On Saturday, March 3rd, Frank Ferrante will perform his acclaimed solo show An Evening with Groucho at the Alden Theatre in McLean Virginia. Last week, we had the chance to talk about the man he has come to know well over the last 25 years, the one and only Groucho Marx.
If Woody Allen were directing the scene where Frank first saw “A Day at the Races” on the big screen, Groucho Marx would have stopped the action and said to the 9 year old, “Hey, kid. Watch and learn.”
“I couldn’t get enough of it,” he told me. “I was exhilarated. I was taught by Catholic nuns so there were lots of rules. But the Marx Brothers were about breaking the rules and getting away with it. It showed me I could look at life in a different way.”
Fast forward to 1985. Frank was a sophomore at the University of Southern California when he wrote and performed a show about Groucho. “I invited everyone who ever knew Groucho, including his children, Arthur and Miriam. Arthur, then head writer for the television show “Alice”, told me ‘If I ever write a play about my father, I want you in it.’” The call came two months after Frank graduated. Arthur had written a show taking Groucho from his stage debut at age 15 to age 85. True to his word, he gave Frank the part. When Groucho: A Life in Revue opened Off-Broadway, Frank was 23. The next year, it moved to London where he earned three Laurence Olivier Award nominations.
How hard was it playing someone so well known?
“Very tough. Everyone knew what Groucho sounded like and looked like. His son was in the audience. But somehow, I had a sense of Groucho’s spirit and had empathy for his journey in life. You know, the show never got a bad review – if it had, I would have been back home in a week.”
Playing Groucho Marx did more than bring audiences to Frank. It also gained him access to some of the great comics of the time. One afternoon Frank found himself having lunch with Arthur Marx, Morrie Amsterdam – Dick Van Dyke’s sidekick in his old television show – and Henny Youngman. After the lunch, Youngman wrote something on Frank’s program.
“You’re better than the original,” it said.
“I think what he meant is that I showed the sensitive side of Groucho that not many people knew,” Ferrante explains.
“I have two shows about Groucho: the one Arthur wrote, and this one, An Evening with Groucho, which I’m bringing to the Alden. Actually, Groucho didn’t do solo shows, except for once, in 1972, when he appeared at Carnegie Hall. It, too, was called An Evening with Groucho. But I’ve tried to imagine what it might have been like to see him in 1934 – between ‘Duck Soup’ and ‘Night at the Opera,’ at the peak of his film career.”
Frank’s favorite part in the show is improvising with the audience, very much as Groucho did on his 1950’s NBC quiz show “You Bet Your Life.”
“I can tell in the first few minutes how far I can go with them. I’ve tended to add a song or anecdote because that is what audience responds to. Not a lot of comedians get to do that. And sometimes the tougher crowds are the ones you learn the most from. I’m always up there thinking ‘How can I make this experience the most enjoyable for them and for me.’”
He’s not onstage alone. With him at the Alden will be Jim Furston, his accompanist, music director and, as Jim describes it, his “unwilling participant.” “We’ve been doing this since 1985. He’s my Margaret Dumont.”
What keeps the show fresh for you?
“The different audiences. Every experience is new. The fact that I have license to create new schtick, new jokes.
“The great comics worked this way, creating their personas over decades of working stages, small ones, big ones, crummy ones, until their act evolved. I have the opportunity to go to all these towns” – more than 400, by his count – “and hone what I do. Not many comedians get this many turns at bat any more. I saw Milton Berle do about 20 minutes at the Friars Club at 88 and he was killing them. It was really moving.”
What have you discovered about Groucho most of us don’t know?
“It’s been such a process, over these 25 plus years, hearing personal stories from Arthur and Miriam, so I’ve experienced the man through his children. I was able to look at his life and learn what life is about. Talent doesn’t equal happiness. Money doesn’t equal happiness. He struggled with his relationships, and his own mortality. He was a caring, compassionate man, and a communicative father. He wrote hundreds of letters to Miriam. They are stunning. And he was a loyal friend. Friends he had known for over 50 years were there with him at the end.”
Groucho once said “too bad the people who know how to run the country are too busy cutting hair and driving taxis.” What would he say about this year’s political scene?
“Groucho always had a field day with politicians. He made fun of their phoniness. But he was an old time Democrat. He cared about the country, entertained the troops, and shared his love for what America was with his kids. Miriam told me she was in tears when FDR died. Groucho walked her down to the beach and said ‘Miriam – do you believe in this country?’ She nodded. ‘Well, it’s designed to continue on. No matter what. No man is bigger than the whole concept.’”
What about Groucho keeps you coming back to him?
“I am in awe of his wit. He was a voracious reader. There’s an intelligence that is evident in his work. Wordplay was most important to Groucho. He was tenacious, and fully committed to his work. I’m enthralled by his timing.
“The Groucho character is fearless. That’s what moves me the most. When I put on the makeup and the tailcoat, it’s like putting on armor. I can go out there to be this fearless.
He ended with “You don’t have to be a Groucho Marx fan to enjoy the show. It’s a real belly laugh kind of show. Part standup. Part biography. Part musical. And then”, he laughed, “we improv.”
Frank Ferrante will be making two appearances at the Alden Theatre this weekend. On Friday, March 2nd at 8pm, he will introduce the Marx Brothers film “Duck Soup”. Tickets. On Saturday, March 3rd at 8pm, he will perform An Evening with Groucho. Tickets.
Alden Theatre, McLean Community Center, 1234 Ingleside Avenue, McLean, Virginia. Call: 703-790-0123