Hal Holbrook Channels His Inner Mark Twain in Galveston Performance

Hal Holbrook in his one-man show, "Mark Twain Tonight!"
Hal Holbrook in his one-man show, "Mark Twain Tonight!"
Photo courtesy of Hal Holbrook

A person can find symmetry in the life of a man born shortly after the 1835 appearance of Halley's Comet, and who predicted that he would "go out with it," too. Such was the case for Samuel Langhorne Clemens, who died the day after its 1910 return, and who was better known by his pen name, Mark Twain.

Noted for writing The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Twain was witty, sarcastic, and befriended by presidents and royalty; his obituary in The New York Times labeled him the "greatest humorist and satirist" of his period.

In the early 1950s a young 22-year-old actor named Hal Holbrook developed a show with his first wife Ruby; he would play famous historical people and she would interview him. From this early start was born the one-man play, Mark Twain Tonight!, which was given a national boost in 1956 by television host Ed Sullivan and has been performed more than 2,300 times.

The symmetry continues; on what would have been Clemens' 175th birthday, Holbrook performed the show in 2010 at Clemens Center in Elmira, New York. Last year marked his 60th year portraying Mark Twain, and he just turned 90 (February 17).

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From the start, it was Holbrook's decision to play the late-in-life version of Twain, complete with white hair, white suit, bushy eyebrows and cigars. For more than 10 years now, the actor has been older than the character he plays.

Each show is different, as Holbrook pulls from more than 17 hours of material, improvising and choosing from the stories, humor and wit made famous by Twain. In a recent interview, he promised to introduce new material that made parallels between today's politics and the political corruption of post-Civil War America, as found in Twain's 1873 novel The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today (co-authored by Charles Dudley Warner).

It is reported that Holbrook takes detailed notes about which bits he has included for each show, as well as the audience reaction, with the goal of not repeating material when returning to a particular venue. It's no wonder that he has received 5 Emmy Awards, a Tony Award, and an Oscar nomination.

In 1897, when one of Twain's cousins grew ill, a rumor was started and even printed that the noted author had died. His famed response, which demonstrated his understated dry wit, was, "... the report of my death was an exaggeration." As long as Holbrook can take the stage, Mark Twain lives on.

8 p.m. Friday, February 27. The Grand 1894 Opera House, 2020 Postoffice, Galveston Island. For information call 800-821-1894 or visit thegrand.com. $39-$75.


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