'Groucho' Is Back : Actor Returns to Where He Cut His Theatrical Teeth

TIMES STAFF WRITER

By now, school days aren't much more than a fond memory for Frank Ferrante. He has graduated from high school, marched through the University of Southern California's drama department and taken his acclaimed stage portrayal of Groucho Marx, currently at the Pasadena Playhouse, to London and New York.

But when he goes back to La Salle High School in Pasadena as an honored alumnus, it all comes back to him.

There's Marie Pederson, secretary to the principal, proudly displaying some old pictures of schoolboy Ferrante (as John Adams in "1776" and Harold Hill in "The Music Man"), and there's the little assembly room where Ferrante cut his theatrical teeth.

And there are the students, 20 members of the La Salle High School Arts Society, just as ready to laugh at or be awed by the smooth-talking actor as were Ferrante's classmates of 10 years ago.

Ferrante, 26, a slim, high-strung man with a frequent look of wide-eyed astonishment, plows right in.

"Well, I hope this is class time, at least," he says to the students, who have just presented him with a La Salle sweat shirt. "Is it?"

"No, it's after school," says one of the students. Ferrante shakes his head regretfully.

There's a special kind of irreverence bred in classrooms where nuns and brothers, like the Christian Brothers who run La Salle, hold the reins tightly. Ferrante slips right into the old back-of-the-room mode.

"Well, let's see," he says. "I have no advice to give you, except . . . " He gives Brother Philip Clarke, the school's principal, a impish glance. " . . . except drop out of school. Go out and live on the streets. . . . Or become a Christian Brother."

Clarke beams good-naturedly.

"What's the difference?" snaps a student. Clarke looks distressed.

"You're lucky," says Ferrante, as the other students groan appreciatively. "You've got a couple of (younger) brothers coming (to the school soon). Brother Philip might be upset, but you're walking tuition."

Ferrante will have some serious advice for the boys later, of course, telling them to find their life's work, "no matter how specialized it is," and stick with it.

"Not all of us are geniuses or great athletes or scholars," he says, "but we all have something to offer."

But that instinct for the whimsical fits Ferrante as comfortably as the summer suit he has donned for this special occasion. It has a lot to do, he says, with his 16-year obsession with Groucho Marx, whom Ferrante first started portraying as a 10-year-old dressing up for Halloween.

"Groucho: A Life in Revue" is Groucho's son Arthur Marx's and Robert Fisher's tribute to the late funny man, tracing his life from teen-age vaudevillian to movie star to game show host to octogenarian cynic.

The most recognizable of the Marx Brothers, Groucho charmed movie-goers as the mustachioed clown with the wiggly eyebrows, deflating the pompous with sly gibes and agile slapstick in such movies as "A Day at the Races" and "A Night at the Opera." Then he amazed television viewers with his hair-trigger wisecracks on the game show "You Bet Your Life."

Ferrante's first exposure to him was as a 10-year-old in Sierra Madre, watching a televised movie. "My friend Rich Ivler came by the house and said, 'Frank, you got to put this movie on,' " he recalls. "It was 'A Day at the Races."' By that evening, Ferrante and his younger brother Tony were reenacting routines from the movie, and Frank was on a headlong search to find out as much as he could about Groucho Marx.

"I became an investigative reporter," he says.

It was that antic irreverence that sucked Ferrante in. "I really didn't understand too well what was going on verbally, but I knew Groucho was impudent and abrasive," he says, sitting on a chair on the little La Salle stage where he once portrayed Groucho in another Marx-Richardson play, "Minnie's Boys." "It appealed to me, I guess, because I was being taught by nuns. Here was Groucho getting away with murder, talking the way I would have loved to have talked to the nuns."

Ferrante's investigative reporting led him to books on the Marx Brothers, nostalgia houses playing the old movies and, eventually, to the aged Groucho Marx himself. It was 1976, a year before Marx's death, and the old funny man appeared at the Ambassador Hotel to promote a book.

