Groucho returns for 'Evening' at Miller Symphony Hall
When Frank Ferrante performs "An Evening with Groucho," 8 p.m. May 18, Miller Symphony Hall, Allentown, the ghost of Groucho may be with him.
First, a personal aside. My father, Paul, once told me that when he was an usher at Miller Symphony Hall (then The Lyric), the Four Marx Brothers (Groucho, Chico, Harpo and, Zeppo) performed their musical-comedy, "The Cocoanuts," there before it was a Broadway hit (1925 - '26) and film (1929). Allentown was a "try-out town," where Broadway-bound shows or stage acts were tested for audience reaction.
That apparently isn't the only local connection. In one of their stage ad-libs, so another story goes, Harpo chased a chorus girl across the stage during a monologue by Groucho, in an attempt to throw him off. Instead, Groucho quipped, "First time I ever saw a taxi hail a passenger."
Harpo then chased the woman back across the stage in the opposite direction. Groucho, checking his watch, said, "The 9:20's right on time. You can set your watch by the Lehigh Valley." The reference was to the Lehigh Valley Railroad.
Ad libs are key to "An Evening with Groucho," Ferrante says in a phone interview last week.
"What sets it apart from most shows is the interaction with the improv," Ferrante emphasizes.
"Every show's different. Every audience is different. I don't know what I'm going to say night to night."
Ferrante performs about 30 of his two-act "An Evening with Groucho" shows annually. For more than 20 years and 2,500 performances, he's entertained audiences from New York to London to PBS television.
The Chicago Tribune dubbed him "masterful." The New York Times called him "artful."
In recent years, Ferrante performed as Groucho three times at the State Theatre for the Arts, Easton. This will be his first time at Miller Symphony Hall.
Ferrante is accompanied on piano by Jim Furmston for Groucho songs, including "Hooray For Captain Spalding" and "Lydia, the Tattooed Lady."
"An Evening with Groucho" focuses on the younger Groucho with anecdotes and a lot of one-liners from Marx Brothers' movies.
"It's always a kick," Ferrante says. "It's a belly-laugh show. My job is to get people to laugh as hard as possible, invoking his style."
That Groucho style includes the Groucho costume, in which Ferrante looks very much like the iconic vaudeville, movie and TV star. "I guess it's close enough of a resemblance to make it work," Ferrante says.
"The experience that I'm trying to conjure is what it might be like to experience Groucho Marx on stage in 1934," Ferrante explains.
That would be between the movies "Duck Soup" (1933) and "The Night at the Opera" (1935) when the Marx Brothers were on hiatus. "It was a peak time in his life when he was working with his brothers."
Groucho (1890 - 1977) never actually did a solo act during that time. "It never happened. This should give some sense of what it might be like in that period."
Groucho was host of "You Bet Your Life," a comedic quiz show for 14 years, beginning on radio in 1947, and moving to TV in 1950, continuing through 1961.
"In terms of an act, the closest thing he came up with as solo was when he was 82 and did the Carnegie Hall concert in 1972," Ferrante notes.
Ferrante first portrayed Groucho Marx in 1985 for his senior project at the University of Southern California, where he received a BA in theater. Ferrante invited Groucho's son, Arthur Marx, and his daughter, Miriam Marx, to attend the show and they did.
Miriam Marx was to attend a May 11 show by Ferrante at his alma mater, LaSalle High School, Pasadena, in a fund-raiser for the school's arts program. "I got my start there," said Ferrante, who did plays there.
After seeing Ferrante in his college show, Arthur Marx, a playwright, hired him to be in "Groucho: A Life in Revue," which he wrote with Robert Fisher. The show was done at a Kansas City dinner theater, moved to off-Broadway in 1986 - ' 87 and played London for six months.
Arthur Marx died two years ago. "I was very close to Arthur," says Ferrante, who has the rights to the Groucho Marx material for his show and is on the board of Groucho Marx Productions, Inc., Los Angeles.
Ferrante became a Marx Brothers fan at age nine. "I saw 'A Day at the Races'  when I was a kid. I never laughed that hard. It was exhilarating.
"My interest has expanded from then on. I went to the library and looked into the comedians of that time: W.C. Fields, Laurel and Hardy ..."
Ferrante played Groucho off-Broadway in "The Cocoanuts" in 1996 and did regional productions of "Animal Crackers" at Goodspeed Opera House, The Huntington Theater, Paper Mill Playhouse and Arena Stage.
Actor-director-playwright Ferrante has other shows in his repertoire.
Ferrante developed the premiere of the Pulitzer Prize finalist, "Old Wicked Songs," at Walnut Street Theatre, Philadelphia. He also starred as playwright-director George S. Kaufman in the one-man play he wrote, "By George."
He has performed as Caesar, a Latin lover, opposite Liliane Montevecchi, Joan Baez, Sally Kellerman and Martha Davis (of rock band The Motels) in "Teatro ZinZanni," a European-style circus improv comedy show.
What makes the Marx Brothers, and especially, Groucho, such endearing and enduring entertainment? Says Ferrante:
"It think it has to do with his irreverence ... It's what keeps cutting through. They were rule-breakers. They said things that we would never do in life.
"They trained on the road. They're were brilliant craftsmen to the point of genius. Of course, they were brothers, so they knew what they were doing. They had three styles of comedy: verbal, nonverbal and dialect.
"They were the little guys who took down the big guys. That never gets old."
After his Miller Symphony Hall show, Ferrante will be in the lobby to sign autographs of DVD copies of his PBS special, "Groucho: A Life in Revue," which will be available for purchase.