Conversation with comedian Frank Ferrante and his stage persona, Groucho

Frank Ferrante As Groucho Marx. Photo Courtesy of Frank Ferrante Productions

Frank Ferrante As Groucho Marx. Photo Courtesy of Frank Ferrante Productions

The New York Times has proclaimed Italian-American comedian/ director/producer Frank Ferrante (Los Angeles, April 26, 1963) as “the greatest living interpreter of Groucho Marx’s material.”
So, don’t be surprised if his current show, An Evening with Groucho, is a regular sold-out. If you want to see the comedian at work, you cannot improvise as he does. You have to plan well in advance. 
 
In the mid 80’s, the very successful off-Broadway show, Groucho: A Life in Revue (written by Groucho’s son, Arthur), launched Frank’s endless series of artistic accomplishments, often linked to Groucho’s fearless persona.
Ferrante, who started off as a shy actor, has been able to win his stage fright, by repeatedly wearing the mask of his alter ego, Groucho Marx, to the point that it’s now hard to separate the two personae. 
 
How was growing up in an Italian immigrants’ household, in Los Angeles and Southern California?
It was a joyous upbringing: the food, the extended family, the traditions. Three of my four grandparents were immigrants from Southern Italy – precisely, the small town of Canneto, now renamed “Adelfia” (in province of Bari, Apulia). 
My grandfathers, Frank (Francesco) Ferrante and Tony (Antonio) Torres, were friends and their respective families used to play with each other in the streets of Canneto. 
In the early 1920’s, they emigrated to the US. My grandmother, Sophie Spano Torres, came over as a toddler. Instead, my grandmother, Lucy Castiglione Ferrante, was born in Los Angeles and her family was from Palermo. 
 
There are nine of us first cousins and we grew up like siblings, in a warm, loving environment. I was influenced by my grandparents, who struggled and finally made it. 
Among our family’s values, education was central, so we attended both grammar school and high school, at fine Catholic institutions in the San Gabriel Valley.
I was mesmerized by their relatable immigrants’ stories, the photographs, the knickknacks and scrapbooks. I used to always ask lots of questions about their early days. 
Nowadays, I prepare my grandma, Sophie’s spaghetti sauce for all special occasions. 
I often think of my grandfathers who picked grapes in Central California’s Imperial Valley, while I am enjoying a career that I love. I owe it to them.
 
Let’s go back together over your early training to become actor. Did you instantly feel an inclination towards comedy over drama? Or were you initially conflicted between the two?
Early on as a child, I realized that life had plenty of sadness, drama and pain. At the same time, we loved to laugh in our family, and my father Dominic is a very funny person. 
When, at 9, I watched my first Marx Brothers’ movie, A Day at the Races, my life changed. I never laughed that hard and, all of a sudden, I knew I wanted to make people laugh, the same way Groucho Marx did to me. 
 
I grew up in Sierra Madre and went to St. Rita Parish. I wanted to treat the nuns, like Groucho behaved towards his famous society foil, the dowagers (often played by Margaret Dumont). Soon, I learned that humor could be a form of survival, a means to defend and protect myself.
 
Tell us about your life-changing encounter with Groucho Marx’s son, Arthur, when you were a drama student at the University of Southern California. How did you feel?
At USC, I used to perform the earliest incarnation of the show I currently do: An Evening With Groucho. In 1985, I invited the playwright, Arthur Marx, to see my performance, which was my senior project. He loved it and said: “If I ever do a show about my father, I would like to use you.” 
He stuck to his word, and, upon graduation, starting from that fall on, I was playing the character of “Groucho”, from age 15 to 85, in his play, Groucho: A Life in Revue, in a Kansas City’s dinner theater. 
 
That show moved to New York off-Broadway and, at age 23, I became the toast of the town. It was an exhilarating experience on many levels.
Imagine the pressure of portraying your hero, before his son. However, Arthur and I enjoyed an intimately close relationship, until his passing in 2011. 
 
How was the experience of writing/starring in the play, By George, first, and directing and developing the premiere of the Pulitzer Prize finalist, Old Wicked Songs, later on?
By George is a one-man play, whom I wrote, based on legendary playwright/director George S. Kaufman, who wrote musicals for the Marx Brothers: The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers. He also co-authored the adaptation of the comedy film: A Night at the Opera. He was a huge influence in shaping Groucho’s style and humor. We might say that he was the Neil Simon of his day as playwright: simply the funniest. 
He co-authored classic American plays, like You Can’t Take It With You (for whom he obtained the Pulitzer Prize, in 1937) and The Man Who Came to Dinner. 
By successfully staging Of Mice and Men by Steinbeck, he proved to be equally adept at drama. His original Broadway production of Guys & Dolls, won him the 1951 Best Director Tony Award.
I wanted to share his life with audiences, who might not be familiar with his outstanding contribution. I broke it in at the American Stage in St. Petersburg (in the Tampa Bay, Florida) and it moved to the Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia, where, by the end of its run, it was receiving standing ovations. 
In the same Philadelphia’s venue, I directed and developed the premiere of Old Wicked Songs, a two person play, featuring a student/teacher relationship, centering on a Holocaust survivor. Written by Jon Marans, the theme is one of sadness and joy. 
 
In 2001, you partnered once again with the late Arthur Marx, bringing back to life the old off-Broadway show of the same name, producing the national PBS television program, Groucho: A Life in Revue. Tell us about your human and artistic relation with Arthur?
Arthur treated me like a son and I don’t believe I’ve spent more time with anyone else. I was in my early 20s and he was in his 60s when we met and started working together. We formed a bond, a friendship that lasted over 25 years. 
The fact that he was Groucho’s son evaporated with time. He’d call me his best friend. We would sit in his backyard with a view and discuss life and our careers. Not a week went by that we didn’t connect.
 
You currently star as the comic lead in the European cirque Teatro Zinzanni, in San Francisco and Seattle. What kind of character do you play there?
For 15 years, four to six months a year I have played “The Caesar”, a Latin lothario in an elegant cirque/cabaret show. He has a definite Italian flair. An over the top lounge lizard with heart, soul and a wicked tongue. The visual is outrageous and distinct: a big black greasepaint mole, pencil mustache, pompadour with skunk streak in the hair. Blushed cheeks and lipstick. He is a lusty man of appetites - women, martinis, food. A ferocious character who makes epic entrances. 
 
I borrow on Groucho’s brashness and interact with multiple audience members within my acts. I have been playing more than 1200 performances in this role, whom audiences seem to love. It is a delight to have created my own comic persona. With Groucho I am interpreting and filtering: it’s my take on an existing entity. With Caesar it is my own, pure creation. I’ve always wanted my own vaudeville character.
 
Last but not least, describe your sold-out show, An evening with Groucho. What makes its formula “evergreen”? 
The show is based on the premise: what if Groucho Marx had a one-man show in 1934…which he never actually did, since he used to work with his brothers Chico, Harpo and Zeppo. It is an original combination of storytelling, songs, routines, one-liners and a liberal dose of improvisation and audience interaction. 
Its impromptu character keeps it evergreen. No two shows are alike. I have played in over 400 cities, for a total of over 2500 shows across three continents. 
For 30 years, I’ve been successfully rerunning the show, which plays as a theatrical piece, so you really don’t have to be a Groucho fan to appreciate it. 
Most of all, it gets big laughs. That never goes out of fashion.

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