Twenty-five years of playing Groucho Marx means a lot of wisecracks, cigars and greasepaint for Frank Ferrante, who performs in West Palm Beach Friday and Saturday in "An Evening With Groucho."
"I want it to be what audience members would have experienced had he done a live show in 1934 between 'Duck Soup' and 'Night at the Opera,' at the peak of his film career," Ferrante said.
Ferrante, 49, was 13 when he met Marx, who was 85 at the time and doing a Q-and-A appearance in Ferrante's hometown of Los Angeles.
"As Groucho came into the room he walked right past me," Ferrante said. "I followed about three feet behind him like a duckling. I felt like I was supposed to be there."
Less than a year later, Marx died.
Ten years later, Ferrante debuted his own "An Evening With Groucho." Marx's son, Arthur, saw it, recruited Ferrante to star in his own Groucho tribute, called "Groucho: A Life in Revue."
The show, in which Ferrante portrayed Marx from ages 15 through 85, ran off-Broadway, in London, on PBS and across the United States, including in South Florida in the 1980s and 1990s.
During hiatuses, Ferrante directed Jon Maran's "Old Wicked Songs," which stopped in Boca Raton in 1997, and Neil Simon's "Lost in Yonkers," which appeared at Parker Playhouse in 2005.
Eventually, Ferrante reverted to "An Evening With Groucho," invading the skin of a man whose impersonators have ranged from Alan Alda on "MASH" to the animated Vlasic Pickles stork in TV commercials.
"I thought it'd be over with a few years after doing it, because he's been gone so long and much of his audience is gone, too," Ferrante said. "But I've learned I don't have an older audience. I have a theater-going audience."
Ferrante said he tries to channel Marx's lightning-quick wit, such as the time Marx was told he couldn't go in a country club pool because he was Jewish.
"He said, 'Well, my son's only half-Jewish, so can he go in up to his waist?'" Ferrante said. "The fact that he even had a response was amazing to me."
When not doing Groucho, Ferrante plays another character, an outrageous Latin lover named Caesar, in the European style cirque show Teatro ZinZanni.
"I'm a theater guy," Ferrante said. "A working comic actor."
"An Evening With Groucho" is at 7:30 p.m. Friday and 1:30 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Rinker Playhouse at Kravis Center for the Performing Arts, 701 Okeechobee Blvd ., West Palm Beach. Tickets are $35. Go to Kravis.org.