Frank Ferrante, Actor-Director-Producer-Episode #196

Mar 29, 2022 | 1 comment

The brilliant, multi-talented Frank Ferrante, has enjoyed a 35-year career in the theater as an actor, director and producer.

At age 23, he debuted Off-Broadway in the title role in Groucho: A Life in Revue, which was written by Arthur Marx, son of the legendary comedian Groucho Marx. For that role, Frank won New York’s Theatre World Award and a New York Outer Critics Circle nomination. He revived the role in London’s West End, where he was nominated for the Laurence Olivier Award for ‘Comedy Performance of the Year.’

Since then, he’s reprised the role more than 3,000 times in over 500 cities throughout the world primarily in his touring solo show An Evening With Groucho, which was filmed at the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park and re-titled Frank Ferrante’s Groucho for broadcast on PBS.

The Chicago Tribune named Frank a 2019 top ten theater performer for his work as comic host, The Caesar, in the cirque spectacular, Teatro ZinZanni – a role he’s played for 20 years.

At Philadelphia’s Walnut Street Theatre, he directed and played the lead role of Pseudolus in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. The Wall Street Journal called it one of the country’s top 10 performances of 2017.

In 1995, he directed and developed the world premiere of the Pulitzer Prize finalist Old Wicked Songs.

On television, he played a speaking mime on Rob Corddry’s Emmy Award-winning comedy, Childrens Hospital. His voice can also be heard on the animated series SpongeBob SquarePants and Garfield.

In October 2021, Frank received a ‘star’ on the Palm Springs Walk of Stars for his contributions to theater.




Read the Podcast Transcript

Steve Cuden: On today’s StoryBeat…

Frank Ferrante: I’ve gotten more out of the tough audiences, certainly than the good audiences. You can spin off on some hilarious tangents when you have an effusive crowd of 1200 people. But I think material really can emerge from the challenge of playing what we perceive as a tougher house. Before I go out there, Steve, I always say share the joy. I’ve always said that from the beginning. Share the joy. The joy of it all. What I felt when I first experienced something funny, a good movie, a television show, comedian, dramatic piece that moved me and made me cry, that’s joy. That’s all Joy. I always say it before I go on, share the joy.

Narrator: This is StoryBeat with Steve Cuden, a podcast for the creative mind. StoryBeat explores how masters of creativity develop and produce brilliant works that people everywhere love and admire. So join us as we discover how talented creators find success in the worlds of imagination and entertainment. Here now is your host, Steve Cuden.

Steve Cuden: Thanks for joining us on StoryBeat. We’re coming to you from the Steel City, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. My guest today, the brilliant multi-talented Frank Ferrante, has enjoyed a 35-year career in the theater as an actor, director and producer. At age 23, he debuted off-Broadway in the title role in Groucho: A Life in Revue, written by Arthur Marx, son of the legendary comedian, Groucho Marx. For that role, Frank won New York’s Theater World Award and a New York Outer Critic Circle nomination. He revived the role in London’s West End, where he was nominated for the Laurence Olivier Awards for Comedy Performance of the Year. Since then, he’s reprised the role more than 3000 times in over 500 cities throughout the world, primarily in his touring solo show and Evening with Groucho, which was filmed at the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park and retitled Frank Ferrante’s Groucho for broadcast on PBS. The Chicago Tribute named Frank, a 2019 top 10 theater performer for his work as Kona Coast, the Caesar in the Cirt spectacular Teatro ZinZanni, a role he’s played for 20 years. At Philadelphia’s Walnut Street Theater, he directed and played the lead role of Pseudolus in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, which the Wall Street Journal called one of the country’s Top 10 Performances of 2017. In 1995, he directed and developed the world premiere of the Pulitzer Prize finalist Old Wicked Songs. On TV, he played a speaking mime on Rob Cory’s Emmy Award-winning comedy Children’s Hospital and his voice can be heard on the animated series, SpongeBob SquarePants and Garfield. In October 2021, Frank received a star on the Palm Springs Walk of Stars for his contributions to theater. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that we’re both graduates of the USC School of Dramatic Arts, though from slightly different eras.  So for all those reasons and many more, I’m truly beyond thrilled to have the extraordinary talent better known as Frank Ferrante as my guest on StoryBeat today. To paraphrase someone you know well, I hope you won’t refuse to join a club that would have you as a member. Frank, welcome to the show.

Frank Ferrante: Thank you, Steve. It is a delight. Thank you so much.

Steve Cuden: It is really a pleasure to have you on the show. So let’s go back to your beginnings. At what age did you think of performance as something you might want to do with your life? How old were you?

Frank Ferrante: I may have been about nine years old. Maybe it was a confluence of events exposure to… maybe even younger. I watched TV like most kids of my generation. This is the sixties. It may have been the mid-sixties, and there was Paul Winchell, Jerry Mahoney, Knucklehead Smiff, Paul Winchell being the great ventriloquist. His show was on locally in Los Angeles, and I was completely immersed in it. I got lost in it. I was transfixed by this clubhouse world that Paul Winchell had created with these dummies, and I wanted to be part of it.

Steve Cuden: Did you do ventriloquism?

Frank Ferrante: I had the dummies, but I couldn’t quite… I was no ventriloquist, but I had a dozen of these dummies in my room that I collected, including a Knucklehead Smiff. I was fascinated by it. Then I would watch the Lucy Show, and I thought Lucy was my aunt. She was right in my living room when I was three years old. The Mothers-in-Law with Kaye Ballard and Eve Arden. I thought they were my family. It was real to me.

Steve Cuden: So you had a vivid imagination even as a kid?

Frank Ferrante: Oh, yeah. I got lost. I got lost in it. It seemed much more fun than just hanging out in the suburbs which is what I was—

Steve Cuden: Did you imitate people back then?

Frank Ferrante: I started imitating people when I was a boy. Rich Little was around in the early seventies. Basically I was imitating Rich Little imitating people from WC Fields to Nixon to Groucho to Paul, you name it. So that was fun for me. I liked becoming other people. I liked getting lost, I think at an early age. My first job was when I was probably 11, in show business. I got paid $2.50 to operate marionettes at the Sierra Madre Puppet Theater workshop, which is where I grew up. The woman, Steve, that owned, ran, and operated this puppet theater workshop, her name was Virginia Austin Curtis. She had designed, sculpted Mortimer Snerd for Edgar Bergen, probably the greatest ventriloquist. Maybe the most known ventriloquist in the last hundred years.

Steve Cuden: Of course.

Frank Ferrante: She had this incredible talent as a sculptor. She had created her own puppet called Clippo, The Boy Clown, which was a boy clown dressed like a sailor. It was adorable. She had success with it. She toured in Vaudeville. So you’d go into her workshop in my neighborhood, and there were photos, Steve, all over the walls. Vaudeville, her with Phil Silvers. She played with the Three Stooges. She went to the White House and performed before Franklin Delano Roosevelt. It was all this history there, and I was intrigued. I thought, wow, what’s going on here? So that was my introduction to maybe probably Vaudeville.  Then around that same time I saw my first Marx Brothers movie, which was A Day at the Races, and that was it for me. These guys were wild. The Marx Brothers. They couldn’t be controlled. They couldn’t be held down. As a kid who was taught by nuns and playing by the rules, watching Groucho, Harpo and Chico just let loose, was cathartic.

Steve Cuden: You loved the anarchy of it.

