ARCHIVE: The Secret Woid is…Frank?

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Jim Furmston plays piano accompaniment and straight man, as Frank Ferrante returns to the Pollak Theatre with his fully interactive tribute to the one, the only Groucho.

(First published on Red Bank oRBit April 22, 2009)

While his celebrity stock may wax and wane with the popcultural tide, his is one of the most instantly recognizable looks this side of charter-lineup Kiss. The painted-on mustache and eyebrows; the cigar brandished like both the pen and the sword. The antique specs, skinny tie and swallowtail jacket. The semi-automatic salvos of cultural references, put-downs and puns.

Every so often, it becomes necessary for Groucho Marx to duck-walk the earth again, and when that happens, the medium of choice more often than not is a fella by the name of Frank Ferrante. The West Coast actor and director has made a specialty and a study of the iconic comic of Broadway, Hollywood and TV — even befriending Marx offspring Melinda, Miriam and Arthur. In fact, Ferrante got Arthur’s seal of approval for starring in the author’s play Groucho: A Life in Review, in which he portrayed the entertainer from his years as a teen vaudevillian, to his slow, sad fade as a frail shadow of his old self.

For his touring program An Evening with Groucho, Ferrante brings his spot-on stuff, delivering the trademark quips and the signature songs (“Lydia the Tattooed Lady,” “Hooray for Captain Spaulding” and the “lost” gem “Doctor Hackenbush”) plus a little something all his own — a gift for in-character improv that finds the performer stalking the aisles of the theater, giving “lucky” patrons a taste of that Marxist magic.

Groucho was, after all, the man whose hilarious banter with contestants turned a rather lame quiz show called You Bet Your Life into an enduring classic. When Ferrante and musical director Jim Furmston return to the Pollak Theatre at Monmouth University this Sunday for a matinee program re-titled An Afternoon with Groucho, they’ll be presenting an encore of a fast-paced show that proved to be a surprise hit last season; a collection of true stories, embellished zingers, movie quotes, classic tunes and bracingly modern comedy that leaves no doubt to the fact that Groucho is back. Again!

We managed to flag down the fast-moving Ferrante for a few moments on the eve of his previous visit to town; herewith some prime cuts from that conversation.

So this is one of at least two distinct Groucho shows that you’ve starred in; how do the two differentiate themselves from each other?

Well, the Arthur Marx play, Groucho: A Life in Review, was a biographical piece; one that focused upon Groucho the man, at various points in his life. This show focuses on comedy, on the familiar Groucho character, through songs, routines and one-liners. What also distinguishes this show from others is that fully one-third of it is improvised…that’s what his magic was, really; the ability to create comedy on the spot.

That’s actually a very contemporary touch — I mean, Groucho of course was one of the great ad-libbers, but he really didn’t do a whole act where he’d wander the aisles of the theatre.

Nowadays so much of how we entertain ourselves has an interactive element to it — most standup comics know this, and the best of them can really draw the audience into the show. The audience wants to get something that only happens that night…they’re at their most engaged when the script is dropped.

Describe your first exposure to the Marx Brothers.

That would be when I was a 9 year old kid in Sierra Madre, California. I saw one of their movies for the first time, and I was just exhilarated by their bad-boy behavior. They were masters at that kind of comedy.

And that was the moment you knew you wanted to be a comedian? Looked at from a different angle, that could have been the moment you decided to devote yourself to a life of bad behavior.

It left me really wanting to learn more about comedians in general, especially all of the older, classic comedians — I remember just getting lost in the pages of Steve Allen’s book Funny Men. I started to seek them out, learn from them. I loved sitting around with Milton Berle. I remember one Father’s Day, when he spent hours teaching me various spit-takes, double takes, triple takes…

And did you ever to get to meet Groucho himself?

Yes, and it was a strange experience. it was in 1976, when he was about 85 years old — very frail, and not too many months away from when he died — he came to the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, to promote his book The Groucho Files. I waited three hours for him to show up, and when he did he seemed very infirm, very out of it. Still, when someone asked him a stupid question, it would trigger a flash of that wit…I of course followed him around that day and sat there, duck-like, at his feet.

Well, you must have had some super-powers of observation there, because from all accounts you’ve really nailed the whole Groucho thing. But what else are you involved in these days? What does Frank Ferrante do when he’s not being Groucho?

I perform in a “Cirque”-style show; doing about 45 minutes of the program, almost entirely improvised. It’s a popular draw on the West Coast; we’ve had George Lucascome to the show, Sean Penn…I do a “Latin Lover” sort of character named Caesar. It’s sort of a hybrid of European and American clowning — a little bawdy.

But I’m sure you can’t spend too much time away from Mr. Marx. Do you find a new generation getting interested in the Marx Brothers, kind of like that big wave of nostalgia that happened toward the end of his life, in the 1970s?

At times I have to say I feel like I’m a rock star. I get to thinking, this is how strong his persona is, to this day. You know, we all want to be Groucho at one time; to be that wild, irreverent pulverizer of those in power — and after several hundred performances, I now feel that I’m ‘getting it.’ As far as being Groucho, I couldn’t have taken it any further than this!