Frank Ferrante describes himself as a new vaudevillian: Just like the performers of the past, he's on the road every year, performing his one-man show, "An Evening With Groucho," in which he channels the acerbically brilliant Groucho Marx.
Having played the most famous of the Marx Brothers for 30 years, Ferrante has developed his rituals.
"I love setting up my dressing room," he said. "I lay everything out the same way."
FOR THE RECORD: In the Jan. 6 Calendar section, an article about the stage show “An Evening With Groucho” said that star Frank Ferrante portrays Groucho Marx from ages 19 to 55. Ferrante plays Marx from ages 15 to 85.
He does some light stretching. He does some vocalizing. He spends 2 1/2 to three hours on tech for the show, including the sound check and talking to the spotlight operator.
"I like walking inside the theater," Ferrante said. "I get a sense of it, the feel of it, the energy of it. I like to throw my energy around."
This weekend, that energy comes to the Pasadena Playhouse, a venue he's played several times. And for good reason, playhouse artistic director Sheldon Epps said in an email interview.
"It seems to have perennial appeal for audiences young and old," Epps said of "An Evening With Groucho," which Ferrante will perform with pianist Mark Rabe. "I think that is because it's a wonderful reminder of how brilliant Groucho was to those who knew him well from movies and TV and for younger audiences who may have only a sort of cursory knowledge of him. Frank's 'incarnation' of Groucho is chillingly exact."
Ferrante, 52, recently became friends with Hal Holbrook, who has toured for more than six decades in his Tony Award-winning "Mark Twain Tonight!"
Holbrook emphasized just how difficult a one-man show can be.
"It takes tremendous time and dedication," Holbrook said by email. "This is a shaky business. Sometimes you get plenty of jobs, sometimes you don't. If you have been crazy and diligent enough to work yourself to death putting together a solo like Frank's and mine, why would you give it up? You might need it. Any day.
"It takes a certain kind of basic insanity and desperation to do what Frank and I are doing. And a love for our subjects."
Ferrante was a kid growing up in Sierra Madre when a friend told him to watch the 1937 Marx Brothers comedy "A Day at the Races" on television.
"That got me hooked," Ferrante said during an interview in the playhouse's ornate library. "I just saw the movie recently, and now I know why I fell so in love. He is inspired in that film. His physicality is balletic and manic. I remind myself to return to the source material when I go back on the road."
Ferrante got to see Marx 40 years ago when Groucho appeared at the Ambassador Hotel to promote a book. Ferrante even got to ask a few questions. And after the event, he followed Marx to his car.
"I have a blurred image of myself with Groucho," he said.
"An Evening With Groucho" began when Ferrante was a student at USC. One of his drama professors asked him to mount a show in exchange for eight units of credit.
Ferrante found his vehicle in "An Evening With Groucho," written by John Bay. Ferrante contacted actor and singer Elaine Stritch, who had been married to the late Bay, about getting the rights to the show.
Stritch said "it's all yours," so in 1985 Ferrante starred in "An Evening With Groucho" at the Bing Theatre at USC. Marx's son, Arthur, and his daughter Miriam came to a performance, as did Morrie Ryskind, the screenwriter of the Marx Brothers' 1935 film "A Night at the Opera."
Arthur Marx and Robert Fisher had written the play "Groucho: A Life in Revue," which was playing the dinner theater circuit in the U.S. and Canada with Gabe Kaplan and Eddie Mekka. When the play was booked at a dinner theater in Kansas City, Mo., without an actor to play Groucho, Arthur Marx recommended Ferrante.
The show was a hit. "The guys who owned the dinner theater in Kansas City wanted to produce it in New York," Ferrante said. "They raised the money, and within a year of graduating from USC, I was off-Broadway."
He won a New York Theatre World Award for his performance, and he was nominated for a Laurence Olivier Award for comedy performance of the year when "A Life in Revue" played in London in 1987.
A truncated version of that show, which chronicles Groucho's life from the ages of 19 to 55, premiered on PBS in 2001. After the special aired, Ferrante received so many requests from theaters to do Groucho on stage, he resurrected "An Evening With Groucho."
"It was an economical way of me to do it," he said. "It was myself and a piano player. As I started doing it, I found out I could improv with this, so improv is what has become special."
The show keeps evolving. The material is more in line with Groucho's "at-home persona," Ferrante said. "I can go all the way into the back rows and into the balcony and play [with the audience]."
Epps is still astounded by how quick Ferrante is in his interactions with theatergoers. "This, of course, makes each performance special and unique," he said.
Ferrante's improvisational skill has fueled another popular comedic performance for the last 15 years: his outrageous Latin lover Caesar in the European-flavored circus Teatro ZinZanni, where he appears four to six months a year in Seattle.
He hopes to do "An Evening With Groucho" off-Broadway and in London. "I feel like I am at the top of my game," Ferrante said.
'An Evening With Groucho'
Where: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave.
When: 4 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday
Info: (626) 356-7529, www.pasadenaplayhouse.org
Running time: 2 hours