Frank Ferrante: I loved it. I wanted to treat the nuns the way Groucho treated Margaret Dumont, Steve. I didn’t know it then, but now as I get older, I look, why am I so… you’re a fan as we were discussing before. I mean, there are those of us who get it or don’t get it. We get it, love, we love them.

Steve Cuden: Love it. Yeah. I was going to say, there’s no question. If you are into the Marx Brothers, you’re deep into the Marx Brothers. If you don’t get them at all, forget it.

Frank Ferrante: Yeah. There’s no halfway with them.

Steve Cuden: There’s no halfway. So, did you get laughs when you were a kid? Were you getting laughs then?

Frank Ferrante: The first time I was getting laughs was as Groucho, strangely enough. I hosted the talent show in eighth grade at St. Rita’s School where I grew up. The acts were just terrible and long and just pathetic. The kids were stirring in the audience. I was Groucho. Probably wearing my mother’s mascara for a mustache and eyebrows and my dad’s sports coat. He’s a stockbroker. At the very end, I said something like, well, none of the acts were any good so nobody went, something to that effect. All the kids went wild. I made some snarky Groucho-esque remark, and it was like lightning had hit me. It was the first time I’d gotten a big laugh from an audience. I went, what was that? It was adrenaline. I didn’t know what adrenaline was. I thought, this is good. That was the first time I got a laugh. I was probably 12 or 13 years old. What a thrill. Here I am how many years later. Forty-five years or more later still doing it.

Steve Cuden: So many people that I talk to and from my own experience as well, there’s something chemical that happens when you get that acknowledgement from a crowd as opposed to from just your parents or your siblings or your friends or whoever. When there’s a crowd of people, there’s something else that takes over. Do you know what I mean?

Frank Ferrante: Yeah, absolutely. I’ve never really thought about it too much until today. Strangely enough, I was listening to a production from my high school. I went to La Salle High School, this all-boys Catholic school that was well known for its performance of musicals and their plays. All the girls schools would come to audition for our musicals. They do Man of La Mancha. My introduction to the musical, was seeing Man of La Mancha on stage. I was just decimated, blown away by it. But I was listening to a production I had done. It was the first time I’d been in a musical with Anything Goes as Sir Evelyn Oakleigh. I was listening to it today on my computer. I had it transferred from audio cassette. I was listening to the laughs I was getting and my articulation. It was like at 16, 15, I already seemed like I was 30 in a strange way. It was really wonderful to hear the explosion of laughter I was getting with the dialogue. It was an odd thing. But what you talk about, that adrenaline, there’s nothing quite like it and I think I’ve been chasing it ever since.

Steve Cuden: Well, it’s addictive, isn’t it?

Frank Ferrante: Yes, it is.

Steve Cuden: When you don’t have it, you kind of crave it again. Now you’ve had a whole lot more of it than I have. I’ve had tastes of it in my life. But you’ve had it for your whole career. The little bits and pieces that I’ve had over time, it’s like, yeah, I’d like to do that again. You just want to go back and get more of that. It’s just a wonderful feeling. It just elevates you.

Frank Ferrante: Yes. At first it felt like it was completely selfish. It was all about me and my response. But certainly as I’ve gotten older, I don’t crave it the same way I used to. I got to have to be honest with you, which is in a way terrific, the adrenaline is settled after really 30 plus years of touring and one-nighters and all of that. All that energy and adrenaline that’s required.

Steve Cuden: Well, to a certain extent, I assume it’s become a business for you. It’s not a hobby or an advocation, it’s your business.

Frank Ferrante: It’s my business. But also, I really enjoy the fact that the audience is responding more than my own response over the years. That to me is part of the, how can I make them laugh as hard and as much as possible with this character or the interactive comedy that I’ve been doing unrelated to Groucho.

Steve Cuden: Alright. So you found your way into the theater when you were in high school, and then you went eventually to higher education including eventually to USC. Did you get training along the way? Did you train anywhere, or did you train anywhere aside from USC?

Frank Ferrante: Not particularly. I mean, I took some classes as a kid but not in an intensive kind of way, Steve. Mostly it was the doing of it. It was in high school. I did all the plays and then going to USC was a big break for me.

Steve Cuden: How did they help you? In what way?

Frank Ferrante: I had amazing mentors. They really were open to making a difference. They were engaged. John Blankenship, as we talked about, who was the directing teacher there. In my case, I was really influenced by William C. White, Professor White, who had a class, which I think is genius. I wonder if this happens all the time, Steve, which was called directed research in which a student is allowed to create their own class. I didn’t realize this could be done. My class was producing An Evening with Groucho. One person shows. Bill White said to me when he took me to his office, what do you want to do, Frank? What is your interest? What are your aspirations? I said, well, I love comedy. I love performance. I love a comedy of Avengers. I love the Marx Brothers. I told him I’d seen a show about Groucho Marx, and I thought I could do something like that. He says, well do it. I said, what do you mean do it? I said, we’ll give you eight units, and you produce it, you publicize it, you find the director, you find the musical director, everything. Find the set designers. Find the stage. It was remarkable. That’s what I did. I’m still doing the same type of thing today, all from that experience that was from Bill White. So I broke it in a church hall. Funny, the idea of a tryout. I tried it out here locally at my church hall. Then in August of ‘84, and in spring of ‘85, I did it on campus at the Bank Theater. I invited everyone who was associated with Groucho Marx, who was still alive. From Jack Lemmon to Lucille Ball, all the Marx Brothers writers who were surviving his family. The key players that showed up at the Bing Theater, Steve, were Arthur Marx, Groucho Marx’s son, who was a playwright, who had a show about his father Groucho, that had been touring around with Gabe Kaplan and others. Groucho’s daughter, Miriam Marx Allen. She was at the Bing Theater the same night and Morrie Ryskind, who co-wrote Animal Crackers on a Night at the Opera, was an Academy Award winner, a Pulitzer Prize winner, for a BI sing with the Gershwin musical. He’s there, 89 years old. It’s his last public appearance at the Bink Theater on my 22nd birthday there in the audience.

Steve Cuden: Wow.

Frank Ferrante: It seems pretty packed. I think it holds about 600 people.

Steve Cuden: That’s right. About 550. That’s about right.

Frank Ferrante: Yeah. So it was sold out, and I am nauseous and trembling before I went on. But I went out there and I did it. It was a two-act comedy with piano accompaniment. I started experimenting. If you go up, if you flub, if you’re with this kind of character, you can improvise. I learned that early on and that saved me and helped boost the evening. After the show that night at the Big Theater, there was a reception at the Annenberg building there. Arthur Marx said, if you ever do a show about my father again, I’d like to use you.

Steve Cuden: Wow.

Frank Ferrante: He stuck to his word, but I’m jumping around. To get back to USC, it was USC that really created that path for me.

Steve Cuden: All right. So I do want to go back half a step, because it’s important to get us to just there. As a young man—you were 11, 12, 13—you saw A Day at the Races, that was your first Marx Brothers experience. Did you then decide to immerse yourself in Marx Brothers movies and their world?

