The Ritz Brothers [Al Jimmy Harry]

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"Subtle they're not. New they're not. But funny." This 1961 newspaper review of the Ritz Brothers succinctly summed up their appeal for their millions of fans -- and was also a fair assessment of their lack of appeal for their millions of nonfans. The sons of Austrian-born haberdasher Max Joachim, the brothers grew up in New Jersey and Brooklyn, deciding individually to pursue show business careers. Al, the oldest, took the plunge first, winning numerous dance contests and doing extra work for a Long Island movie studio; Jimmy and Harry followed suit, securing solo stage bookings as singer/dancers. After all three Joachim brothers graduated from high school, they decided to team up as a song-and-comedy act, adopting the stage name "Ritz," reportedly having spotted their new cognomen on a laundry truck. With fourth brother George as their agent, the Ritz Brothers worked their way up from nightclubs and vaudeville to several featured spots in the lavish Broadway revues of legendary showman George White. The boys' act, which substantially remained the same throughout the years, consisted of the threesome indulging in precision dancing, tongue-twisting lampoons of popular stories and song hits, and plenty of knockabout comedy. While all three brothers had healthy egos, they had no qualms about building several of their routines around the superior talents of Harry Ritz, as witness their famous bit "The Man in the Middle is the Funny One." In 1934, the Ritz boys made their screen debut in the two-reel comedy Hotel Anchovy, which led to their being signed by 20th Century-Fox as a specialty act for that studio's big budget musicals. Sing Baby Sing (1936) was the first feature film to costar the Ritzes, and, after several comedy-relief appearances, the brothers were allowed to carry a film all by themselves -- 1937's Life Begins in College. Though they had an intensely loyal fan following, the Ritz Brothers soon wore out their welcome with most moviegoers, and by 1938 Fox had demoted them to "B" pictures. The brothers clashed with the studio over their treatment, but hostilities ceased temporarily when the Ritzes were cast in their best-ever picture, The Three Musketeers (1939), which, despite their foolery and a bunch of forgettable songs, was a surprisingly faithful rendition of the Dumas novel. With lush production values and first-rate Ritz material, Three Musketeers should have kept the boys happy at Fox; unfortunately, after two more films of diminishing quality, the studio and the Brothers terminated their association. While the Brothers remained an S.R.O. attraction in nightclubs, the remainder of their movie career was devoted to cheaply assembled musicals at Universal, the last of which, Never a Dull Moment, was released in 1943. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, the Ritz Brothers continued knocking 'em dead on the supper club and resort circuit, scoring additional success as TV guest stars. The Ritzes were appearing at New Orleans' Roosevelt Hotel in December of 1965 when Al Ritz died of a heart attack. Harry and Jimmy kept the act going as best they could after that, though by the end of the 1960s the remaining Ritzes settled for semi-retirement, surfacing occasionally as talk show guests and game show contestants. When comedian-director Mel Brooks, riding the crest of his popularity in the mid 1970s, began telling the world that the Brothers were his idols, Harry and Jimmy briefly returned to the limelight; both Ritzes made guest appearances in Blazing Stewardesses (1975) and Won Ton Ton, The Dog Who Saved Hollywood (1976), while Harry made a handful of solo TV and movie appearances. Harry and Jimmy retired permanently in the 1980s, proud of the fact that, in spite of loud and abrasive arguments among the brothers and the attempts of studio executives to break up the trio with separate contracts, the Ritz Brothers weathered seven decades as one of show business' most professionally harmonious comedy teams. Al was born 19



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