The Ritz Brothers were an American comedy trio who performed extensively on stage, in nightclubs, and in films from 1925 to the late 1960s.
Although there were four brothers, the sons of Austrian-born Jewish haberdasher Max Joachim and his wife Pauline, only three of them performed together. There was also a sister, Gertrude. The fourth brother, George, acted as their manager. The performers were:
- Al Ritz (August 27, 1901 – December 22, 1965)
- Jimmy Ritz (October 4, 1904 – November 17, 1985)
- Harry Ritz (May 22, 1907 – March 29, 1986)
All three brothers were born in Newark, New Jersey. The family name was Joachim (pronounced "jo-ACK-him", as Harry himself explained on a Joe Franklin TV interview), but eldest brother Al, a vaudeville dancer, adopted a new professional name after he saw the name "Ritz" on the side of a laundry truck. Jimmy and Harry followed suit when the brothers formed a team. The Ritzes emphasized precision dancing in their act, and added comedy material as they went along. By the early 1930s they were stage headliners.
The Ritz Brothers were hired for a New York-filmed short subject, Hotel Anchovy (1934), produced by Educational Pictures. This did well enough for the film's distributor, Twentieth Century-Fox, to sign the Ritzes as a specialty act for feature-length musicals. During this period they appeared in On the Avenue, a 1937 Irving Berlin musical. That same year Fox gave the Ritz Brothers their own starring series, beginning with Life Begins in College.
The brothers had a large following, and some fans compare them to the Marx Brothers, but the Ritzes did not play contrasting characters like the Marxes did; the boisterous Ritzes frequently behaved identically, making it harder for audiences to tell them apart. The ringleader was always rubber-faced, mouthy Harry, with Jimmy and Al enthusiastically following his lead. They frequently broke into songs and dances during their feature comedies, and often did celebrity impersonations (among them Ted Lewis, Peter Lorre, Tony Martin, even Alice Faye and Katharine Hepburn).
Their talent was also noted by Samuel Goldwyn, who borrowed them from Fox for his Technicolor variety show, The Goldwyn Follies, where they appeared with other headliners of the day including Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy. Perhaps their most successful film during this period was Fox's 1939 musical-comedy version of The Three Musketeers, co-starring Don Ameche. Later in 1939 the Ritzes staged a highly publicized walkout (complaining about the low quality of their latest script, The Gorilla). Fox responded by completing The Gorilla anyway, terminating the Ritzes' starring series, and casting them in a B picture: Pack Up Your Troubles starring Jane Withers. The Ritz Brothers left Fox for good in 1939.
In 1940 they moved to Universal Pictures, where they were scheduled to star in The Boys from Syracuse but were removed from that production and reassigned to make brash B comedies with music. Their final film as a trio was Never a Dull Moment (1943). Al died in 1965. Harry and Jimmy worked occasionally in films in the 1970s, most prominently in the low-budget feature Blazing Stewardesses.
The Ritz Brothers films
- Harry, Jimmy and Al Ritz
|1936||Sing, Baby, Sing|
|1937||One in a Million|
|1937||On the Avenue|
|1937||You Can't Have Everything|
|1937||Life Begins in College|
|1937||Ali Baba Goes to Town|
|1938||The Goldwyn Follies|
|1938||Straight Place and Show|
|1939||The Three Musketeers|
|1939||Pack Up Your Troubles|
|1942||Behind the Eight Ball|
|1943||Show-Business at War|
|1943||Never a Dull Moment|
|1956||Brooklyn Goes to Las Vegas|
- Harry and Jimmy Ritz
|1976||Won Ton Ton, the Dog Who Saved Hollywood|
- Harry Ritz
|1979||Beanes of Boston|
In later life
The Ritz Brothers continued to appear on stage and in nightclubs, and made guest appearances on network television in the 1950s. They soon became a top Las Vegas attraction. In 1958 Harry participated in a sketch-comedy LP, "Hilarity in Hollywood" (also known as "Hilarity in Hi-Fi").