Frank Ferrante: Completely. I spent a lot of time with the local library in Sierra Madre, and back when it was microfilm, microfiche. If you wanted a magazine from the twenties or thirties, they’d go back to the periodical guides. I read everything I could read about him. My favorite book was Son of Groucho. But what was happening was I was expanding my interest in humor. The more I read, the more I wanted to learn. The more I wanted to digest. Steve Allen wrote this wonderful book called The Funny Men, and there were chapters on comedians of certain era. The Jimmy Durantes and the Jack Bennys and so forth. I did a lot of research, and Groucho Marx was alive at the time. He was in his eighties. So when I was a kid, Groucho Marx was alive. At three ages, Steve, in reruns on television, on one of the three channels we got, there’d be Marx Brothers Week, Channel Five, and KTLA. You’d see Duck Soup and all the Paramount films. Groucho’s was in rerun, so that would be at 8:00 PM. Can you imagine this was like at prime time. You could see a Marx Brother’s movie at 11 o’clock that same night, you can watch Groucho Marx in his midlife years. So that was the thirties. Now you can watch him in the 1950s and reruns of You Bet Your Life. Then you can watch him on the Merv Griffin Show in his eighties. This is 1974 or 5.

Steve Cuden: Still killing.

Frank Ferrante: Still killing it. I got to meet Groucho too, which was incredible, which was an interesting experience because I got to play Groucho and ultimately in Arthur Marx’s play, Groucho: A Life in Revue, which I’m skipping ahead. So I am 13 years old. I’m looking at 86-year-old Groucho. I’m looking at Groucho kind of saunter off into the sunset into his town car. I’m seeing him in his silhouette not knowing that one day I’d be playing him. At that age, closing the show in silhouette from behind with that beret. It’s chilling to me. It was literally 10 years to that month I was in previews at 23. What was remarkable to me, Steve, is that the way he used humor as a survival mechanism. He was stroke ridden. I remember being there and my dad took the day off of work, and there were hundreds of people there. Young people, the college age and younger. I was in grammar school. We all loved him. He was a hero as he was for you.

Steve Cuden: Absolutely a hero to me. No question.

Frank Ferrante: It was kind of sad at first because he was even older than he was on those talk shows. I’ve seen him on talk shows where he could barely utter a syllable, and he was in bad shape. He gets this podium. I’ve told the story, but it’s worth it because it was a remarkable moment in that he still had it, as you said, he still was killing. Someone asked Groucho the question after he mumbled through it. Can you hear me, Isaac? Can you hear me, Isaac? No one could hear him. Looks like he’s going to keel over. Then someone asked Groucho Marx this question. Groucho, are you making any new Marx Brothers movies? He looks at the person and goes, no, I am answering stupid questions. The audience explodes because there was so much tension, Steve. A woman asked Groucho, Groucho, what do you dream about? He looked at her and said, not you, beautiful. He was saying the things we were thinking and wanted to say, doing things in his films. Anyway. So to me, he was exhilarating. I wanted to be a comic actor because of him. I didn’t want to just be him. I didn’t realize that this would be part of my career through life. That’s been an honor. But it’s led to a life in the theater. He’s an artist. He’s a great artist, and he’s inspired so many of us. Still does. We’re still talking about him and writing about him, and they’re making shows about him. You can’t get away from it.

Steve Cuden: Well, clearly, you’ve had major lifetime karma with him and his character.

Frank Ferrante: That’s true. And his family.

Steve Cuden: And his family. Yeah. That’s pretty awesome. I don’t know too many people that can say that about someone in the public eye like that, where they’re that connected. I don’t know anybody.

Frank Ferrante: It was strange. I felt they were two of my closest friends, Arthur Marx and Miriam Marx Allen. They didn’t get along. They had their curmudgeonly sides as did their father, of course. It wasn’t Groucho for nothing. But when they would call me, they would call literally back-to-back. I mean, it was an odd thing. This happened dozens and dozens of times. I cannot tell you how many times I’d hang up and then the next one would call right after. I don’t know if I’ve shared this before, but the first time I saw Miriam Marx, after I performed at USC, she invited me to her home in San Clemente. I’d drive up and I’m 22. I get out of the car, and I’m walking toward her house, and I walk into the house. Later she told me, Frank, when you got out of the car, I could have sworn it was like my father was walking into my home again. Then we were rehearsing the show. So that was Miriam, she was family. My grandmother knew, my parents knew her. My uncles and aunts and cousins knew her, and my friend. She was part of the whole group. There’s a whole story there. After we played New York with Arthur’s show, that’s a jump ahead. We did it in London on the West end, and we’re rehearsing. We’d already played a year in New York, Steve. Now we’re rehearsing in Soho and I’m singing as old Groucho. I’m doing that. A farewell monologue to his brothers. Goodnight Harpo, I never told you how much I loved you. You are a sweet and gentle man, and I loved you very much. Then I sing, hello, something to that effect. I sing, I’ll stay a week or two, I’ll stay in the summer through as old Groucho, but I am telling you, I must be going. That’s the end of the show. Look at Arthur, he’s a tough character. It could be a callous character at times, and I loved him. He had tears in his eyes, and he looks at me, goes, Frank, did you know my father? He knew I didn’t know his father. I’d already known Arthur, it’s like, how could I have known his father? I was a boy when he passed away. Those are the odd moments.

Steve Cuden: Well, you also have one just quirky fate-filled thing, and that is that you kind of look like him.

Frank Ferrante: Enough.

Steve Cuden: Yeah. You’re not bright blonde and pale. You kind of look like Groucho. So that’s very helpful when you already start out with that look, I guess it would be.

Frank Ferrante: Yeah, absolutely. I was thinking about how I first prepared for it using a tape recorder and just repeating the lines over and over again when I was in that church hall at one o’clock in the morning. The repetition was so key. The repetition in terms of the capturing that physicality. I have enough of a resemblance to carry it off, which is great.

Steve Cuden: Well, there’s no question. You’ve made a study of it. Everybody that has ever imitated him, and many people have imitated him. Everybody does the slightly bent over walk with the cigar and the whole nine yards. That’s just standard stuff. But you take it to another level, it becomes him. You become him and that’s what’s freakish. It’s like you’re watching those things that I’ve seen of you now. I told you earlier, I’ve never seen you perform live, but I’ve seen many clips of you, and you become Groucho Marx. So I think that’s an extraordinary thing. Do you think of yourself as an impressionist? An imitator? How do you think of yourself?

Frank Ferrante: Well, I’ve seen myself as an actor who’s wound up being a comic actor and a director. I have a good ear, but I don’t think there are other people who sound more like Groucho Marx.

Steve Cuden: Oh, you sound a lot like him.

Frank Ferrante: Yeah. I just don’t see myself as an imitator or impersonator. I try to embody his spirit. I loved him, and he meant a lot to me. Early on when I was preparing for the USC performance, I was going to one person shows. What the hell did I know about a one person show at age 20? I went out to attend every one person show in LA County. I saw Jack Klugman perform as Lyndon B. Johnson at the Westwood Playoffs at the time. I saw a Dorothy Parker one person show. I saw a gentleman by the name of Eddie Carroll who did a remarkable show about Jack Benny, one person show at the Mayfair. I’m just dropping these names for those who know, a lot of these venues don’t exist anymore, or have different

names. But the granddaddy of them all, of course, was Hal Holbrook as Mark Twain.

Steve Cuden: That I saw. I saw him do that. That was unreal.

Frank Ferrante: It’s unreal. What happened was, I went to see him in Glendora at Citrus College, 1984. I was 20 years old. I thought, I need to see what this is about, what the form is about. It was a transporting experience. He transformed. I never saw him actually. He just was. He never transformed. He comes out, there he is Mark Twain Holbrook.

Steve Cuden: It was an out of body experience for me to see him do that live.

Frank Ferrante: Yeah, I agree.

Steve Cuden: You became friends with him? Yes?

