big black mustache, jaunty cigar, and glasses has been immortalized in plastic. 

Also known as Groucho goggles, beaglepuss glasses, fuzzy puss, or disguise glasses, Groucho glasses are black plastic glasses with an attached pale plastic nose far from any human skin tone, big furry mustache, and large black eyebrows. You’ve likely seen these toys in joke or gift shops, haphazardly photoshopped into a meme, or as a horrid “disguise” worn by a character on TV.

Many notable objects of comedy date back to the early 1900s. As vaudeville and slapstick comedy infected audiences across the United States, so did props— lots and lots of props. Simple gags like breakaway furniture, funny foley, and bowler hats were lauded for their brilliance onstage, and entrepreneurs seized opportunity to usher in an era of novelties.

A 1915 Marx Family photo, via The Internet Archive
Left to right: Groucho, Gummo, Minnie, Zeppo, Sam (Frenchie), Chico, Harpo

Julius Marx never meant to become a household face. Born into an immigrant family of German Jews, their mother Minnie encouraged three of the Marx brothers to drop out of school and join the vaudeville circuit. Julius would have much rather continued his education and became an academic, but Minnie insisted. Their uncle, vaudevillian Al Shean, took in Leonard, Adolph, and Julius Marx, and out came the soon-to-be iconic bumbling Chico, Harpo, and Groucho: The Marx Brothers

Early in their career, each brother each embraced an ethnic stock character: an Italian con artist for Chico, a mute Irishman with a car horn voice-box and red fright wig for Harpo, and a stuffy German professor for Groucho. Always longing to be an intellectual, Groucho donned glasses, a tailcoat, and adopted his ever-present cigar. Common practice in vaudeville, the trio became well-known for embodying these archetypes. 

In 1915, Germans took a less than favorable position in the public eye after the sinking of the RMS Lusitania. To regain favor with his audiences, Groucho adapted a distinctively Jewish accent and a slouched and bumbling walk, leaning into a new parody: an ill-informed Jewish immigrant. At the peak of archetypal humor, Groucho had developed “Jewface,” a physical representation of the vaudeville stock character of the stage Jew: a Yiddish-speaking caricature with a large nose that became increasingly more popular after Eastern European Jews began immigrating in the late 1800s. 

As the legend goes, one day Groucho was late to the theater for a show following the birth of his son in 1921. With no time to glue on the individual whiskers for his usual professor mustache, he drew one on using a generous swipe of black greasepaint under his nose, adding two above his eyes to match. Adding his professor glasses and ever-present cigar, Groucho’s iconic look was born, unintentionally perfecting vaudevillian “Jewface.” Julius Marx had designed the ultimate comedic mask: malleable, memorable, and able to be twisted into a million different expressions, each funnier than the last.

A 1947 publicity photo of Groucho Marx, via Wikimedia Commons

Audiences were surprisingly welcoming of the stage Jew’s lilting voice and familiar physicality. With Jewish performers actively playing a role in the creation of these characters, they became much more compassionate representations of the immigrant experience intimately understood by their Jewish audience. “An immigrant who has already acculturated a bit, when he sees this bumbling immigrant Jew onstage with his heavy Yiddish accent— he looks at that and can laugh at it and say ‘that’s not me,’” explained Eddy Portnoy, curator of Jewface: Yiddish Dialect Songs of Tin Pan Alley at the Center for Jewish History in 2015. “It’s a way to distance himself from his previous immigrant self.”

This iconic mask found Groucho Marx incredible success, rendering him virtually unrecognizable without the look. While traveling with the Victory Caravan during World War II, Groucho stepped off the train without his greasepaint mustache to no fanfare. Piqued, he slipped back onboard to reemerge smeared with greasepaint. Tremendous applause ensued, of course. In disguise, he (well, his character) was a hit.

As Groucho Marx rose to fame, novelties swept the nation. By the mid 1940s, joke shops and novelty shops were a common sight across the United States. According to Mark Newgarden’s Cheap Laffs, approximately 4,000 shops peppering the landscape by the 1940s, annually grossing around $3 million— even with the majority of items retailing for 25 cents or less. Mail-order catalogues from Johnson Smith & Co. were blazoned with “novelties” and advertised in the tabloids. A booming industry of joke fingers, false teeth, funny glasses, sleight of hand magic tricks, and witty “things you never knew existed” became mainstream.

Louis St. Pierre, celebrated owner of the Hollywood Magic Shop, claimed his brother invented the first iteration of disguise glasses. “They were beautifully made,” he told The Wall Street Journal in 1982. “You walked into a room and it looked like you had a real big nose. You couldn’t tell the difference. Now it’s a quickie thing.” Whether or not this is true, archival photos from as early as 1950 show women wearing big nose glasses, and black frames with a massive rubber schnoz.

In 1950, NBC-TV began to air You Bet Your Life, a game show hosted by Groucho Marx. Everything was heavily “Groucho” branded, complete with a mustachioed prop duck and cartoon title card. As a publicity effort to cross-promote the series, the network authorized the production of official Groucho Goggles. First appearing on the market in the late 1950s, these toys were the next variation of today’s disguise glasses. Groucho Goggles were one piece of heavy plastic with a block mustache, cigar attachment, and thick eyebrows fixed to two white donut-shaped eyes, with free black “pupils” which spun around when you blew into a whistle on the back of the toy. 

Big nose glasses and Groucho Goggles would merge in the coming years. The Franco American Novelty Company’s “Beagle Puss Disguise Kit” was sold as early 1974 as the “World’s Funniest Disguise,” claiming to provide the wearer with the appearance of a ‘city slicker’; otherwise specified as a ‘Jewish intellectual.’

While this cartoonish camouflage has been good for a laugh for decades, the prop alone— and as a depiction of Groucho Marx— holds complicated and arguably racist roots. The object was not initially mass-produced as a slur encased in plastic, but does perpetuate (and celebrate) Groucho’s immigrant character. Today, the majority of contemporary uses in media are not “Jewface,” but as a laughable, awful disguise.

Disguise glasses are cross-cultural. In Woody Allen’s Take the Money and Run, the parents participate in an interview wearing Groucho glasses to conceal their identities. The Muppets Fozzie Bear and Oscar the Grouch appear on screen in the glasses at various points. Steve Martin features the glasses in “My Real Name,” a joke in his comedy tour A Wild and Crazy Guy in 1978. The City of Chicago’s Outdoor Film Festival broke the world record for “most people wearing Groucho Marx glasses in one place” in 2009 with 4,436 participants. When former President Trump fired FBI Director James Comey in 2017, the internet exploded with suggestions for a replacement, including a viral meme of Vladimir Putin wearing the glasses. And in 2020 “disguised face” officially joined the emoji keyboard as part of Unicode 13.0. It’s safe to say this mask has become a contemporary cultural staple, though its original owner has not. 

The iconic greasepaint mustache, glasses, and cigar were once synonymous with Julius Marx’s professorial identity as Groucho. Now Groucho glasses serve an ironic purpose, revealing the identity of the slow-witted wearer. Though his brilliance in comedy is only remembered by a select few, the intricacy of our entertainment’s history lives on today, embalmed in plastic.

Brooke Viegut is a researcher, experience designer, theater artist, speaker, and professional merrymaker. Brooke co-hosts “so there’s this…” a podcast about design that disappoints. She is dedicated to the “art of having a good time,” studies objects & experiences that bring us joy, and is the owner of a rapidly growing collection of silly things. She is the author of Anonymous Intimacy (coming 2023) and holds an MA in Design Research, Writing, and Criticism from the School of Visual Arts.

Header image by the author.