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‘Twain’ returns to Holyoke

Date: 11/15/2011

Nov. 16, 2011

By Debbie Gardner

Assistant Editor

GREATER SPRINGFIELD — Emmy Award winning actor Hal Holbrook was in Wichita, Kan., preparing for that evening’s performance of “Mark Twain Tonight” when Reminder Publications reached him in his hotel room.

The 86 year-old star, who has left his mark on stage, screen and television, was happy to talk about the upcoming performance of his Tony Award-winning one-man show, which he brings to Holyoke this week, and about his return engagement to the city that helped launch both his acting career and the character that made him a stage star.

Area Twain fans will have the opportunity to see Holbrook in his most famous role at 8 p.m. on Nov. 19 in the Sears Auditorium at Holyoke High School. The performance, part of the Massachusetts International Festival of the Arts, will benefit the restoration of the Victory Theater. VIP tickets, which include premium seating and a post-performance meet and greet with Holbrook are $125. Preferred seating tickets are $60. To purchase tickets, or for more information about the evening’s performance, visit

Holbrook said the city of Holyoke will always have a special meaning to him.

“My first wife, Ruby, and I got our equity cards [in 1951] at the Holyoke summer theater, which was in the Casino,” Holbrook recalled, referring to the famous theater located at the former Mountain Park, which from 1941 to 1962 hosted the well-respected summer stock group, The Valley Players.

“I think they were more interested in Ruby than in me,” Holbrook remembered. “That first year I was in every play, but not many interesting roles.”

It was, however, “a great place to have a summer job and learn about the theater,” so he and Ruby returned for the next season, and the next, by which time Holbrook “became the leading man” in the 10 to 12-week season, performing one play in the evening and rehearsing the next week’s show during the day.

“It was hard work, but you learned a hell of a lot,” he said.

In 1957, as the couple was in performing in the Oklahoma panhandle, Holbrook said he “wrote to [Valley Players manager] Carlton Guild” and asked him if he would consider using a solo show he’d been working on as the opening play of the season that summer.

“I thought if I could play a whole week, extend my show to three acts, I could see if I could take it to New York,” he remembered.

The show Holbrook was talking about was his Mark Twain performance, something he’s been working on since his days at Denison University, where a senior project on the famed American humorist had sparked his interest in the man and his times. He began performing an early version of “Mark Twain Tonight” in 1954, marking his first performance as the character at Lock Haven State Teacher’s College in Pennsylvania, and has never stopped performing, or refining the show, throughout his storied career.

“[Guild] booked me in the theater for the opening week of the season and I got a response that was very encouraging,” Holbrook recalled. Equally important to Holbrook was the review he got from Louise Mace, the well-respected drama critic at the former Springfield Union.

“She was very hard to please,” Holbrook said. “I knew whatever review she gave me would be well-worth paying attention to because she would understand what I was trying to do.”

Mace, he said, gave his early “Mark Twain Tonight” show a good review, encouraging him to take it to New York in 1959. The show, which ran off-Broadway that year, became as he put it, “an overnight success,” launching Holbrook’s stage career.

The Twain he will bring back to Holyoke, Holbrook said, will be a reflection of what he has seen in his travels across the country giving life to one of America’s most candid, and timeless, observers and critics.

“I do not update Mark Twain, I have never, ever altered Mark Twain,” Holbrook emphasized as he talked about the man he has re-created on stage more than 2,200 times. “The fact that what he says is so often astoundingly true of our life today is a measure of something, and I’m not exactly sure of what that measure is.”

Holbrook said the fact that Twain’s observations still ring true with 21st century audiences is “a warning to us that we haven’t changed a bit ... we haven’t improved the condition of our country very much” from the time when millionaires such as the Vanderbilt’s and the Rockefellers — whom Twain socialized with in person and ridiculed in print — lived lavishly while most of America suffered.

“We still do the same stupid things, we still go down the same dumb roads and still get ourselves in the same hopeless messes,” Holbrook continued. “And the people who suffer from that more than anyone else in America are the common folks and the poor folks.”

Holbrook said it is that same gulf between rich and poor, between the haves and the have-nots that he observes as he takes Twain across the country, that gives him the fire to keep performing his best-known role.

“I’ve done this show for 57 years. I’ve been to almost every little town in America ... and I get a chance to see what most people never get a chance to see, and that’s the other people living somewhere and trying to make a life,” Holbrook observed. “We become so vulnerable to the half-truths that the politicians heap upon us ... if we haven’t traveled and gone around America and found out how other people are living somewhere else, [it] makes us such innocent victims of the people who are running for elections.”

In Twain, Holbrook said, he finds a way to bring this snapshot of society to the people of America.

“He put the mirror up in front of us,” Holbrook said. “He has a wonderful way of putting [things], he’s not like one of those guys on HBO who’s smashing you over the head ... he makes us laugh, very often at the truth. I believe people will laugh at the truth because nobody tells the truth.”

Holbrook said Twain is able to show people the truth of society “in a manner that does not put you off.”

Quoting Twain, he said, “‘Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it’s time to pause and reflect.’ That’s a mantra from my show; I just love that.”

And though he is not intending to give up bringing Twain to life on stage any time soon, Holbrook said he is also doing research on another of his favorite Americans, Abraham Lincoln, for a small part in a film about the 16th president that Steven Spielberg is making.


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