Frank Ferrante: I did. After the show, I figured I’ll bring my show poster back and he signed my show poster, Hal Holbrook. Then I read his book. I don’t know if you’ve read it, Steve, but anyone who loves the theater should read his book called Harold. Next to Act One by Moss Hart, I think this is right there in terms of explaining what it’s like to work in the theater, creating the theater, to sustain an existence in the theater. It’s a great book. I’m reading this book, and I’m getting choked up. This is about eight or nine years ago. I’m getting teary. I’m getting chills because I’m relating to his experience playing these tiny venues and playing places that may not care. Trying desperately to make people get what you’re doing. To love your character the way I love him. The way Hal loves Mark Twain. Playing outdoors, trying to make an audience pay attention to you when you’re outdoors. All of it. The financial issues and being away and the fragmented lifestyle and being away from your loved ones. I wanted to meet him. So I sent a note back through a friend in Santa Clarita at a performing arts center he was playing in. This is 2014. He came back and he said, Frank, I loved your letter. I love how you love the tradition that you respect the tradition, our tradition, the theater. Give me a hug. It was a thrill. Then I invited him to see my show the year later, 2015. He comes to see me in Los Angeles. I get to introduce my hero at the end of the show. One of the greatest thrills of my life. Here we are. What is it, 30 years later, 31 years later? From the time I had seen him. I brought the same poster back to have him sign again. This time he wrote to Frank, an original, something like that. When you’re playing someone else’s life, you want to be thought of as giving it an original take. I guess my point is, I approach it as an actor, not an imitator as does Hal and still because he’s still on YouTube and it’s all been recorded.

Steve Cuden: Sure.

Frank Ferrante: We became friends, intimates, and I’d go over there and pick his brain. He’d lived to be 95. I was at his 95th birthday, and he was certainly becoming diminished because of health and extreme old age. He was a gentleman and a genius.

Steve Cuden: Just Deep Throat alone. If that’s all he ever did was Mark Twain and Deep Throat, that would’ve been good enough. But he did so many wonderful things.

Frank Ferrante: He breaks my heart, Into the Wild, that film Sean Penn directed. It’s a small role. He was nominated for an Academy Award, and he was about 82, and he’s still like, he’s right there. There’s so much work that he did. He was playing Death of a Salesman. He’s playing Lear. He is playing Shylock. The guy was remarkable. He made me feel good about being an actor. He said, what we do is different than what we do on the film. What you do on stage is everything.

Steve Cuden: Alright. So let’s start talking about process now a little bit in terms of what are those differences? What is the major difference for you between playing it on a set or on a stage, or when you’re doing it in front of a camera?

Frank Ferrante: Well, I rarely work in front of a camera. Even the show that I filmed for PBS recently, that’s going to be on soon, I didn’t alter it, which I should have. I didn’t temper my performance. I didn’t pull back. Ideally you should play it smaller and a little more subdued, but I just did what I do.

Steve Cuden: But the Marx Brothers are playing it way over the top.

Frank Ferrante: Absolutely. So I couldn’t change it. If this was devised and we knew it was actually going to happen, I may have taken a slightly different approach. But do I regret the way I did it? No. I mean, it really captures the energy of a live performance, which we’ve been away from for the last couple of years due to a scenario.

Steve Cuden: Of course.

Frank Ferrante: But to answer your question, I don’t have enough work in the theater or in the film or television to really answer that question. I’ve been in a few scenarios where I’ve had to play it very small. I like the theater. I like playing over the top big characters. I love playing Max Prince and Laughter on the 23rd Floor which was roaring. It’s based on Sid Caesar. He’s insane and the stakes are high. I love playing big characters like that. I love playing Pseudolus because stakes are high. It’s just freedom. I love actors like Zero Mostel, who can play it big, yet you believe it, but it’s anchored. I like that. Groucho is an extreme character and performance, but he is a subdued character in life. I like sitting down when I’m storytelling as Groucho and just talking like this, Chico will give you the shirt off his back, which was generally the one he borrowed from you the day before. Groucho had this amazing tool and vocally, there’s so much to his persona and his style. He could play Fay and he could play high, and he could be falsetto. He can be bass. He could be doer. He could be manic. It’s a great creation that he came up with to survive.

Steve Cuden: He developed that character over a really long time in Vaudeville with his brothers. I mean, he didn’t come out of the womb that way. That was developed.

Frank Ferrante: Absolutely. It was developed in a way to make it last. If you’re playing the Deep South, it’s different than playing the Northeast. You find ways to get an audience in every part of the country. In their case, sometimes, certainly Canada and overseas and the UK they played. I have a similar experience as a touring comic performer. I play the Caesar character that you referenced, which is also over the top wild character. I’ve done it for a couple of thousand performances. It’s in the circus world, also huge appetites. He’s got a libido. He can’t drink enough. He can’t eat enough. He loves people. He loves life. It’s that part of me that needs to come out because I’m basically a shy person.

Steve Cuden: Oh, really?

Frank Ferrante: I was a shy kid. So these are attractive characters for me. The Caesar character, that’s become kind of a thing if you go to theater in Chicago or did in San Francisco or Seattle. I played it in Amsterdam of all things where English is a second language. It’s a Latin lover character. I’m an Italian American, and I can tap into this guy. Everyone knows that type of character. I just put my own spin on it. He loves everything, Steve. He loves men, women, dogs, cats. He just has passion and joy and doesn’t judge anyone. Yet he also has kind of that Groucho-esque kind of ability to tease in a way and be a wise guy. But mostly he’s this joyous character and it’s very interactive. I love interactive comedy. I’ve spent a lot of my years doing the Groucho Show, which is a third improvised, and this other character I do is almost entirely improvised. A very thin storyline.

Steve Cuden: Wait a minute. Time out. Now, you’ve really fascinated me. This I did not know. So the Groucho Show is a third improvised.

Frank Ferrante: Yes. Crowd work, Steve. It’s stuff that you know and love. All those songs that he sang in the movies on Broadway, storytelling, lines from his movies, bits from his films. I’ve got a piano player at Kibbitz. But what I’ve learned from doing it from 1984 to the present is that not everyone knows who the hell he is, and I have to keep them interested. If I’m playing 10 weeks at Milwaukee Repertory Theater, or seven weeks at Cincinnati playoffs, that’s a subscription house, they’re not going because they’re Groucho fans. They’re going because they’re theater fans. Now, if I’m doing three days at the Pasadena playoffs, I can sell out, those are diehards. The people that know me personally, know my work, but also are Groucho fans and Marx Blues fans. So the show has to work, whether you know who Groucho Marx is or not. It’s an act of will. It’s an act of will, almost, and it’s experience.

Steve Cuden: So every show is a very different show then.

Frank Ferrante: Yes. Now, do I repeat some of the improv that I created before? Yes. Do I find new bits every performance? Yes. It’s insane. It’s a wild show. I never know what’s going to happen from night to night, nor does my pianist, nor does the audience. That’s what makes it interesting for me. I’m not big on tribute shows. I appreciate the art of imitation, but I’m not Rich Little or Marilyn Michaels, who’s a friend who I love, or Frank Gorshin, who I adored. So many, John Binder, these people are unbelievable. There’s a slew of them, obviously. That’s for my childhood era. But I love interactive comedy and crowd work. Both of those worlds.

Steve Cuden: So you’re actually bantering with the audience.

Frank Ferrante: Yeah. Oh, completely throughout.

Steve Cuden: That’s fascinating.