The Ritzes were appearing at New Orleans Roosevelt Hotel in December 1965 when Al died of a sudden heart attack. Harry and Jimmy were devastated, as the trio had always been very close. The two surviving brothers continued the act, and appeared together in a couple of films. The last appearances of the Ritz Brothers as a team (minus Al) were in the mid-1970s films Blazing Stewardesses and Won Ton Ton, the Dog Who Saved Hollywood, a spoof of the old Rin Tin Tin and Lassie movies. In Blazing Stewardesses the Ritzes were cast as replacements for The Three Stooges, who dropped out of the film when Moe Howard's declining health forced the trio to cancel. (Contrary to many accounts, Moe was still alive when Blazing Stewardesses filmed in March 1975; he was simply too ill to work. Moe died in early May of that year; Blazing Stewardesses opened a month later in June 1975.) Harry and Jimmy also made a lively encore appearance on television, as guests on Dick Cavett's PBS talk show.
Harry's final months were plagued by Alzheimer's Disease; Jimmy Ritz died in 1985 shortly before Harry, but Harry's health was so delicate that he was never told of his brother's death. Harry died five months later.
The influence of the Ritz Brothers was greater than their film career, in part because of their long career as nightclub entertainers. They influenced actors including Danny Kaye, Jerry Lewis, and Sid Caesar. In his 1976 film Silent Movie, Mel Brooks paid tribute to the Ritz Brothers by casting Harry in a cameo (he is the fellow leaving a tailor's shop). It was the actor's last role.
In a 1976 Esquire article, Harry Stein makes the case that many top comedians were influenced by, and even borrowed bits from, Harry Ritz. In an interview in Playboy magazine, George Carlin said Harry Ritz "invented the moves for a whole generation" of comedians.
Other tributes to them include mentions in The Simpsons (episode "Mountain of Madness"), M*A*S*H (episode "Aid Station"), Soap (TV series) (episode 48), and the films Pretty Woman, Mr. Saturday Night and My Favorite Year: "On the funny side, there's the Marx Brothers, except Zeppo, the Ritz Brothers, no exceptions, both Laurel and Hardy, and Woody Woodpecker."
They received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1987, in response to a campaign led by comedians Jan Murray, Red Buttons, Milton Berle, and Phyllis Diller. In 1996, a Golden Palm Star on the Palm Springs, California, Walk of Stars was dedicated to them.
Norman Lear has said of Harry Ritz and the Ritz Brothers, "Harry Ritz was as funny as any human being, in or out of comedy, I have ever [met]... he was a jewel, in a glorious setting, and his brothers were the setting."
- Cullen, Frank; Hackman, Florence & McNeilly, Donald (2007), Vaudeville, Old & New: An Encyclopedia of Variety Performers in America, New York: Routledge, p. 935, ISBN 0-415-93853-8.
- Folkart, Burt A. (March 31, 1986). "The Ritz Brothers". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2013-10-08.
- Al Ritz at Find a Grave; Harry Ritz at Find a Grave; Jimmy Ritz at Find a Grave
- Crick, Robert Alan (August 2009). The Big Screen Comedies of Mel Brooks. McFarland. pp. 84, 97, 98. ISBN 978-0-7864-4326-0.
- Stein, Harry (June 1976). "Mel Brooks Says This is the Funniest Man in the World". Esquire. Reprinted in part at Maryellenmark.com, retrieved 2013-10-08.
- Merrill, Sam (January 1982). "Playboy Interview: George Carlin". Playboy.
- "Posthumous Sidewalk Star Dedicated to Zany Ritz Brothers". AP. November 18, 1987.
- "Listed by date dedicated" (PDF). Palm Springs Walk of Stars. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2012-10-13. Retrieved 2013-10-08.
- Hedges, Inez (March 10, 2009). Framing Faust: Twentieth-Century Cultural Struggles. SIU Press. p. 68. ISBN 978-0-8093-8653-6.
- "Norman Lear on WTF". WTFPod.com. Retrieved 2014-12-06.