For years and years, my friend Mark Evanier has been posting items on his blog about Frank Ferrante and his one-man show, “An Evening With Groucho.” Unfortunately, I never got to see the show in person because, although he’s performed it in more than 500 cities, St. Louis was never among them.
I’ve been a confirmed Marxist since I first learned about the brothers in my early teens, when there was a national revival of interest in their work, particularly among people too young to have seen them in their heyday.
There was a Broadway show, “Minnie’s Boys,” co-written by Groucho’s son, Arthur, as was “Groucho: A Life In Revue” (which Frank starred in while only 22). I didn’t see either of those theatrical productions, but my bookshelf was full of titles like “Why A Duck,” “Hooray For Captain Spaulding,” and “Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Sometimes Zeppo.” I tracked down a rare copy of Harpo’s autobiography, “Harpo Speaks.” I practically memorized the A&M double album made from Groucho’s 1972 appearance at Carnegie Hall. In 1974, my girlfriend and I took the Long Island Railroad into Manhattan to the Sutton Theater to see the Marx’s 1930 movie “Animal Crackers,” which was finally being re-released after decades on a film studio shelf. And when a local station started airing reruns of Groucho’s classic TV show, “You Bet Your Life,” I devoured those, too.
During those years, I bought this piece of art, which still hangs on the wall of my home office:
So, when Mark mentioned that PBS would air a filmed version of Frank’s show, I kept an eye on my local listings. Sadly, KETC didn’t have it on the schedule and — in response to a tweet I sent asking when it might air — the station said it had no plans to add it.
Frustrated, I went to Frank’s website and discovered there’s a DVD version, for which I happily laid out $25. As soon as it arrived, I popped it in my DVD player and watched it with a large grin on my face all the way through.
Ferrante is nothing less than terrific as Groucho. He not only nails the voice, but the attitude, timing, and eyebrow-wiggling, as well.
He tells stories about Marx Brothers movies, kindly leaving out the truly awful ones they made in their last few years, including “Go West” and “Love Happy.” He reminisces about their mother, Minnie, and their uncle, Al, who was half of the vaudeville team Gallagher and Sheen. He discusses Chico’s constant gambling problems (reputed to be the reason they made those final, below-standard features) and Harpo’s sweetness.
He sings, he dances, he even has the Groucho twisted-leg move down. Technically, it’s not a one-man show, as Gerald Sternbach accompanies on piano (and duck calls), but Ferrante is in the spotlight for the full 90 minutes, even as he interacts as Groucho with several audience members. After more than 3,000 performances over 38 years, he’s gotten quite good at it.
Among the songs Frank sings are classics like “Lydia The Tattooed Lady” (from one of the lesser Marx Brothers films, “At The Circus”) and two Bert Kalmar/Harry Ruby tunes from their 1933 movie, “Horse Feathers” (my favorite). One is “Everyone Says I Love You,” which all four Marx Brothers took a crack at — including Harpo, who whistled it to a horse — and the other is “Whatever It Is, I’m Against It,” which Groucho performed on screen.
But in the case of “Frank Ferrante’s Groucho,” I think Mr. Marx would be for it.