He was nine years old when he saw his first Marx Brothers film, A Day at the Races.
"That night I remember acting out scenes from the movie with my brother," says actor Frank Ferrante. "From that point on I became absolutely intrigued by Groucho Marx."
So intrigued, in fact, that while getting his theater degree at the University of Southern California, he wrote his master's thesis on the comedy of Groucho. That evolved into his one-man show An Evening With Groucho, which he first performed while still at USC, and which he reinterprets Monday and Tuesday at the Caldwell Theatre.
Ferrante invited Groucho's son Arthur to the 1985 premiere at USC and was only three months out of college when he starred as Groucho in Arthur's award-winning, off-Broadway production Groucho: A Life in Revue. That show opened in New York in 1986 and later spent six months on London's West End.
"It was pretty heady for a 23-year-old," remembers Ferrante, now age 34. "It just snowballed from those college shows."
Ferrante calls An Evening With Groucho "a celebration of Groucho-style comedy." In it he reenacts a couple of routines from Marx Brothers' films, including the Captain Spaulding, African Explorer scene from Animal Crackers. He also performs ten Groucho songs, notably "Hooray for Captain Spaulding" from Crackers and "Lydia the Tattooed Lady" from At the Circus.
Additionally, Ferrante ad-libs for fifteen minutes during each performance, making each show different. "There are not many people alive today who saw Groucho live, and that's why this show exists," explains Ferrante. "Groucho was a wild and dangerous performer."
According to Ferrante the show concentrates on Groucho's early stage and film career, the Groucho of Duck Soup: "It focuses on his peers from that time -- his brothers, Charlie Chaplin, W.C. Fields, Greta Garbo -- through anecdotes."
Ferrante recalls being attracted to Groucho's irreverence right away. "How impudent he was," the actor notes, "and how he got away with saying and doing things that no one else could get away with in social situations.
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"I knew in some way he was making fun of authority, because I was under authority 24 hours a day. As I got older I began to appreciate the wit of the Marx brothers."
Groucho's outlandish appearance was also exciting to the nine-year-old Ferrante. "So the Groucho thing became a side interest as I developed an interest in performing as a child," Ferrante says. "Groucho was always an influence."
-- John Ferri
An Evening With Groucho will be presented Monday at 8 p.m. with matinees Monday and Tuesday at 2 p.m. Tickets cost $24. Shows are at Caldwell Theatre Company, 7873 N. Federal Hwy., Boca Raton. Call 954-930-6400.