Groucho’s Persona Lives On
For many reasons, Groucho Marx lives on a quarter century after his death. One of those reasons is Frank Ferrante, whose one-man show, “An Evening with Groucho,” is on a zany tour of the U.S. in 2012 and beyond.
An award-winning actor/director/playwright, Ferrante recreates his New York and London-acclaimed portrayal of the legendary Jewish comedian in 90 minutes of fast-paced hilarity. The two-act comedy consists of the best Groucho one-liners, anecdotes and songs, including “Hooray for Captain Spalding” and “Lydia, the Tattooed Lady.”
Ferrante captures Groucho’s brilliant dialogue and makes it shine with the great clown’s witty puns, massive malapropisms and double entendres based on a keen observation of people.
Why does Groucho’s persona endure worldwide? According to Universal’s silver screen collection of their films, “The Marx Brothers,” the brothers’ lasting appeal can be attributed to their high-energy hijinks, verbal sparring and wordplay that not only continue to amuse audiences of all ages, but also contain social relevance that resonates loudly and clearly today.
Ferrante agrees with Universal’s statement, but thinks the brothers also endure because they were craftsmen who spent 25 years honing their craft, personas and comedy.
“Groucho is still relevant because the result of that work is a very specific persona, a wise-guy truth-telling attack, his very defined look, the mask that he has, the mustache and eyebrows and glasses and cigar and hair,” Ferrante told JointMedia News Service. “He’s allowing his true self out because he has the protection of the mask. This mask Groucho has allows for freedom of expression. It’s like armor.”
Like the Marx Brothers did back in the days of vaudeville, Ferrante performs at theaters across the nation, sometimes in the same places the madcap Jewish comics ran wild.
Sarah Schallern, performing arts director at The Alden in the McLean Community Center, Mclean, Va., said Ferrante’s greatest accomplishment was interacting with the audience.
“He was just fantastic at maintaining that Groucho character while creating little mini-relationships with audience members,” Schallern told JointMedia News Service. “And is he ever quick-witted. The whole evening was a great experience for everyone who attended, Marx Brothers fan or not.”
Ferrante is not Jewish, but he said much of his career has consisted of sharing the Jewish tradition of comedy with audiences, including directing Neil Simon’s plays. He also developed and directed a play about a Holocaust survivor, “Old Wicked Songs,” which became a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
For Ferrante, 25 years of mastering improvisation and audience interaction began with a job operating marionettes at age 11 for legendary puppeteer Virginia Austin Curtis at her Puppet Theatre Workshop in California, where Ferrante grew up.
After graduating from the University of Southern California in 1985, Ferrante portrayed Groucho from age 15 to 85 in the off-Broadway show “Groucho: A Life in Revue.” Awards and nominations followed, including a nomination for London’s Laurence Olivier Award.
Along the way, Ferrante picked up fans including actor Sean Penn and comic Henny Youngman. Over corned beef sandwiches in Manhattan’s Carnegie Deli, Youngman dubbed Frank “better than the original Groucho.”
“You’re a giantly talented guy, with one foot in yesterday and one foot in today, and you make it all your own,” Penn told Ferrante.
With more than 2,500 performances ad-libbing throughout the world as Groucho, Ferrante recently performed at the Tarpon Springs Performing Arts Center in Florida, where audience member Roger Edison was highly amused.
“As a Marx Brothers fan from way back I was prepared for the worst when I attended the show,” Edison told JointMedia News Service. “I was pleasantly surprised, however, when Ferrante put on a grease paint mustache and exaggerated eyebrows (in full view of the audience), changed his voice, and magically became the fabled funny man.”
“It’s almost blasphemy to say it, but I think Frank Ferrante is just as funny as Groucho ever was,” Edison added.
Between “Groucho” gigs, Ferrante is the go-to guy for comedy at the historic Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia, and he has been since 1993. He invigorated Neil Simon revivals with award-winning productions of “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” “Biloxi Blues,” “Broadway Bound,” and more. Still, the Marx brothers remain his favorites.
“It’s an outsider or immigrant humor, the humor of the Marx brothers,” Ferrante said. “It’s about folks that are functioning outside of society and that’s what the brothers were doing, tearing it up, commenting, and poking fun.”
For 25 years, Ferrante has been working intimately with Groucho’s son, Arthur Marx. Discovered by Arthur, Ferrante originated the off-Broadway title role in “Groucho: A Life in Revue,” which was written by Arthur.
In 1976, one year before the great comic passed away, Ferrante met his idol.
“I was just a boy then and Groucho was 85 years young,” Ferrante said. “He was appearing at a book signing at the Ambassador Hotel. He had been ill after suffering several strokes. He was frail. I was there with a thousand other enthusiasts but I got to sit five feet away from my hero. Someone from the audience asked him a question—are you making any new Marx brothers movies? After a long pause, Groucho said ‘No, I’m answering stupid questions.'”
Ferrante said he admires Groucho because the comic made fun of “everything and everyone that has power over us, but in a skillful way.” Comedians like Groucho, he said, are “truth-tellers.”
“I’ve been in awe of this my whole life,” Ferrante said.