Although never as successful as their rivals, the Marx Brothers, the look-a-like Ritzes — Al, Harry and Jimmy — brought a brand of wanton insanity to films and nightclubs that made them favorites for 35 years. And Harry, called by Sid Caesar "the funniest man of his time," was the acknowledged ringleader of that garrulous gang.
The three began as precision dancers with Al scoring the initial success when he won a series of ballroom dancing prizes in Brooklyn where the brothers were raised. Their mother was from Poland and their saloon-keeper father was from Austria-Hungary. They took the name Ritz off a passing laundry (or cracker, depending on who was telling the story) truck when an agent told them that their given name of Joachim was inappropriate for billboards.
They first teamed as a dance act in 1925 and appeared on local stages mocking a then-popular comic strip, Harold Teen. They wore baggy white pants, out-of-proportion bow ties and perched beanie caps atop their heads, accentuating their ample proboscises.
By 1929 they had made their way into big-league vaudeville, had adopted "Collegiate" as a theme song and had taken to pushing each other around on the stage.
Harry stood in the middle singing "The Man in the Middle Is the Funny One," a song written for them. The other two brothers would then take to berating him for occupying that favored spot and, as they screamed their displeasure, Harry would wander about bellowing "Don't holler—please don't holler."
By 1930 they were playing the Palace where the headliner was Frank Fay and his bride, Barbara Stanwyck.
They worked in Shubert shows for a time and in 1932 caught the attention of Earl Carroll who featured them in his "Vanities" that year. They were appearing at the old Clover Club on Hollywood's Sunset Strip when Darryl F. Zanuck reportedly caught the act and signed them to a contract. (Al had appeared earlier in a silent film, "The Avenging Trail" in 1918.)
Critics generally agree that their early films for 20th-Century Fox were their best; that their later work at Universal suffered by comparison. The brothers had left 20th in a dispute over material. The three farceurs appeared in 15 films, quitting after "Never a Dull Moment" in 1943 to concentrate on club dates.
Al, the oldest brother, died in 1965. Jimmy died in 1985 and Harry passed away the following year.