Tom “WhatsHisName” Ferranti is an impersonator. He does George Burns, Frank Sinatra and Columbo. He performs every week, and he’s 82 years old. Ferranti has spent 58 of those years in the spotlight. Not just doing impressions—he’s been a drummer, a singer, an emcee and everything else in between. Makes you wonder, What’s WhatsHisName going to do next?
How did you get started in show biz?
I got out of the service at 24, and I put a band together. We were called The Tommy Ferran Band, and we played at Club 802 in New York—64th St. and 8th Ave. We played songs like “Night Train” and “Temptation.” I was on drums.
What was Club 802 like?
At first they had strippers, but then they got rid of them and started bringing in headliners. They had Tommy Edwards—black dude who had a big hit, two different times, with the same song: “It’s All in the Game.” And they brought in the DeMarco Sisters and Lou Monte.
What did you do next?
We cut the band down to three—The Tommy Ferran Trio, we were called—and we toured Brooklyn, Queens and Jersey. Mostly clubs, but we did weddings and banquets, too. At that point, I was playing and singing at the same time. Songs like “I’m in the Mood for Love.”
What kind of clubs did you play?
A lot of them were controlled by the Mob. Guys like Joe Baccala, Three Finger Brown, Johnny Bath Beach—but I shouldn’t be saying names …
They’ll kill me.
Why did you transition from music to comedy?
These stand-up comics would go on, do 20 minutes, and get paid three times as much as me. So I thought: I can do that, and I was right. I played the Catskills, the Borscht Belt, Jersey, Connecticut. Doing comedy. I was very popular.
Can I hear one of the jokes you told back then?
You want to hear a risqué one? I’d open the show this way: I’d look around the audience and say, “So many familiar faces here tonight. Hey, Joe! How’s your toe? Hi, Jack! How’s your back? Hey, Nick! How are you? Nick’s a nice guy.”
Did you ever have hecklers?
I was working a bar once, and this guy was talking through my whole set. So I walked over to him, and I put my arm around him, and I shook his hand, and I said, “Are you afraid of me?” And he said, “No.” And I said, “Then why are you shaking?” And then I brought him onto the stage with me, and I told him, “Here—I want you to see how it feels.” And I left him alone in front of the microphone. And he didn’t say anything. So I came back a couple seconds later, and I said, “See? It’s not so easy. Now get off my stage!”
Were you doing impressions back then, too?
Yeah, but I did different people. I did Humphrey Bogart, Peter Lorre, Walter Brennan, W.C. Fields, James Cagney, Ed Sullivan, Groucho Marx and Bing Crosby. I didn’t start doing Burns or Columbo until 20 years ago.
Now you perform in retirement homes.
Right. They like me performing in the homes more than some of the younger guys because I can relate to them. I can talk about doctors or about the way people treat the elderly. I know from firsthand experience.
How do you book these gigs?
Sometimes I book the gigs on my own, and sometimes I work with this group called the Tapping Teachers Dance Company. They put on a one-hour variety show.
Do you have any advice for some of the younger entertainers—the guys who are just starting off?
Get out there and take any kind of job that you can get. Even if it’s free. You’ve got to pay some dues. You’ve got to build experience. Make sure you hand out your business card. And make sure your business card doesn’t have little letters that nobody can read. The most important thing is the phone number. Make it big. If you do that, you’ll get work. It might take a year, but you’ll get work.
Figure out what you want to do, and then do it 24 hours a day. If you want to be a singer, you sing, sing, sing, sing, sing. You eat, sleep and sh*t singing. It might not happen overnight, but in due time, it’ll happen.