If it wasn't for his wonderful family, I simply couldn't be Groucho

Frank doesn't just do Groucho... he is Groucho


Groucho Marx once said "I have had a perfectly wonderful evening, but this wasn't it." One wonders what he would say about Frank Ferrante's one man show, An Evening With Groucho, a homage to the legendary comedian.

It's hard to imagine that the man born Julius Henry Marx, son of German and French Jewish immigrants wouldn't see the humour in a good Italian Catholic boy, schooled by nuns, playing him so well even Groucho's daughter says; "Frank doesn't just do Groucho... he is Groucho."

Ferrante was a boy growing up in California when a friend told him to watch the 1937 Marx Brothers comedy, A Day at the Races, on television.

"Seeing that movie sparked all this interest and wanting to be part of this world. It looked like a lot of fun. There was something very sly about Groucho that appealed to me. Also I was taught by nuns so experienced a very oppressive environment. Groucho was able to crack through all the time and, whatever the situation, end up on top. That's very exhilarating when you are a child," says Ferrante, now 52.

He became fascinated by the third of the Marx brothers and when, at the age of 86, Groucho was scheduled to appear at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, 13-year-old Ferrante persuaded his father to take him along. In an act of sheer chutzpah, Frank tagged on to Groucho's entourage as they entered the building.

"I didn't care, nothing was going to stop me, I could even smell his cologne, it was like an old spicy smell, I was that close," he says.

In an act of even greater chutzpah, he managed to persuade TV networks and Groucho's children Arthur and Miriam to come along to the University of California to see his thesis show where he played Groucho. "Arthur said to me afterwards, 'If I ever do anything about my father, I'd like you to do it. I didn't sleep for three days. I was 22!"

That production was the seed of his current show which tours extensively across the world. From that moment, he went on to form extraordinary friendships with both Arthur and Miriam.

"I knew Arthur for 25 years. As time went by and I got to know him very well, I really saw him and his journey, his struggle, his joys, his shortcomings, his strengths. I saw how much he loved me and I loved him; we were friends. That came from years of loyalty and sharing stories. I saw him all the time."

It had developed into a father-son relationship. "It was an interesting and unique friendship. I would sit with him in the back yard and we would just talk. Those were the great times. 'What's going on with the kids Frank?' 'What project are you on?' Everyday type of talking that wasn't Groucho related."

Arthur wrote a hit play about his father, A Life In Revue and Ferrante played Groucho. The play ran on Broadway and in the West End, where Ferrante was nominated for an Olivier Award.

At his home in California, he has various mementoes that Arthur gave him over the years, including Groucho's Hole In One golf badge. Arthur died in 2011, Miriam Allen Marx, now 88, lives in San Clemente, in a care home. "Miriam would travel all over to my show and she must have spent over 20 holidays at my house with me and my family, with my grandmother and mother and uncles and aunts, it was very lovely. Very Italian, very Jewish," says Ferrante.

Miriam has given 200 letters from her father to her to Ferrante: "I cherish them; at some time, when she passes, I'll share them with various Jewish museums."

So, after playing a Jewish man for 30 years, and spending huge amounts of time in Jewish company, does he consider himself an honorary Jew?

"I have always heard from my Jewish peers: 'You are more Jewish than we are. You really are a cultural Jew.' I feel there is a connection there, certainly. I grew up as the offspring of immigrants, little people who were struggling in this world. I heard the stories, starting from dirt poor, shining shoes and such.

''From that point of view, the Jewish American experience is similar to the Italian American experience. I admire the Jewish intellects, witty intelligent men who were all Jewish, writing for the Marx brothers."

When not playing Groucho, Ferrante portrays the flamboyant Latin lover, Caesar, in Teatro ZinZanni, a cirque-styled improvisational show. In the autumn, he'll begin rehearsals for a new production of Neil Simon's Laughter on the 23rd Floor in Philadelphia.

This month, for one night only, British audiences can see An Evening With Groucho at the first ever Marx Brothers Weekend Festival of Britain in Bath. The show is the highlight of the two-day extravaganza celebrating all things Marx brothers.

"The last I was in the UK was in 1990 to record The Groucho Letters for BBC4. I do look forward to the return and meeting old and new friends," says Ferrante.

Is he keeping the Groucho Marx flame alive for posterity? "I can only answer that as Groucho," he says and suddenly the very Italian-looking Ferrante becomes a middle aged Jewish comedian from New York: "Why should I care about posterity? What's posterity ever done for me?"

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