Frank Ferrante: It’s the only way I can do it. Steve, I look at their faces as I was doing the show in the nineties and early 2000, and they don’t care. They don’t want to hear another Marxist song necessarily, or they don’t want to hear another story about someone they may not have heard of. So I ended up dropping some of that set material in lieu of interaction, of improv. I remember it was 1995, it was at the Herberger Theater in Phoenix. I think I did two weekends there, which at the time was a long run. Normally, I was doing one-nighters if I was doing it at all. I was barely doing that show. I just jumped off the stage once because I had the opportunity. I had some freedom because there was going to be other shows that weekend. So I figured, oh, go ahead, step off the stage. I started talking to people like a standup comic. There’s a lot of standup components to what I do. What’s your name, where you from, what do you do? I can do 10 minutes, 15 minutes, and I can bring people together. I bring people on stage. It gives it a currency. It doesn’t feel of another time. I think that’s why I’m still able to do it. I think that’s why PBS has elected to put it on, because I think that’s what keeps it fresh. I am aware that it needs to be kept fresh for this purpose.

Steve Cuden: I was going to say the show is completely fresh. You’re never following the exact same script two times. How stressful is that for you? Is it you’re always walking the tightrope?

Frank Ferrante: Yeah, it is stressful. I mean, it’s just the nature of that beast. I’m nervous. We’re all nervous before we go on, but there’s something about not knowing exactly how that audience is going to respond. They are part of my show, that audience. It’s like anything. I’ve had a lot of bats, Steve, and the more I do it, I think the better I’ve gotten. The adrenaline is high. It really is jumping off a cliff. I’ve been one of the fortunate ones in that I’ve worked fairly consistently most of my entire adult life. That’s good fortune. That has been a blessing, whatever you want to call it.

Steve Cuden: But the key I have to imagine is that you have an incredibly deep knowledge of the entire canon of Groucho Marx.

Frank Ferrante: Yeah. I do. Enough. I filter. I do a lot. I come up with my own stuff, but you’re right, I’m able to take a one life. There are other fans that may know the material better than I do, quite frankly. But I know his style so well, his inflection, his approach, his attack. I know when to pull back, generally, now, when to lean in. All of it. It’s a nuanced experience and it’s all happening as any standup will tell you in that one beat. Steve Martin’s book on Born Standing really sums it up best in terms of what you’re experiencing when you’re making something up on the spot. You have to be aware of everything, what happened, what’s happening the moment before you make the improv, the moment of the improv and what’s happening right after, all of it happens like that. Then you build from that.

Steve Cuden: It must be also very fulfilling when you pull it off.

Frank Ferrante: Oh, it’s a great feeling. It’s great because you’re out of your own body and you can’t believe it’s happening. It’s hard to describe to people when you’re just riffing like that. We’ve seen great riffers in our lives, like Robin Williams and Groucho certainly, to a certain extent though. We didn’t get to see him live on stage, which is the way to have experienced them. But there are so many great standups out there who know how to riff and can just take nothing and make it happen. It’s a great high. When you’re on a roll, there’s nothing quite like it. Then I get credit as an actor, comedian. But Groucho gets the credit for that too, which makes me happy. As someone who feels indebted to this master, the fact that I can perpetuate a style in his name and likeness is really satisfying. As you say, it’s rewarding.

Steve Cuden: I imagine it must be. So now let’s talk about Caesar again. You are saying that he’s even more improv than Groucho.

Frank Ferrante: He is and it’s also my own creation. The look, the sound, the shtick.

Steve Cuden: So where did he come from?

Frank Ferrante: He’s a lounge, kind of a bit of a lounge lizard in terms of the look, in an elegant way. I wanted to make fun of machismo a bit. The kind of guys that walk into a room and take over the room. I grew up around some powerful males, and my dad is one. He’s nothing like this character, but he is a takeover guy. That’s the energy that I grew up with. But I thought this would be kind of making fun of… he’s kind of a combination of Dean Martin and Liberace. He’s got a coolness, but he also has a bit of Mel Brooks in him, and Zero Mostel in him. It came from something I knew. I wanted to tweak showbiz types and dominant male characters and make fun of them.

Steve Cuden: How did it come about? How did you get involved? Did they approach you? Did you approach them? How did that start?

Frank Ferrante: Well, this is interesting, I think. I was doing a benefit as Groucho at Pierce College, and they were raising funds for chorale. I knew the gentleman who ran the chorale. He said, would you do this? I was out of work, and I thought, okay, I’ll do it, and maybe it’ll be fun, it’s a little stipend involved. Well, I found myself moving this 10-foot grand piano alone less under half an hour before the show and I’m getting angry now. Anger is great for comedy, it turns out, and I am pissed. The show’s opening, and I didn’t realize that these guys are going to be singing for 20 minutes, and I have a 90-minute two act show to do. It’s bad enough, as you know, when someone goes up there and introduces a show and thinks they’re funny, a producer or a presenter, and you’re going, we’re dead. We’re dead. He just killed the show, or she just killed the show. Anyway, I go up there and I end up kind of mocking the chorale and I’m feeling just like all this—

Steve Cuden: As yourself?

Frank Ferrante: As Groucho.

Steve Cuden: As Groucho.

Frank Ferrante: So I enter from the house as myself. I become Groucho. Then I start doing callbacks to their act and I just ripped it up. It was a four people sold out standing ovation. In the audience was someone who’s quite known, by the name of Stuart Gordon, who was a writer, producer. He wrote Re-Animator. He’s in the audience. He wrote, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, the original version of that before they Disneyfied it. A brilliant guy. He came from Chicago Theater. His best friend was Norman Langil, who had started a theater company, this cirque show called Teatro ZinZanni, which was playing on the Embarcadero in San Francisco. He contacted Norm Langil. I got a call from these guys, and it was from their casting director, and I didn’t know what the hell they were talking about. Teatro ZinZanni? I could barely pronounce it. I’d never heard of it. Then they flew me out to see it, Steve, and it was the most remarkable… Now you’re a man of the theater. I had never seen anything like this. It all took place basically on the water, on Pier 27-28 on the Embarcadero in San Francisco, under a hundred-year-old spiegel tent. Elegant. It kind of had plush lush vibe to it. It was like plush velvet, burgundy tones and fabric and stained glass, and hand carved wood. The show was basically a variety show, it was vaudeville. All the stuff I’d read about as a boy—and I always wanted to be a Vaudevillian—was under this tent. It was high-end Vaudeville, and it still is. It still exists in Chicago. I still do it there. So I watched the show, and I don’t know who works, it was kind of a faux restaurant vibe, so you had performers playing matradees and actors, and there were stars in the show. Joan Baez was in the show. Liliane Montevecchi was in the show who became a dear friend of mine, not this particular production, but in other productions of the show. But I go there and there’s this amazing group, this troop of performers from all over the world, aerialists, acrobats, singers, dancers, comedians, brilliant interactive comedian by the name of Kevin Kent, who did drag. Brilliant. Yes. I’ve never seen any entertainment in my life like this, Steve. Talking about it becoming an addictive, I’m addicted to something. I’m still doing it 20 years later. So within a year I’m hired. I thought they want me to play Kevin Kent’s role. I’m going to be in drag. I’m going to be playing an evangelist. I’m going to be playing a matador. I thought I could do that. I can imitate. No, we want you to come up with your own shtick. That’s how the Caesar came about. I sat down with this director, Stefan Haves, and we started creating this character and bits together. I do about a third of the show, it’s a three-hour extravaganza, full band, I mean, 300 people in the round. All the action happens within a nine-foot diameter. So you have airless above your head, I’m standing on tables, you have people juggling above you. It’s Vaudeville at its best. It’s burlesque, and it’s been running since 1999.

