- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 11, 2001

He may have been America's most identifiable clown, with his greasepaint and cigar.

Now he's come to life again.

Groucho Marx is back, thanks to Frank Ferrante, who portrays him in a new video, which aired last month on PBS. The video is a performance of the play, "Groucho: A Life in Revue," written by Arthur Marx, Groucho's son.

Mr. Ferrante and Mr. Marx have also developed a book of Mr. Marx's personal photos of his father, "Arthur Marx's Groucho: A Photographic Journey"; a CD, "Groucho Sings," with Mr. Ferrante doing Groucho's songs; and a Web site, www.grouchoworld.com.

Julius Henry Marx, a.k.a. Groucho, passed away on Aug. 19, 1977. His 56-year career included vaudeville, three Broadway shows, 21 films (with and without his brothers, Harpo, Chico, Zeppo and Gummo) and the radio and TV hit "You Bet Your Life." The TV show aired for 14 seasons, from 1947 to 1961, with continually high ratings. Marx Brothers film festivals continue to be organized on college campuses across the country.

His life is reminiscent of a rags-to-riches tale. Born in 1890 to poor immigrant parents in New York's upper East Side, he retired from show-biz with a Peabody, an Emmy, a French Legion of Honor Commander of Arts and Letters and an honorary Academy Award. In 1972, he was the second-most requested speaker in the country, with only former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger outranking him.

Mr. Ferrante believes there is still a fascination with Groucho's comedy.

"A lot of it has to do with the fact that he was anti-everything," he said. Groucho didn't play by the rules, and had a childlike, free spirit.

Mr. Ferrante's connection to Groucho goes back to his childhood. He met his comic hero when he was 13. Groucho was 85.

"I just followed him like a duckling," Mr. Ferrante said. "He was … an alter-ego for me."

Mr. Marx and Mr. Ferrante created these items in an effort to bring Groucho Marx's comedic style back to the mainstream because, as Mr. Ferrante notes, it's hard to find it on TV. He acknowledges he wants to expose more people to this type of comedy, but for longtime Groucho-philes, there is also appeal.

"More people should know about this kind of comedy," Mr. Ferrante said.

As Groucho himself once remarked, "There's no such thing as an old joke if you've never heard it before."

Much of Groucho's humor comes from poking fun at all sorts and borders on anarchic.

"He didn't care what he said," Mr. Ferrante said. Groucho told jokes about lawyers, doctors, academicians and high society. "It's wonderful to see someone put the pin in the balloon."

Mr. Ferrante started imitating Groucho after seeing the film "Day at the Races" when he was 9.

"I found it exhilarating," he said. "He had a quickness no one else had."

When Mr. Ferrante was studying theater at the University of Southern California, Arthur Marx stumbled onto him doing his Groucho routine, and was impressed.

At age 23, Mr. Ferrante began playing Groucho, even as an 85-year-old man. "Groucho: A Life in Revue" ran in New York for a year, and after that for six months in London.

"It was in my blood," he said.

As a result of working with Mr. Marx, Mr. Ferrante is now a close, family friend. He said he often visits for dinner and Mr. Marx has given him some of Groucho's personal possessions.

The new materials about Groucho, Mr. Ferrante explained, make a cohesive package.

"The book was a way of seeing him as a man," he said. "It's phenomenal. If you're a fan, you're going to go crazy. These are never-before-seen images of America's greatest clown."

The CD and TV special feature Mr. Ferrante playing Groucho. Many people, explains Mr. Ferrante, don't know or remember that Groucho sang.

The songs featured on the CD are many of Groucho's hits from the Marx Brothers' movies, including "Lydia, the Tattooed Lady" from "At the Circus," "Hello, I Must Be Going" from "Animal Crackers," and "Musketeers," which had never been recorded before.

"Groucho: A Life in Revue" follows the life of Groucho with scenes from the movies played out on stage. Mr. Ferrante is very proud of this work.

"You don't see a lot of theater on TV and comedy on PBS," he said.

While there are many books and dozens of Web sites about Groucho and the Marx Brothers, fans seem to be warming up to Mr. Ferrante.

Frank Bland, of Queens, N.Y., runs the Marx Brothers fan club site www.whyaduck.com. The mailing list on his site, one of many devoted to Groucho and the Marx Brothers, has more than 200 subscribers.

"I can safely say he's the best Groucho impersonator out there," said Mr. Bland. "When Ferrante takes the stage, you can get lost in the portrayal and it's easy to imagine you're really seeing and hearing Groucho Marx perform."

The reviews say the same thing.

Presently, the book, CD and video are only available for purchase on the Web site or as part of PBS pledge drives, but Mr. Ferrante says the book will soon be available through national book dealers like Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.

Though Mr. Ferrante loves playing Groucho on stage, he tries to keep that life separate from his own and not adopt Groucho's habits especially cigar smoking.

"I tend not to when I'm performing," he said. "Maybe one a week. I found myself craving it."

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