No one is safe tonight from this show!
—The only warning Groucho gives the audience.
When I was a kid, I looked forward to the weekends because that meant Family Film Festival, the original movie channel, hosted by the late actor Tom Hatten (November 14, 1926 – March 16, 2019). He presented movies from all types of genres and decades. I saw many road movies starring Bing Crosby, Bob Hope and the beautiful Dorothy Lamour. Bob Hope starred in the titular character of “Sorrowful Jones” (1949) as a gangster turned baby sitter. And then came the Marx Brothers. They made no sense to me at the time. The trio didn’t resemble each another, so that was a red flag. Why didn’t the curly hair one ever speak? Is he ill? Whenever Groucho asked Harpo a question, he would reply with a horn, a kazoo anything but his actual voice. Then, Chico (pronounced Chik-o) the one who spoke with a bad Italian accent. Then, all the names needed with the letter “O.” Strange family.
I couldn’t understand Harpo (Arthur “Harpo” Marx, November 23, 1888 – September 28, 1964). His routine was mostly physical which helped him become understandable…sometimes. As the first born and the first to die, Chico looked like he lived inside a filled ashtray from his favorite bar at the racetrack. Chico was a major gambler and womanizer. The last two brothers Milton “Gummo” Marx (October 23, 1893 – April 21, 1977) and Herbert Manfred “Zeppo” Marx (February 25, 1901 – November 30, 1979) would sometimes be in a few movies with their most well-known brothers.
Frank Ferrante was hysterical as the wisecracking actor and “You Bet Your Life” quiz show host (1947-1961). He studied the late icon’s timing, mannerisms, speech and his famous poses of lowering his body while flicking his cigar, raising his bushy eyebrows and wearing his signature horn-rimmed glasses. Ferrante doesn’t miss a beat. Dressed in dark slacks, a black coat with tails, the transformation was amazing. One of the many fun parts on watching Ferrante, is when he turns his legs inside out and hops. In between the comical singing and dancing, Ferrante manages to tell heartwarming family stories. He loved working with his brothers. His mother Minnie (Minnie Marx born Miene Schönberg, November 19, 1864 – September 13, 1929) was the original momager. She would get her sons in the spotlight and made sure they remained there. Ferrante was genius in responding so quickly and with fire. He recalls a time with a reporter where Groucho shuts the journalist down.
“Are you making another Marx Brothers film?”
“No, I’m answering stupid questions.”
He tells a female audience member. “You got pretty eyes. At least one of them.” It’s these rapid comebacks that the real Groucho was known for. His freedom of speech provided aches from laughing so hard. His replies began with a compliment and end with an insult. The person doesn’t realize that Groucho was offending them until he walks away. On a softer note, yes, even Groucho Marx can be thoughtful. He speaks fondly of co-star Margaret Dumont, affectionately called Maddy, who played a privileged wealthy woman in all the movies, who gets courted then jerked by Groucho.
Groucho: Do you follow me?
Margaret Dumont: Yes!
Groucho: Well, you better stop following me, or I’ll have you arrested.
A Night at the Opera (1935)
Groucho considered Dumont as the 5th Marx Brother, even though he has two more brothers. “Oh, Maddy,” as he lovingly thinks about her.
She was the ideal “straight man. She did get the jokes about her, she once said, “‘There is an art to playing the straight role. You must build up your man but never top him, never steal the laughs.” Ferrante gave a hell of a show. Accompanying on this wild ride of quick wit was piano player Gerald “Jerry” Sternbach. Sternbach intermittently would interject whenever Ferrante turned to him for a response. Any response. Ferrante wants to make sure the skilled pianist is keeping up. Sternbach without speaking, gets in the last word. Ferrante becomes Groucho right on stage. Adding his black, grease-paint mustache, bushy thick eyebrows and horned rimmed glasses, Groucho comes to life and invites the audience into his world. As Groucho, Ferrante is a natural at telling great stories as the real-life Grouch0 did in his actual life.
Frank Ferrante’s Groucho, was a part of the Solo Shows Festival at Sierra Madre Playhouse and ended this Sunday the sixth. For more information regarding other shows log on to SierraMadrePlayhouse.org located at 87 W Sierra Madre Blvd in. Or call (626) 355 4318