At 9 years old, Frank Ferrante saw the Marx Brothers movie “A Day at the Races” and was fascinated. He knew then he’d emulate Groucho Marx.
“They were outrageous and exhilarating,” he said of the Marx Brothers. “It catapulted me to the local library ... and there were a series of events that led to me going into theater and developing a show about him.”
Ferrante stars at 8 p.m. May 17 in “An Evening With Groucho Marx” at the Raue Center for the Arts, 26 N. Williams St., Crystal Lake. Tickets start at $31 at www.rauecenter.org or 815-356-9212.
The show is a re-creation of Ferrante’s PBS, New York and London-acclaimed portrayal of Marx in a two-act comedy. It consists of Groucho one-liners, anecdotes and songs, including “Hooray for Captain Spalding” and “Lydia, the Tattooed Lady.”
Here’s more of what Ferrante had to say about the show and Marx:
Kunzer: Why Groucho Marx? What struck you about the comedian?
Ferrante: Groucho was saying things I couldn’t believe he was saying and doing things I couldn’t believe he was doing. When you’re a kid, it’s a thrill. That was my initial pull. I was a shy kid. He was an alter ego for me and for millions.
I wanted to perform because it seems so free. It looked fun, too. It became a study. I started reading about Jack Benny, Laurel and Hardy, and started listening and watching and absorbing early on. That research and that early exposure led to my desire to study theater in college at USC [the University of Southern California]. There, I put on a one-man show based on Groucho’s life and invited Groucho’s son [Arthur] to see it. It was a big success, and he said, ‘If I ever do a show about my father, I’d like to use you.’ And he did.
It just snowballed. I was in my early 20s playing my comedy hero. It started with an early childhood fascination that morphed into a study and really an obsession with comedy and that style of comedy.
Kunzer: Describe today’s show.
Ferrante: It continues to evolve. It’s very improv-based, very fast moving. I’m constantly changing it. It focuses on the younger Groucho, the Groucho of the 1920s and ‘30s. ... Over a third of the show is audience improvised and interactive, so every show is different. Really the concept of the show is, ‘What if Groucho Marx had been offered an opportunity to put on a one-man show in 1934, a show without his brothers?’ Which he never did.
Kunzer: How similar in real life are you to Groucho?
Ferrante: As a boy, there was a time I knew much more about Groucho than I did myself. My journey had just begun, and I was following a man whose journey had gone through 85 years. We’re different human beings with different challenges, but in a way, he’s a mentor, so I learned a lot from him.
I love to read. He was a voracious reader. My interest in Groucho led me to a life in theater. We’re different people, but his influence on me is profound. To me and anyone who encounters him, he’s a great artist and perhaps the funniest man the country produced.
I was exposed to many different worlds because of Groucho Marx and his rashness, his irreverence. I learned about rhythm and timing and character commitment. I think we probably have a very similar work ethic. I love to work, and I like getting better at what I do.
Kunzer: Do you every get tired of doing Groucho?
Ferrante: Never. I keep growing with it. When I started this role I was 21, and I’m 51. I could do it until I’m hopefully 85 myself.
Kunzer: Favorite Groucho movie, song?
Ferrante: I could watch ‘Duck Soup’ over and over. I like ‘Lydia, the Tattooed Lady.’ ... I love his insults with Magaret Dumont. ‘I can see you right now in the kitchen bending over a hot stove, but I can’t see the stove.’ They were perfect together.
Kunzer: What type of audience do you typically draw?
Ferrante: I realize most of the audience doesn’t know who he is anymore, and the show needs to hold up despite of the fact he’s no longer as present as he was.
His original audience is gone, though there are some people who remember ‘You Bet Your Life,’ not the Groucho I’m portraying, the very physical, athletic, wise-cracking persona. The Groucho that came later was more mellow, laid-back, yet still witty. I’ve always said you don’t have to be a Groucho fan to appreciate the show. If you like outrageous comedy, this is a fun choice.