Steve Cuden: And entirely improv.

Frank Ferrante: Well, my show, like I said, there’s a thin little story. I’ve got my little bits, but I bring people on stage, and I interact with eight people in the show, in three different sets. There’ll be like a six-minute set, a 12-minute set, then a 20-something minute set. It’s just me and creating these scenarios involving the audience as characters. There’s nothing quite like it. One of the joys of my life is doing this show.

Steve Cuden: Has it ever gone awry where something just went completely kaplooy? How did you fix it, if that?

Frank Ferrante: Well, it’s early on. It was hit or miss. It’s, you learn trial by error, as we say. I’ve never been hit, which is good. Maybe just once I was slapped. That was early on. It was early on. But things would always go wrong. People would drink. I once threw someone out of the tent. I literally took someone out by the shoulders and removed them. That was early on, as I tried to figure out how to handle an audience. It was like being thrown into a lion’s den. You’re in the middle, it’s like the Colosseum, and you got to figure it out. That’s what I felt my experience was like. I have to go by my wits. It was do or die. I had a baby at the time. I would’ve done anything. So it’s interesting under duress, what you’ll come up with. That’s what happened in that case.

Steve Cuden: You call yourself shy, but I submit you’re very brave.

Frank Ferrante: Well, I guess so in a way.

Steve Cuden: Not everybody can do that.

Frank Ferrante: I had no choice, I felt like. What else was I going to do, Steve? I didn’t want to wait tables. I didn’t want to be a publicist, which I have to do all the time to create awareness. Maybe I am brave. I’ve become brave, that’s for sure. But I think at the core is a pretty shy person. But others would say, what are you talking about, Steve? Well, this to me is why I create these characters so I can get all that out. I’m playing out a lot of my own psychosis, neurosis madness, pain, delight comes through this character of the Caesar. He’s real to a lot of people and to me. People seem to like living vicariously through this uninhibited character. That’s what I felt about Groucho. Groucho exhilarated me. The Caesar character, I think it’s an exhilarating character. I like those. I like playing these mad men. But I wanted to say something. I think what was important is that I’ve learned to do things that maybe I didn’t want to do often. I didn’t want to do that benefit. It led to 20 years of work. I didn’t want to do that $5 show at the Tamarind Theater Equity Waiver Theater playing a five-minute role as a 70-year-old German director when I was 28 and dropped out of a heart attack in Sing. I didn’t do accents. I really am not an imitator. I can get things down if I practice and work my rear off. But again, other people are spectacular at dialects. I can get there, but it’s not natural for me. So that $5 job that I did led to someone seeing me. This is in 1990 and I was out of work, basically. I was happy to do the $5 job just to be working, to be around theater folk. Someone was in the audience, the sister of someone who did the load in for Groucho in New York, who had a theater in Bellport, Long Island, the Gateway, what your show I’m sure has played many times there. The Gateway Playhouse.

Steve Cuden: It probably has.

Frank Ferrante: They told their brother, say, I saw Frank Ferrante do this little scene where he cropped at us with a heart attack as a German director. Comedy. That guy calls me up and he goes, you want to do Groucho here? I said, sure, this is the show I’d already done in New York and London. He goes, I’ll do it. But I said, I’d like to direct it. He goes, well, you do. I said, yeah, I think I can direct the show. I’ve done it. I did in New York. In London, I played the lead. I can think I can do it. So I do it in Bellport at the Gateway and who comes to the show? Bernard Hobart of the Walnut Street Theater. This is in 1992. He books the show on the spot to play the Walnut.

Steve Cuden: Wow.

Frank Ferrante: So now I’m directing at a major house in the country doing Groucho. I’ve been working for that theater for almost 30 years from the $5 job that I said yes to.

Steve Cuden: You never know where it’s coming from, do you?

Frank Ferrante: No, you don’t. Milton Berle said to me, another kind of crazy mentor said to me, Frank he says, do everything. Do everything. I thought, gee, he’s not very discerning. Then I got it. He’s like, yeah, say yes more than no, in other words. You don’t know who you’re going to meet. You don’t know what kind of friendships you’re going to meet or what’s going to come of it. Work begets work and friendships beget more friendships and opportunities.

Steve Cuden: As a writer, as a director, as a producer, the adage in Hollywood is always take the meeting.

Frank Ferrante: Yeah.

Steve Cuden: It does not matter whether you want to take the meeting or not. Always take the meeting. You’re saying the same thing. Always take the gig assuming you’re able to. You say yes more than no because you may not get another opportunity. So you may as well take it, and then you don’t know what will come from it. It’s a good segue to talk about directing. Because I did want to talk to you about directing for a moment. You enjoy that process. The process of directing. Yes?

Frank Ferrante: I love it.

Steve Cuden: What is it about it?

Frank Ferrante: I like being a guide. I love the theater. I love actors. I love designers. I love writers. I love all the participants. I relate to them. It’s my family. These are my people. I like storytelling which sure helps if you’re a director. I’ve seen great directors and I’ve seen miserable directors. I am an actor, and I like to think I’m an actor’s actor. I’m the kind of director that will whisper a note into an ear. I’m able to coax a performance out in a way that I think is gentler than what I’ve experienced in my career at times.

Steve Cuden: Okay. Have you had directors beat you up? I don’t mean physically, I mean, psychologically.

Frank Ferrante: I’ve had a couple that were just pretty nasty, not necessarily to me but to people around me and that affects the process. You can’t create. You’ve got to give a cast and an actor freedom. You need to give them space and a comfortable environment to just kill it and take chances, as you know, in all the great performers that have been in your shows. You know what it takes. I like sculpting shows. I love color. I love sound. I love dealing with costumes. I like creating the palette. I like conceptualizing. I’ve maybe directed 25 shows. But it’s something that I really love to do. With a new work, I’m a good editor. I like tweaking. I’m not a writer, but I’m a good editor. I write on the floor with characters, with improvisation. I have so much respect for writers. It’s all in the writing. Everything’s writing. But in developing a show like Old Wicked Songs that I was very proud of, I got its first booking at the Walnut Street Theater, and its independent space. Studio space. I got to help craft that show with the playwright. He wrote it brilliantly. As a director, you get to have those discussions about material, what goes, what stays. I understand rhythm, and I understood the music of that piece. It was a Jewish themed piece. It was a two-hander played in New York. Bob Hoskins did it in London. Ultimately, it was a Pulitzer nominated piece. I’m very proud of that. It’s something I never knew would come into my life. I’ve directed a lot of Neil Simon. In a way it’s been looked down on over the years because it’s done so often, and amateurs do it. So people see that, and I think he’s such a great craftsman.

Steve Cuden: He is a great craftsman. Unfortunately, what happened over time, I think, is that his work became consumed by the thousands of sitcoms that were out there, and those rhythms and that timing. It became old after a very long… I mean, it had a long haul on it. I think he will eventually come back into favor again, given enough time, because the sitcom has started to fade away. I think then he’ll come back because he’s a superior writer to what you get otherwise. You certainly, especially having done Groucho as much as you’ve done, you understand rhythm naturally. It’s an innate thing for you. Yes?

Frank Ferrante: Yes. I grew up listening to his voice and watching and listening to Jack Benny. I was immersed in all from Durante and Hope. All of them are in me. I think you were probably the same way. I grew up watching and listening to those voices. I love, of course, George S. Kaufman. I did a one man show about George S. Kaufman, because I love George Kaufman. You can’t sell tickets to his show about George S. Kaufman, necessarily. But it was a pet project, and I thought it was important to share his life.

