Frank Ferrante makes Groucho Marx come to life at the Jewish Community Center
By Bruce Bellingham
When Frank Ferrante was a 22-year-old drama major at USC, he figured he was ready for the big time. He was appearing in a college production as Groucho Marx and had the confidence to invite Marx’s son, Arthur, his daughter Miriam Marx Allen, and Morrie Ryskind, the co-author of Animal Crackers and A Night the Opera. Ryskind was then 90 years old. All of them showed up and became fast friends.
“The first thing Morrie said to me after my USC show was, ‘How old are you? Twenty-two? Isn’t it time you retired?” Ferrante recalled in a phone interview with Northside San Francisco. He’s now 45. “To this day, Arthur and Miriam spend Christmas with me.” Ryskind would later say that Ferrante “was the only actor aside from Groucho who delivered my lines as they were intended.”
Ferrante originated the off-Broadway title role of Groucho: A Life in Revue, which was written by Arthur Marx. Ferrante has also written, directed and starred in a one-man show about Groucho collaborator George S. Kaufman, By George.
He’s been touring with his An Evening with Groucho show for years.
“That’s because there’s no such thing as an old joke if you never heard it before,” he said. “Young people are discovering Groucho Marx all the time. I saw Groucho perform once when I was 9 years old. He was very old, but there was a little spark left in him, a little insult humor still living inside. I was taught by nuns. I’ll never lose my taste for irreverence. Seeing Groucho set me off. I began to go digging for the great comedians – W.C. Fields, Bob Hope, Jack Benny, Jackie Gleason.”
For his performance in Groucho: A Life in Revue, Ferrante won the 1987 New York Theatre World Award and was nominated for an Outer Critics Circle Award. He reprised the role in London’s West End and was nominated for the Laurence Olivier Award for Comedy Performance of the Year. Ferrante played the Groucho role in the off-Broadway revival of The Cocoanuts and has played Captain Spalding in the several productions of Animal Crackers, winning a Connecticut Critics Circle Award for his portrayal at Goodspeed Opera House, and a Helen Hayes nomination in Washington D.C. at the Arena Stage. In Boston in 1988, he played the Huntington Theatre in the record-breaking run of Animal Crackers that landed him on the cover of American Theatre magazine.
After 25 years of playing Groucho, how does he keep it fresh, exciting – or pertinent?
“Well, I do a lot of improvising,” he explained. “I don’t do set pieces, the shows are always different; I play off the audience a lot. I have to give much credit to my longtime music director, Jim Furmston, who’s been with me for years.”
In Hollywood, Furmston has worked with Billy Davis, Marilyn McCoo, Nell Carter, Carol Channing, Debbie Reynolds, Joel Grey, Sally Struthers, Jane Seymour, Jeff Goldblum, Marni Nixon, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Gene Barry, Ann Margaret, David Hasselhoff, Tony Orlando, John Rubinstein, Gedde Watanabe, and Greg Marx (Gummo Marx’s grandson) to name a few. Just a few.
Ferrante has done the Groucho show all over the country. The regional differences are negligible. Funny is funny wherever you go – even with the wit being from New York or drenched with Yiddishisms.
“The Marx Brothers took their shows on the road everywhere,” he said, “and were a hit in all sorts of towns. It’s their anti-establishment humor that appeals to people. It was the ‘I wish I could get away with that’ sort of thing. Years ago, I left a theater one night and a man walked up to me and said, ‘So you’re the one who got to be Groucho.’ As kids we all wanted to be Groucho. I guess I still get away with it.”
Frank Ferrante in An Evening with Groucho: Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, 3200 California Street (at Presidio); Feb. 28, 5 p.m. & 8 p.m.; tickets $20 & $24 at 415-292-1200 or www.jccsf.org