"I thought I'd see the man from 'Duck Soup,' but he was ancient," says Ferrante. "He was slow-moving, his eyes were glassy. I thought, 'Oh, my God, my hero's going to get up there and keel over.' "

But on stage, Marx was the instinctive performer again. "I asked him what he thought of Nixon, and he said, 'I hate Nixon. Nixon ought to be in jail,' " Ferrante recalls. "Then someone asked what was really a cruel question. 'You making any more movies, Groucho?' And he said, 'No, I'm answering silly questions.' "

Ferrante's last view of Marx was of his back, as the sad, slow-moving old comic got into a car. The image etched itself indelibly in Ferrante's mind, and it's the image that the actor uses in the play as the audience's final glimpse of Groucho.

"I think it's just as poignant for the audience to see Groucho's back as it was for me, seeing him go through that door," says Ferrante.

All of the attention Ferrante has devoted to Groucho has made him an uncanny imitator of his hero. On stage, Ferrante becomes Groucho, in voice and body. His eyebrows wiggle and, confronted with an enticing flapper, his eyes float seductively skyward. He leaps into an inimitable dance, flailing his limbs around as if they had no bones, singing Groucho standards like "I Really Must Be Going" or "Lydia the Tattooed Lady."

Though the play, which runs through Nov. 5, got a so-so review in The Times, Ferrante won a Theatre World Award in New York in 1987, as well as a nomination by the Outer Critics Circle for the "most striking debut" of the season. That same year, he was nominated for a Laurence Olivier Award in London.

Despite the frequent laughs, this is serious drama, said Ferrante during a tour of his old stomping grounds in the San Gabriel Valley.

"I didn't just want to be a Groucho impersonator--there are so many of them--but to build a character over an evening," he said.

Ferrante drove past St. Rita's Elementary School in Sierra Madre ("That's where the nuns used to push me around"), talked to some old friends at La Salle, then stopped off at a restaurant in downtown Sierra Madre. "The big thing in those days was to come down here and go to the Toys 'n' Patio, which had toys on top of the patio furniture, and buy some plastic paratroopers," he says.

Those who knew him in those days remember him as extraordinarily quick and determined. "He was a creative type of fellow," recalls Sister Patrice Cantrell, Ferrante's eighth-grade teacher at St. Rita's. "His mom could never get him to go to bed early. His mind was always flicking around."

The Ferrante home, now in Arcadia but soon to be in Monrovia (Frank's parents, Theresa and Dominick, are building a new home), is a neat one, with porcelain figurines and family photographs in the living room, and, adorning one wall, New York Times cartoonist Al Hirschfeld's portrait of Frank as Groucho.

Since the Groucho show opened last month, the Pasadena Playhouse has become a sort of family hang-out. There are Ferrantes all over the San Gabriel Valley, aunts and uncles and cousins, all of whom have seen the show numerous times. "I knew about 60 of the people in the audience last night," says the actor. "They're a good audience, but they tend to be a little nervous with you."

Theresa Ferrante, whose husband is a financial consultant, likes to stress Frank's modest antecedents. "One of his grandfathers was a butcher, the other ran a liquor store in Arcadia," she says. "These are hard-working, nitty-gritty people, with no one in the theater. I don't know how Frank evolved out of this."

Not so surprising, insists the young actor. He has always been blessed with a powerful sense of purpose, he says. "I tell kids they cannot quit," he says solemnly. "I have friends who are just floating. It makes me sick to see them with all of that talent, and they're not taking advantage of it."

Does that sense of purpose reveal a deeper link between Groucho Marx and Frank Ferrante? Groucho was a fallible man, who could be vindictive or generous--"a mass of contradictions," says Ferrante.

But he was also a man who overcame a lot of deficits. "Here was a man who corresponded with T. S. Eliot and walked with kings," says the actor appreciatively, "but he never made it past the sixth grade. It's amazing he overcame those odds."

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