Just out of college, Hal Holbrook and his then-wife Ruby toured small towns in Texas, putting on shows wherever they could find an audience. “We played nearly 200 little towns in Texas, Amarillo to Laredo.”
And what he remembers from that, other than how cold it could get in their makeshift hotel rooms, was that “people in Texas put money into culture.”
Now the man most people know as Mark Twain, the 90-year-old Holbrook is coming back to Houston to sit onstage with Alley Artistic Director Gregory Boyd in a program titled Alley Up Close and talk about his lifetime of experience as a celebrated actor in film and television and onstage.
Holbrook, who spoke to us from York, Pennsylvania, where he was performing Mark Twain Tonight, developed his interest in and early performances of Samuel Clemens after studying about him in college. On his early tours, he'd blend that in with some Shakespeare as well. “We were doing Hamlet. We used as our opening a couple scenes from As You Like It, and Ruby was dressed in green tights. The audiences liked that,” he remembered.
In 2005 he and his late wife Dixie Carter performed at the Alley in Be My Baby, and he has many fond memories of that, particularly about working with Alley company actor and frequent director James Black. “Dixie and I loved working on the stage with James Black He used to really amuse me. I used to love looking at him [onstage] and thinking maybe he'd start to laugh when he wasn't supposed to.”
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Holbrook also had high praise for Boyd, especially for being able to hold the Alley company artists group together. “What Greg has done terrifically is he's managed to maintain a company that has a heart and soul.”
Actually, Holbrook's connections with the Alley predate Boyd. “I am probably the only person left alive who actually saw the Alley Theatre in its original alley,” he says. “My first wife and I were touring in March or April of '49. We played Houston, Reagan High School. It was a terrible audience there; I never forgot it.” They had heard of the start of the Alley company that Nina Vance put together and stopped by to check it out. "We went down in this little alley and saw this play on a stage that was a little larger than the alley.”
Asked what specifically he planned to talk about onstage in Houston, Holbrook laughed, adding, “I'm going to say whatever comes into my head. I can talk on anything; just line me up and leave me alone. “ But he pledged he has plenty to say. “I've been in theater all my life.”
Hal Holbrook appears one night only, 7:30 p.m. October 19. 7:30 p.m. Alley Theatre, 615 Texas. For information, call 713-220-5700 or visit alleytheatre.org. $21 to $49.