Steve Cuden: Your innate understanding of rhythm and timing, it helps you as a director, because then you understand how the flow of the show works even though you may not be in it.

Frank Ferrante: I can hear a show. I can watch a show, and I know when something’s off by half a beat. I just know. I can watch any show and go, this is what I would’ve… it’s easy to be the critic. I do have that, I have to say. When I’m listening to bits and new material, I know how it should… I just know how it should be. You know what I’m talking about as a writer.

Steve Cuden: I do. Writers hear things in their head, and frequently what comes out of actors’ mouths is different. Sometimes if you’re lucky, it gets plused. Frequently, it doesn’t. Frequently it goes the other way and it’s a little frustrating because you want to make it so, but even a director can’t make it so. You have to coax it to be so. You have to find a way to work it.

Frank Ferrante: Yeah. Those are period pieces now back to Simon and certainly Kaufman and Hart. You need actors that understand it. There are not a lot of actors anymore that understand that kind of rat-tat-tat rhythm.

Steve Cuden: Nope.

Frank Ferrante: Tempo. I’ve directed Laughter on the 23rd Floor twice, 20 years apart, and played the lead role, Sid Caesar. I’ve done it three times, actually. Directed it twice, both times at the Walnut Street Theater. Imagine 1997 and 2017. But to get to the point, if you have seven out of nine actors that get it, that’s not enough. It goes from being spectacular to being good. That’s very good. You need nine people that get it. Now, I’m able to pick. If you’re in the regions like I am directing, you can bring them in. Philadelphia has an amazing pool of actors. You can pull people from New York. But still, that doesn’t guarantee that those actors are going to get… style is everything.

Steve Cuden: Every cast, there’s a chemistry that either gels or sometimes doesn’t. That chemistry is mystical. It’s not something that you can contrive.

Frank Ferrante: You’re absolutely right. Sometimes it just is. Sometimes it just isn’t. What can you do? All you can do is bring your best game and all your decades of experience and good spirit.

Steve Cuden: I have to imagine it works the other way as well, that sometimes the audience chemistry works better than others.

Frank Ferrante: Oh, yeah. Well, of course. You know how that is.

Steve Cuden: How many times have you done a show—any of your shows, Groucho, or anything else—where the audience just wasn’t with you? Was there something you did to get them to you?

Frank Ferrante: Yes. You learn tricks over time. My attitude has changed. My thinking has changed about audiences. I go out there loving them hard, and it’s a great. Actually, it’s interesting. I used to resent older audiences when I was younger, matinee crowds, because I wasn’t getting what I wanted. I thought, what are you doing? This is the opportunity. So what I would do in the frustration was I would do wackier crazier improv. I would have to pull more out of myself and my psyche and play more. This material would become part of the performance after, I’ve gotten more out of the tough audiences, certainly than the good audiences. You can spin off on some hilarious tangents when you have an effusive crowd of 1200 people. But I think material really can emerge from the challenge of playing what we perceive as a tougher house. Before I go out there, Steve, I always say share the joy. I’ve always said that from the beginning. Share the joy, the joy of it all. What I felt when I first experienced something funny. A good movie, a television show, a comedian, dramatic piece that moved me, made me cry. That’s joy. That’s all joy. I always say it before I go on, share the joy.

Steve Cuden: That’s a kind of a psyching yourself up into the energy of the moment.

Frank Ferrante: Absolutely. Well, it takes it out of me. It takes it away from me. It’s not about me. It’s a reminder that it’s not just my own experience. This is a shared experience. I’m the storyteller at that moment. That’s my job. When I am in that tent, it’s in the round and you feel like you’re around the campfire again. It’s like, we’ve gone back thousands and thousands of years. The stories are being told. It feels like you’re, we’re all around the campfire. I’m the crazy clown trying to conjure response and connect and tell stories. For me, that’s what it is.

Steve Cuden: It’s still fun for you.

Frank Ferrante: It’s so fun. It’s fun for me. If it’s fun for me, it’s certainly fun for them.

Steve Cuden: Yep. For sure.

Frank Ferrante: It’s funny. Steve, as you know someone will say, gee, it looks like you’re having so much fun. No, it’s a very studied. I’m acting like I’m having fun. Sometimes it is fun, but mostly it’s completely contrived and concocted and crafted. What are you going to say to someone in the audience, though? No, I’m not having fun. I’m an actor and it’s my job to do this. I don’t want to make people feel bad about that.

Steve Cuden: No. It is something that you do, and you do so well that they can’t… my imagination tells me in all the years that you’ve been performing that you’ve had days where you just didn’t feel like going on. You got up in the morning and didn’t feel like it, but you had to get there. You have to work your way to it.

Frank Ferrante: Yes. That’s certainly true. If someone dies, in our business, you still go to work. Someone hands you divorce papers, that happened to me one time right before I went on, I had to jump off as a client, hello everybody, and go out there with great energy and joy and be the ring master. That was my job. But I have to say that the warmest experience I ever had was following some of the worst news. I remember coming out there and it was like this. I was bathed in love, from what I don’t know why that happened, but that’s what happened. For me, that’s been the constant relationship in my life. The longest relationship in my life, is this relationship I have with the work and with what I do. That’s a terrific thing because it represents a lot. It’s all these relationships have come out of the work. Lovers and loves and friends and colleagues. It’s a beautiful world, as you know, that we are in.

Steve Cuden: It is. It is not true for everybody. But if you can make your way through it to where it’s a career for you, it can be extremely fulfilling. But there are many people that can’t get there for one reason or another. They can’t hack it. They can’t afford it. They can’t deal with it. Whatever it is. Because it’s not the easiest life.

Frank Ferrante: No. No, it’s not. It hasn’t been easy for me. There are challenges.

Steve Cuden: Sure.

Frank Ferrante: Particularly if you’re in the world of stage. For stage, you’re not dealing with film on TV and TV money, film money. You know what people get paid in regional theater and you know what it’s like. You have to work a lot of weeks to put together…

Steve Cuden: A living.

Frank Ferrante: Yeah. A living. It’s not easy. A lot of our colleagues and peers have had it rougher than ever in the last two or three years.

Steve Cuden: Oh. The last couple of years. Well, we’re having this conversation, because this show will last for a long time. But we’re having this conversation sort of a couple of years into Covid, and there was no theater for a while. You had to sit it out. What did you do during that time?

Frank Ferrante: I stayed connected via the internet. I created shows online for my Caesar character. I created variety for a travel show and had guest stars on, like Joan Baez and Joey Fatone. Who else was on that show? A couple others, Tony Horton and Puddles the Clown. It was like my idea. It was like a variety show. I stayed engaged that way. I kept doing videos. I did a performance right here in my living room two weeks into the pandemic, thousands of people, which surprised me, watched it. I just sang songs from shows I’ve done and gave a tour of my home and the memorabilia. The big thing that really came out of it was editing the PBS special. It was a beast of a project, Steven, that it was filmed over four performances, three camera angles, and that’s a lot of footage. When you’re working, there’s no time. Dreya Weber is the director of the show and the filmmaker. She did it and I was over her shoulder. That’s what I accomplished, which was a relief. So now I have this lasting record of An Evening with Groucho which started it all for me.

Steve Cuden: That’s going to be released April of 2022. This show will be around for a lot longer or beyond that date. But if you’re hearing this show before April of 2022, that’s when it will be released. That’s when you should try to find it. Then afterwards it should be available.

