In his official press bio, Frank Ferrante is billed as "Groucho/Writer."
Necessarily in that order: Ferrante has been making himself over into the anarchic hero of his youth since he was still in his, well, youth.
A mere 22, in fact — which is around 20 years younger than Groucho Marx was when he made Ferrante's favorite Marx Brothers movie for the ages, "Duck Soup" (1933).
It was the first time Ferrante publicly painted on the thick black mustache and eyebrows we'll see Saturday at the Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts as we spend "An Evening with Groucho Marx," an interactive celebration of all things Marxist.
And we don't mean Karl.
"It was in a church hall," recalls Ferrante, now 55, of Groucho's unlikely coming out performance in the brash form of a kid from L.A. who'd first had his horse feathers ruffled by the brothers Marx (Groucho, Harpo, Chico, Zeppo) as a mere moppet.
"I was around 9 years old ... and 'A Day at the Races' was showing on TV," he recalls of that surprise initiation ritual.
Up to then, young Frank had no prior knowledge of mute harpists, trigger-finger pianists or greasepaint mustaches.
But after the racetrack encounter with Dr. Hugo Z. Hackenbush and associates (Stuffy and Tony), his world had turned: "I became completely enamored and exhilarated by the insanity."
To say the least.
Some three decades later, The New York Times designated him "the greatest living interpreter of Groucho Marx's material, while legendary scenarist Morrie Ryskind, co-author of Marx Bros. classics like "Animal Crackers" and "A Night at the Opera," tagged him "the only actor aside from Groucho who delivered my lines as they were intended."
Ferrante may have received the ultimate pop culture accolade when he wound up as an answer on TV game show "Jeopardy": "He took his portrayal of Groucho Marx to New York in 1986," to which some lucky/savvy contestant responded, "Who is Frank Ferrante?"
"At first," he recalls of his post-"A Day at the Races" euphoria, "I felt like I was the only one who knew about them. But then learned that a lot of guys my age loved the Marx Brothers."
The rebellious baby boomers of the late 1960s/early 1970s had retrieved the Marx Brothers from the mists of time and remade them into counter-cultural poster boys.
So what if their heyday was already decades behind them?
The anti-authoritarian anarchy of Groucho, Harpo, Chico and sometimes-Zeppo was as timely as the nearest campus protest.
Ferrante began digging deeper into Marxist philosophy, discovering Groucho's post-Brothers reign as the most acerbic TV game show host of all time, via reruns of the classic 1950s quiz show, "You Bet Your Life."
Lucky for young Frank, there was still a living link to it all: Groucho himself, who, "at that time (early 1970s) was still alive and, though in his 80s, still visible on TV and in the news."
By age 19, Ferrante had gone the whole nine yards with his obsessions, turning it into what evolved into the show we'll see Saturday night on the BCPA stage (with a little, no, a lot of, help from accompanist Gerald Sternbach on piano, whose fingers have performed the same duties for everyone from Mel Brooks to Carol Burnett).
In 1985, Ferrante took his church hall gig to the University of Southern California. Fearing no monkey business, "I really went for it."
He sent out personal invitations to Groucho's famous writer son, Arthur Marx; his daughter, Miriam Marx; and aforementioned legendary screenwriter Morrie Ryskind. To his great surprise, "They all showed up."
The even greater astonishment: "They all loved it. I was 22 years old, and I had the audacity to perform in front of the three people who knew him best."
It was a good thing Ferrante didn't hesitate, since Ryskind, 89 at the time, made his last public appearance at Frank's show, and died shortly thereafter ... but not before offering up the priceless Ryskind quote repeated at the top of this story.
Arthur Marx, who would live another two decades, promised, "Frank, if I ever do my own show about my father, I want you to play him."
He did, and Frank did. The result was "Groucho: A Life in Revue," which debuted on Broadway in 1986, then crossed the ocean to London and wound up on PBS as a widely seen special.
As a result, Ferrante forged a lifelong relationship with Arthur Marx and the Marx family in general. (Miriam was the sole survivor until just last summer, when she passed at 90.)
"Arthur became like a second father to me ... he had a complicated and mixed relationship with his own father, who was this giant who cast a huge shadow, and he spent his whole life dealing with that shadow and grappling with his resentment of it."
Above all, "I got to know so much because I got to pick the brains of the family."
Even though the heyday of the Marx Brothers cult has passed, Ferrante knows first hand that Groucho Marx and his siblings still enjoy an all-ages fan base.
"The show is designed to work whether you know him or not," he adds. "You don't have to know him to enjoy him ... the pieces have the same impact. The element of surprise is an important part of his comedy and this show still surprises the audience."
His only encounter with The Man himself came at the tail end of his run in the final year of his life (1977), at age 86, and slowed physically by two strokes, but with his rapier wit not completely dulled.
"It was at the Ambassador Hotel in L.A., and I was 13 at the time. Groucho showed up three hours late because ... he was old. I followed him up the podium like I was part of his entourage. Erin Fleming (his controversial companion of his final years) was with him."
With the fearlessness of youth, "I sat at his feet while he mumbled ... he looked particularly ill and weak."
Someone asked him what made him unhappy. "Answering stupid questions," Groucho mumbled.
"How cool is this?." thought Frank-at-his-feet. "He's being honest, painfully honest. In other words, he's being Groucho.
"Yes, it was poignant and horribly sad to see such a powerful mind so mentally diminished, but at the same time it was beautiful seeing him working against that and staying in the game ... right to the end."