When theaters cancelled productions in 2020, actor/writer Frank Ferrante couldn’t tour with An Evening with Groucho, his solo show about legendary comedian Groucho Marx (1890-1977). He and director Dreya Weber did have hours of 2017 footage recorded at the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park. The extended run there had featured a lovely set designed by Tamara L. Honesty, music direction and accompaniment by Gerald Sternbach, and lighting by Mark Williams.
“It was shot over four performances, though it plays as if it’s one performance,” Ferrante told me on our Zoom call. “There was a lot of footage. With four performances at three camera angles, that’s hours and hours. We shelved it for a while because it would require months of focus.”
With live performances on hold due to COVID-19, he and Weber revisited the project, collaborating as producers—and with Weber’s editing—to turn it into Frank Ferrante’s Groucho. They started rolling out the film on American Public Television (PBS) on April 1, 2022, with air dates listed throughout the remainder of the year. The film is also available for purchase on DVD.
“I Felt [Groucho] Was Speaking Directly to Me”
Ferrante has played the role of Groucho Marx on stage for 37 years. That breaks down to more than 3,000 performances, with stops in more than 500 towns. When I asked him about his favorite Groucho films, Ferrante identified two: Duck Soup and Horse Feathers. He’s been watching Groucho’s films and other sketches since he was 10 years old. In fact, he vividly remembers watching Groucho for the first time in A Day at the Races, particularly a scene between Groucho and Chico by the ice cream cart.
“[Groucho] kept making these wisecracks and asides and he was playing to the camera. I thought it was so fun, like nothing I’d ever seen before as a kid. I felt he was speaking directly to me, which I think is how most of us feel when we watch Groucho Marx in films and on television. He knows how to break the fourth wall.”
Coming Full Circle on Tour
Back in 2014, the meet-and-greet line wrapped quite a ways at the Culbreth Theatre in Charlottesville, Virginia. To my amusement, Ferrante was still wearing his costume and thick eyebrows and mustache when my mother and I reached his table. He signed my program as we exchanged pleasantries.
Ferrante enjoyed hearing my meet-and-greet anecdote on our call, because those encounters with people after his performances are meaningful to him, too. Sometimes he’s surprised by what people tell him in the post-show line.
“I remember being in Kansas City at the Folly Theater, where the Marx Brothers had actually played. This man comes up to the table, about six-foot-two, full beard. He says, ‘I don’t know if you remember me, but I saw your show when I was seven years old.’ I realized I’d been doing this show for a very long time!”
Also, Ferrante finds circularity as he gauges reactions looking out from the stage. “In Alamogordo, New Mexico, in the audience was a 94-year-old woman who had seen the Marx Brothers live on stage in their Broadway tour of Animal Crackers. Next to her was a seven-year-old boy. They were laughing at the exact same improv I was doing.”
Yet, the common thread—and Ferrante’s challenge—is to ensure that audiences are entertained and feel part of the comedy routine, whether they’re aware of who Groucho is or not. This filmed version includes audience members as young as 14 and as old as 96.
“I’m really proud that people from every kind of background tend to enjoy the show. I think the humor cuts across all demographics, which makes me happy because Groucho was the little guy taking down the establishment.”
Advice for Actors Preparing Solo Shows
Writing and acting in your own solo show can be a daunting task if you’ve never done it before. I asked Ferrante what he would tell other actors embarking on that journey. He quoted a pearl of wisdom from the late Hal Holbrook, who performed in the solo show Mark Twain Tonight for 62 years: “Keep it going.”
Ferrante added, “There’s going to be plenty of times in life when it’s going to be challenging. You’ll consider other possibilities and want to quit. That’s very general, but I get what [Hal] said about being in the face of challenges.”
It’s very important for actors to study other one-person shows. There are different types of solo shows: autobiographical, music and performance, socially driven, historical, or some combination of these. For those unsure where to begin, Ferrante suggests researching Anna Deavere Smith, John Leguizamo, Eric Bogosian, Spalding Gray, James Whitmore, and Julie Harris.
“If you fall in love with a particular life, go out there and make a point of getting to know about it. Really study the form and those who came before you. Feel free to reach out to people currently doing one-person shows. I think performing artists are a generous lot, and are willing to share their experience with those who are younger and starting out.”
Lessons from Groucho Marx
We are about 100 years from when Groucho Marx was doing some of his best work. Ferrante regards Groucho as “a fascinating original artist” whose life was full of humor both on stage and off. Sometimes those could be painful moments, such as dealing with anti-Semitism as a Jewish American.
“Humor was a survival mechanism for Groucho. We can turn to someone like Groucho and think there is a way to get through life: humor, comedy, and having a sense of humor.”
When he was 13, Ferrante saw Groucho live. The audience was concerned about the comedian, who had suffered a couple of strokes by then. It was heartbreaking to see their hero mumbling at the podium.
Then someone called out, “Groucho, are you making any new Marx Brothers movies?”
Ferrante observed that Groucho looked up slowly and replied, “No, I’m answering stupid questions.”
“The audience went crazy,” Ferrante said. “In spite of his ill health, the strokes, he used humor to deal with that particular moment.”
Back on Tour as Groucho Marx
Ferrante turns 59 later this month. Despite the challenges of the pandemic, he’s grateful for many things. An Evening with Groucho has evolved greatly since he first brought it to the stage for a 1985 senior project at the University of Southern California.
“I have the show that’s filmed and going to be all over public television nationally. I’m proud to be someone that keeps Groucho in front of the public’s eye as an actor who does other things but [who also] has a particular passion for this role.”
As theaters started to open back up, Ferrante took his show back on tour. He has appearances scheduled in Wisconsin, New Jersey, and California at the moment. The film allows him to share Groucho with people who don’t know the comedian yet. And the tour lets him reconnect with live audiences.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen night to night, nor does my accompanist, nor the audience. I have to make sure I’m completely in the moment and that I roll with it, being open to exchanges with audience members.”
You can see that improvisation and energy in the film—or live, if you get a chance to see Ferrante on tour.
“Often I find the audience is funnier than anything else you can conjure because it’s so real. I like when the audience talks back to me and plays with me.”
For more information about Frank Ferrante’s Groucho and An Evening with Groucho, visit his website. Some stations that already aired the film still have it available for streaming on their websites.