Frank Ferrante: That’s right. It’ll be everywhere. It’ll be streaming. It’ll be on PBS. For four to eight years it’s on DVD. So that was a big deal. I wanted that show to have a, like you said, it’s not an easy life. I’m proud of that piece. It’s evolved to where it is right now and right where it’s filmed, audiences will hopefully discover it. Younger audience will discover it. Maybe there’ll be new admirers of that kind of humor and of him specifically. It captures the theater experience really well. As you know, and you’re deep in it, it’s not easy to capture a live show on film.

Steve Cuden: No, it’s usually not good at all.

Frank Ferrante: Yeah.

Steve Cuden: It’s not the same feeling when you’re live in the theater. When you’re an audience member in a theater, it’s totally different than when you’re watching something on a screen. To make that work is very challenging. I thought they did a really good job on Disney with Hamilton.

Frank Ferrante: Absolutely.

Steve Cuden: That felt like a stage show, but somehow like a movie at the same time.

Frank Ferrante: Yes. It helps to have all the resources at your fingertips.

Steve Cuden: Yes, it does.

Frank Ferrante: Cranes and cameras galore. This is the anti-Hamilton in terms of budget.

Steve Cuden: You had the advantage of only one guy and a piano player. Right?

Frank Ferrante: That’s very true. I also had the advantage of a director who had been around the show for 10 years, and she was on the handheld camera. So she could be on my shoulder, Steve, going into the audience when I’m doing the improv. That’s what I wanted to capture was that what the improvisation and the ad-libbing. So she could be on stage. It’s at the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, in their shelter house space, which has an extreme thrust. So she can be behind me, she could be on stage with me, she can be in the audience. So we’re getting a much more theatrical take on it.

Steve Cuden: That’s nice. I can’t wait to see it. Well, I have been speaking to the extraordinary Frank Ferrante for almost an hour and 10 minutes. We’re going to wind this thing down a little bit. I’m just curious. You’ve told us all these wonderful stories. But do you have a story that you can share with us that’s either weird, oddball, strange, quirky, or just plain funny that you haven’t already shared with us?

Frank Ferrante: I think it’s a testament to my longevity, but I was in Kansas City at the Folley Theater somewhere in the early two thousands, I’m sitting at the meet and greet table, and this gentleman who was six foot four, full beard comes up to me. He goes, do you remember me? I said, what do you mean? I said, you remember me? I said, no. You took me on stage when I was seven years old and dressed me up like Groucho. I’m going, how the hell did I last this long, Steve? There are guys who are like 35 and 40 coming to me with that experience.

Steve Cuden: But never forgot you.

Frank Ferrante: Never forgot. That’s great. Those are the good moments. I bring a lot of young people on the show on stage and dress them up like Groucho. I realize now I do it because I was dressed up like Groucho when I was a kid, and I thought it changed my life. I didn’t consciously think of why I would do that for some kid. In a way I’m anointing the kid. But the best moments—and you’ve had these moments—was when someone says, I wanted to go into the theater because of that show. I wanted to go into comedy because of that show. I wanted to go into clowning because of seeing you. That to me is a beautiful thing at this stage of my life. So it’s not a hilarious story.

Steve Cuden: Well, no. It’s a poignant story.

Frank Ferrante: Yeah. That was a good one. I remember performing for George Lucas for Teatro ZinZanni, and his kid was in the audience. I think it was his son. I brought him in as one of my victim participants, we call them. At the very end he succeeded within the sketch. I picked him up and I said, I’d like to thank the academy for this award and of course Lucas lost it. There’s been so many kinds of really fun moments like that.

Steve Cuden: That’s a pretty cool moment.

Frank Ferrante: That was a fun one.

Steve Cuden: Alright, so last question for you, Frank. You’ve already given us tons of advice, but do you have a solid piece of advice or tip that you like to give to people, especially those that are trying to come up in the business, maybe try to find their break, or maybe they’re in a little bit and trying to get to the next level?

Frank Ferrante: Yes. Hal Holbrook is the one who said it to me, and I hold onto these words. It’s very simple and it’ll mean something different to everyone. He just said, Frank, keep it going. Keep it going. I know what he meant. You can’t stop. It’s hard to understand that sometimes, as you know. There are times you’re going, maybe I should take another term, do something different, go into another business. But if you’ve got it, you’ve got it and you have to trust it. I would say also, harken back to what Uncle Nofie said to me, which was do everything. Do as much, which means you’ll be gravitating to like-minded people, and you’ll be in circles where you’ll be creative and creating. So do everything. That’s what that means to me. Keep it going means at the lowest moment, hang in there. Whatever that takes. Whether it means you got to find different ways to stay alive. I’ve done everything to keep going.

Steve Cuden: It’s very difficult to succeed if you give up.

Frank Ferrante: Yes, it is. It’s tempting, I’m sure for many people in any field.

Steve Cuden: Many people do give up and they don’t succeed, so they go onto other things and hopefully they have success at something else. But this business is tough. If you do what you’ve done, which is to stick with it and to keep at it, and to keep doing, and as you said earlier, to say yes, then you have a shot at it, and hopefully you’ll get there.

Frank Ferrante: Yeah. What I say to my children, it’s do what you love. It’s so simple and so cliche. I say it to friends of mine who still haven’t figured out or want a second career. What really turns you on? What is it? It could be anything. Do you like flowers. Work at a florist. Whatever it is. Take walks in the park. Whatever’s going to inspire you, do. But really have that quiet moment to think what is it that thrills you. What gives you peace. What gives you joy.

Steve Cuden: Laughter is everything, isn’t it?

Frank Ferrante: Yeah. For me. You’ll relate to this. I remember I was separated. I’d never talked about this personal stuff. I was separated and I was in San Francisco and my best friend from high school lived there. I was doing Teatro ZinZanni at the time. It was like 13-14 years ago. It was over. I was left and I couldn’t stay in my apartment. I was so lonely. I went to my friend’s house. I called him. I said, can I come over and stay with you? I can’t stay alone. I show up in there and I knock on his door. He opens the door, my friend of 30 something years, and I’m holding a suitcase. All I go into is ta-da-ta-da-tat-tat-da-da-da. For those who know, it’s the odd couple theme song with the divorce middle aged man. I think my humor has saved me. Humor is everything. Groucho made this adjustment to life through humor. We can spend hours talking about how at the lowest moment how a laugh can shift a moment. That’s another reason to keep it going because it will change. I always say to myself, Frank, during the hardest moments, get through the night. You get through the night, you’re okay. So that’s what I would say, keep it going after that.

Steve Cuden: This has just been a phenomenally fun and wonderful conversation for a good hour and 15 minutes. I’m just so thrilled to have had Frank on the show. Frank, you’re terrific. Just thank you so much for coming on and being on the show with me today.

Frank Ferrante: It’s mutual. It’s wonderful to be your new friend. Thank you.

Steve Cuden: So we’ve come to the end of today’s StoryBeat. If you liked this episode, won’t you please take a moment to give us a comment, rating, or review on whatever app or platform you are listening to. Your support helps us bring more great StoryBeat episodes to you. StoryBeat is available on all major podcast apps and platforms, including Apple Podcasts, YouTube, Spotify, iHeartRadio, Stitcher, Tune In, and many others. Until next time, I’m Steve Cuden. May all your stories be unforgettable.

Executive Producer: Steve Cuden, Producer: Casey Georgi, Announcer: Javier Grajeda
Social Media: Mina Hoffman, Design & Marketing: Holly Reed, Reed Creative Group

1 Comment

  1. Joe Warik

    Rave. Rave, Raving!


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