by Eric Andrews-Katz -
SGN A&E Writer
'AN EVENING WITH GROUCHO'
August 10 @ 8pm
Frank Ferrante is best known to Seattle audiences as the gregarious host of Teatro ZinZanni, 'The Caesar.' But Mr. Ferrante's talents go far beyond that as he brings his highly acclaimed, one-man show, 'An Evening With Groucho' to Seattle for one night only. The show (as well as Mr. Ferrante's performance) is the only one personally endorsed by Arthur Marx, Groucho's son, and the estate of the comic genius, Groucho Marx. The Seattle Gay News sat down to chat with Frank Ferrante, the man bringing Groucho to life.
Eric Andrews-Katz: What was your introduction to Groucho Marx?
Frank Ferrante: There was a kid in my neighborhood, Rich Ivler, and he knew about the Marx Brothers. They were special to him, and one night he told me about this movie on the local channel, A Day at the Races. I must have been 9 or 10. Groucho was there in his greasepaint mask, Chico with his hat, and I remember the 'tootsie footsie scene. Groucho was making asides to the camera, and I became enamored with the brothers' freedoms and wildness. I didn't understand all of it, but I knew it was irreverent and wrong. I had never laughed that hard and I became obsessed with Groucho. That night, my brother and I were reenacting those scenes. I started to do research and that opened a new world to me. Groucho has opened many worlds for me.
Andrews-Katz: What made Julius Henry Marx change his name to Groucho?
Ferrante: There are different theories on that. At the time, there was a comic strip called Sherlocko, the Monk, and the characters had 'o's' at the end of their names. Another story says that there was a poker game, and the dealer started the family nicknames. 'One for you Harpo' (that brother played the harp), 'One for you Chico' (he liked to chase 'chicks'), and since Groucho was the serious one, the dealer said, 'And here's a card for you, Groucho.' The name stuck. He was never crazy about the name but it was there. A third story said when he was young, he wore a 'Grouch Bag' (a money holder worn about the neck to prevent theft), and that's how he earned it.
Andrews-Katz: Groucho came from a family of performers. How did they influence his future career?
Ferrante: There's a ton of stories there. His Uncle Al Sheen was, at the time, half of the successful vaudeville team, Gallagher and Sheen. Uncle Al would show up and throw silver dollars so there would always be a crowd around him. Groucho's mother, Minnie pushed her children into the spotlight. She was a dominant mother and told him he wasn't going to be a doctor, and he was going into show biz. Think 'Mama Rose' light.
Andrews-Katz: It is stated that you were 'discovered by Arthur Marx (Groucho's son) in 1985.' How did that come about?
Ferrante: I was putting together my senior project at the University of South California, under my mentor William White. He told me about a class that was offered called Director's Research, and Professor White suggested that I put on a one-man show back in 1984. I did the publicity, and found a piano player. I put it up and personally sent out invitations to anyone I could think of connected to the Groucho family: Bob Whitey (who did the first documentary on the Marx Bros.), Arthur and Miriam Marx (Groucho's children), and they all showed up. It was a packed house and it was a life changing moment. Arthur came back stage and said if/when he did a show on his father, he wanted me to be in it. A few weeks later I graduated, and then a year after that, I find myself in Kansas City playing Groucho. The next thing I know, I'm in New York doing the show.
Andrews-Katz: Is your one-man show 'An Evening with Groucho' a reproduction of Groucho's show by the same name, or more an original collaboration of his life and works?
Ferrante: I use stories from his performance at Carnegie Hall, but this has evolved over the last 30 years into something different. It has a free form with many autobiographical elements. There are parts that are anecdotal, improvised, filled with songs from Groucho's Broadway and film careers. We take on his peers and brothers and family, but the premise (for me) is this show is what it would have been like to experience Groucho back in 1934, at least, between Duck Soup and Night at the Opera. It's as close as you might have gotten to experience him on stage when he was at his prime. Carnegie Hall didn't happen until 1972.
Andrews-Katz: How do you find your character and voice as Groucho before going on stage?
Ferrante: When I sit in front of the mirror, it's the costume that helps. I love the way the coat feels on me, it's magical. It's like I'm putting him on, and that's the beginning. Once the overture starts, I listen to the music and can't help but let all the Marx love flow over me. I find myself flashing back to being 9 years old, and I tell myself that my job is to share my love and joy with the audience, and connect with Groucho. Once the makeup is on, I am Groucho.
Andrews-Katz: What is the most surprising fact you learned about Groucho Marx over the years?
Ferrante: The fact that Groucho had a real sensitivity, especially for his daughter. She was a recovering alcoholic and the fact that he never gave up on her, I thought was moving and impressive. She may have been the closest person to him in his life. The fact that his heart was broken by her fate, and she was heavily into drinking when he passed away, weighed on him. She has remained sober since his death. He communicated with his children and treated them as adults always. He cared about their opinions.
Andrews-Katz: What would you say is the most misunderstood feature about Groucho Marx?
Ferrante: He was a serious man and cared deeply about the world. He had mild interests in sports, gardening, and was a voracious and avid reader. He prided himself on the relationships he formed with authors and 'thinkers,' since he never got past the 6th grade. He was an extremely loyal friend keeping friendships for decades. He also liked to promote younger talent.
Andrews-Katz: What is it about Groucho Marx that makes him still stand apart almost a century later?
Ferrante: I think it's the originality of his persona, the freshness of his attack and the point of view - he takes down everything and everyone. He says what we all want to say, and doesn't suffer fools gladly. He's able to represent on our behalf and attack when we can't. We can live vicariously through his actions and it never gets old. Groucho is a little scary because we don't know what he'll do next. He always spoke his mind.
Andrews-Katz: If you could play any role - regardless of limitations - what would it be and why?
Ferrante: I've always wanted to play Don Quixote in Man of La Mancha. The absurdity of not caring and believing in something, even when others think it's ridiculous. I love that idea. It's hopeful and I like the sense of hope in the face of bitter reality.
Groucho Marx is perhaps one of the most brilliant comedians the world has ever known. With physical features that have become iconic, Groucho (along with his brothers) have influenced the greatest performers in the world establishing their place in Americana History.
'An Evening With Groucho' will be appearing one-night only in Seattle on August 10 at 8pm at Teatro ZinZanni (222 Mercer St.). Tickets are $30, $35 and $45. Following his Seattle performance, Frank Ferrante will be taking 'Groucho' on a 33-city tour of Australia. www.eveningwithgroucho.com/ Afterwards, Mr. Ferrante takes the lead role (and will also be the show's director) in Neil Simon's hit play, Laughter on the 23rd Floor, in Milwaukee.
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