Frank Ferrante’s world was rocked when he was 10 years old. A neighborhood friend called to alert him to an old movie on TV. “Watch these crazy guys,” he was ordered. The guys were the Marx Brothers and the movie, A Day at the Races. Thus began a lifelong obsession.
The impressionable Ferrante loved the irreverent humor of the Marx Brothers and the freedom with which they challenged and subverted authority figures in comedy classics such as Duck Soup and A Night at the Opera. “Having gone to Catholic school, that appealed to me,” he jokes in a phone interview. But he was particularly mesmerized by Groucho. “He was in charge,” Ferrante says. “I wanted to be as bold as Groucho was in the movies and on ‘You Bet Your Life.’”
For 37 years, Ferrante, 58, has fulfilled that ambition as the star of the award-winning one-man touring show, An Evening with Groucho. Directed by Dreya Weber, it’s a 90-minute fantasia of stories and songs from Groucho’s legendary career, along with quick-witted improv interactions with the audience. The Chicago Tribune notes, “Frank Ferrante is as good an interpreter of the live Groucho Marx experience as you can find in a world where the real thing has been dead for  years.”
On April 1, Frank Ferrante’s Groucho, the film version of An Evening with Groucho, premieres on PBS stations across the country, the culmination of nearly four decades of keeping the Marxism flame burning bright, delighting old fans and introducing new generations to one of the 20th century’s keenest wits. It will also be available on DVD.
Ferrante, an award-winning director, actor, and prolific presence in regional theater (his other signature role is Caesar, the flamboyant master of ceremonies for Teatro ZinZanni), has performed his Evening in London and Off-Broadway. No two performances are the same, but as he tells The Saturday Evening Post, he considers the film version to be the show’s legacy format.
The Saturday Evening Post: Describe Frank Ferrante’s Groucho.
Frank Ferrante: It’s an interesting hybrid; part storytelling and biography, part musical, and part standup. I’m accompanied by Gerald Sternbach, who was Mel Brooks’s musical director.
SEP: Do you need to be a Groucho or Marx Brothers fan to enjoy it?
FF: The show has to work whether you know who Groucho Marx is or not. For a lot of audience members, this will be all new material. Groucho used to say, there is no such thing as an old joke if you’ve never heard it before. I performed this show in New Mexico, and there was a woman 94 and a boy 7 in the audience, and they were laughing at the same jokes. I remember thinking after the show that I’ve got a really good job.
SEP: What was the genesis of the show?
FF: It was my senior project in college. I was a theater major at the University of Southern California. A good friend, Paul Wesolowski (Marx Brothers archivist and former publisher of the newsletter The Freedonia Gazette), knew of a script, “An Elephant in My Pajamas,” that was performed by an actor named John Bay. He was married to Broadway legend Elaine Stritch. He passed away, and Paul set me up with Elaine. I received her blessings. The show barely resembles what it was, but that’s how it started.
SEP: What are your memories of performing An Evening with Groucho for the first time?
FF: It was 1984. I did it at the church where I grew up in Sierra Madre, California. I was breaking the show in before I performed it at USC. That was a special night. It was my 22nd birthday. In the audience were Arthur Marx, Groucho’s daughter Miriam, and Morrie Ryskind, who co-wrote Animal Crackers and A Night at the Opera. These were the three key living players in Groucho Marx’s life. I was nauseous before I went on.
SEP: How has the show evolved?
FF: My director, Dreya Weber, saw the show in 2010 in Denver. She said it was good, but that it could go further by bringing Groucho’s own passions and complexities to the show; the fact that he was a voracious reader and self-educated. He never made it past the sixth grade, but he corresponded with poet T.S. Elliot. He loved Gilbert and Sullivan, and so we added the song “Tit Willow” from The Mikado, which Groucho performed in a 1960 TV production. So the show now has more of his spirit.
SEP: In An Evening with Groucho, you get to tell classic stories, sing Groucho’s signature songs, and work the crowd in character. What is your favorite part of the show?
FF: I love the crowd work because I never know what’s going to happen next. There’s always an exhilarating element of surprise. I usually bring a young person onstage; that is a treat when I dress up a boy or girl as Groucho and they take on the mantle for a moment. The audience is right with me when they see the kid in greasepaint running around the stage to the tune of “Hooray for Captain Spaulding.”
SEP: What is a cherished memory of doing this show over the decades?
FF: I received the best compliment from Sean Penn. He said, “You’ve got one foot in yesterday and one foot in today and you make it all your own.” That meant a lot to me. But in 1989, I performed the show at the Pasadena Playhouse, my hometown theater, and George Fenneman (Groucho’s You Bet Your Life announcer) was sitting fourth row center. At the end of the show, I had the honor of introducing him to the audience. He was visibly moved by the ovation. He came back to my dressing room and asked if I wanted to hear about the last time he saw Groucho. Groucho was 86 and had had a couple of strokes, but George said that his expression was serene. He was in a wheelchair, and George had to move him from his wheelchair to his bed. He put his arms around his torso, lifted him out of the wheelchair, and shimmied him to the bed. Then he heard a soft voice say, “Fenneman, you always were a lousy dancer.”
SEP: Did you ever get to meet Groucho?
FF: I was 13. He was at the Ambassador Hotel (in Los Angeles) to promote the book, The Groucho Phile. My dad took the day off from work so I could meet my hero. There were a thousand or so people there, mostly college age and younger. He showed up with Erin Fleming (his then-companion) and his biographer Hector Arce. I glommed onto them as if I was part of his entourage. He walks to the podium and I sit at the master’s feet. But he was in much worse shape than when I’d seen him on TV. He looked like he was going to keel over, until someone asked if he was going to make any more Marx Brothers movies. He took a pause and said, “No, I’m answering stupid questions.” And the audience went crazy.
SEP: After all these years, do you see yourself retiring the show?
FF: Fifteen years ago, I was debating whether to keep doing this. But now I’m so grateful I continued with it. Hal Holbrook came to see my show and we became friends in the last eight years of his life. He is my hero. He did Mark Twain Tonight for 62 years and retired at age 92. He is a great inspiration. He delighted in his subject matter as I do. He loved Mark Twain; I love Groucho. Like him, I feel a real compulsion to share this great life with people around the world.
SEP: What was the best advice Hal Holbrook ever gave you?
FF: He once wrote me a beautiful letter, and he closed it with, “Keep it going.”
Frank Ferrante’s Groucho will debut on PBS and be released on DVD on April 1, 2022.
Featured image: Frank Ferrante as Groucho Max in his stage play (Photo by Mikki Schaffner Photography, courtesy of Frank Ferrante)
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