Groucho & Me & Frank Ferrante
For me, it was watching the Marx Brothers' crazy football game in "Horsefeathers" as a young teenager that made me a fan of Groucho for life.
For "An Evening with Groucho" star Frank Ferrante, their anarchist irreverent humor in "A Day At The Races" inspired his career choice.
We talked about it at WVXU-FM for an interview airing 7 p.m. Sunday Nov. 19 on "Around Cincinnati" to promote his Playhouse in the Park show through Dec. 17. (Here's my review of his delightful show, "Hooray For Frank Ferrante!")
One of the coolest things about working at WVXU-FM, after years for the Enquirer, is you can hear Ferrante doing Groucho's voice answering some questions or singing. (I'll post a link here after the broadcast.)
"I saw 'A Day At The Races' when I was 9 years old, and I never laughed so hard," Ferrante said. "It was Groucho and Chico, and that Tutsi-Frutsi Ice Cream scene, where Chico is conning him out of his money, selling him racing tips. And I thought they were so outrageous…
"When you're a 9-year-old kid, and you're watching grown-ups break the rules and misbehave, it's really exhilarating. That's what hooked me. I wanted to be like them, and that's what got me into performing."
Q: What also hooked me was when Groucho looked directly into the camera and addressed the audience – "breaking the fourth wall" – when Chico was playing the piano in "Horsefeathers."
"That's right, Chico was playing a solo and wooing a woman.
Look, I've got to stick around, but there's no reason you folks can't go into the lobby until this thing blows over!
"You can't beat that. I think he was the first in film to break the fourth wall, and address us – the audience in the movie theater."
Q: You recently did "A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum" in Philadelphia, so you're not doing Groucho all the time. What do you do to get back into shape to do Groucho's funny dances? How do you limber up?
"He did that great corkscrew dance. He was very athletic. The Marx Brothers were on the road for 25 years. I've been on the road for 32 years now. The point is: You have to be in shape. I will do light stretching, and I'll vocalize. And the Marx Brothers were the same way….
"Groucho lived a long time. He lived into his 80s. He took good care of himself, he cared about his health. He smoked a little in real life – a pipe – but he was moderate in his behavior, in terms of drinking and smoking. But for this show, I stretch and I do some yoga-like work."
Q: Tell me about "An Evening with Groucho."
"The premise for 'An Evening with Groucho' is what would it have been like to have seen Groucho Marx perform solo in 1935 -- which never happened because he always worked with his brothers Chico, Harpo and Zeppo. So this is what you're going to get. And quite frankly, a third of it is improv – improvisational ad-libs, and that's really the joy of the show because every show is different….
"This show, 'An Evening With Groucho,' I first did in 1985 as a school project [at USC], and has evolved over the last three decades into something that has played in over 500 cities, and I've done it all over the world. To answer your question: It really focuses on the Groucho of the 1930s, the energetic Broadway-era film Groucho. I talk about his brothers Harpo and Chico and Zeppo and Gummo. And Margret Dumont, the famous foil and society matron.
I can see you right now in the kitchen bending over a hot stove. But I can't see the stove.
"All those great insults, that wonderful perverse relationship they had, romantic relationship they had. And there's music, all those Groucho songs like "Lydia the Tattooed Lady."
Oh Lydia, Oh Lydia, say have you met Lydia? Lydia the tattooed lady? She has eyes that folks adore so, and a torso even more so.
"That's the premise: What would it have been like to sit with the funniest man in the world for 90 minutes? "
Q: Is the staging different for the Shelterhouse Theatre from your typical one-night shows?
"The people at the Cincinnati Playhouse have really elevated the production value. It's never had such a fully realized set. When the audience walks into the Shelterhouse, I think they'll be amazed. I am. There's a marquee. And we've incorporated video and photographic images within the piece, and it just picks you right up and puts you into that world, because not everyone knows who he is. I always approach the show as if no one knows who he is, so the show works whether you know him or not.
"The show is 90 minutes, and it's not just me, I must say. I have a remarkable music director by the name of Gerald Sternbach, who was Mel Brooks' accompanist for his one-man show. He was Carrie Fisher's accompanist for her show "Wishful Drinking." He's played for every star just about. He's my straight man in the show. He's my Margaret Dumont, he's my Chico, he's my Harpo. He's my George Fenneman, who was Groucho's announcer on "You Bet Your Life" for 14 years. He's the one who said:
And here he is! The One! The Only!
"And the whole audience would yell 'Groucho!' "
Q: Groucho had so many great lines – I text them back and forth to friends – but do you have a favorite one? Or two? Or three or four or five? And how did you decide which ones to use in the show?
"It’s a great question. People go: Why didn't you put that one in? Or this one? Generally, it's what tickled me the most, what made me laugh the hardest. There's the classic joke that everyone knows, it may be considered the perfect joke. It's not my favorite, but it’s the one that most people know of Groucho:
One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas, I don't know.
To hear more of Groucho and Frank Ferrante and me, tune in "Around Cincinnati" at 7 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 19, on WVXU-FM.
Frank Ferrante's "An Evening with Groucho" runs through Dec. 17 at the Shelterhouse Theatre. Ticket information and show times are at the Playhouse website here.