vs Holbrook vs Twain
On a November night in 1970,
I was back stage at the Royal Alexander Theatre in Toronto getting Hal
Holbrook's autograph. I was 16. He had just received a standing
ovation for his brilliant tour de force
"Mark Twain Tonight!".
Four years later he was suing me for "stealing his act".
My interest in performing
Mark Twain was originally inspired by Marshall Goldman, a High School
friend. Marshall had slapped on some nose putty, latex, crepe
hair and a white suit to perform a terrific rendition of Twain's "Ghost
Story" for the Junior Class Show. That was the first Mark
Twain impersonator I ever saw-and that was the first time it had ever
occurred to me that the "Great Man Himself" was funny: Soon
after I ventured alone, by bus, up to Toronto to see Hal Holbrook in "Mark
Twain Tonight!". He was wonderful. His timing was perfect
and the laughs exploded almost non-stop for two hours. By the
end of the first act I had made up my mind that I was going to do Mark Twain!
My initial "character research"
consisted of reading all that I could find about Twain and studying
Hal Holbrook's script for "Mark Twain Tonight!". My first few audiences
were: my bathroom mirror, rowdy crowds at a local talent night,
and family and friends (in that order). Armed only with encouragement,
I gave my first official public performance of "An Evening With Mark
Twain" at Rosary Hill College in Amherst, NY in 1972. The first time
I was paid for a performance was months later. The principal of Griffith
Institute in Springville, NY gave me a check for $25 and told me to "Buy
some more make-up."
Making money as Mark Twain had
never occurred to me. My motivation was and continues to be
to hold and entertain an audience. To anyone who has ever been
on stage alone, riding the crests of laughter and applause provided
by a live audience, no explanation is necessary. To anyone
who hasn't been there, no explanation can do the experience justice.
In The summer of 1974, my father
convinced me to go to the "Buffalo Showboat" to see if they'd be interested
in hiring a "Mark Twain". Surprisingly, they were! I played
there the whole summer. The show was performed dinner-theatre
style with the audience eating first and then settling back for the show.
The reviews were fantastic and it was those favorable reviews that helped
me get the next booking.
The Cedar Knoll Restaurant was
located on the George Washington Parkway between Alexandria and Mount Vernon,
Virginia. The back dining-room had been transformed into a makeshift
Dinner-theatre that seated about 80 people. I played there for twelve
weeks. In that time more than a dozen theatre critics stopped
by (radio/TV & print) and each one gave the show great
reviews. Even Richard Coe of the Washington Post, who claimed to be
a friend of Holbrook's, wrote "What is remarkable is not that a 21-year-old
unknown is playing a public character 50 years his elder, but that he does
it so well with so much studied and natural authority."
Next stop was New York City.
Producer Dick Scanga thought that my show would be perfect for his "Little
Hippodrome", the " Big Apple's" only Dinner Theatre at that time.
After a five week run I was back home in Buffalo facing a lawsuit from
the "Original Twain Impersonator" Hal Holbrook. A word about that...the
World knows that Holbrook does a brilliant Twain. But the world doesn't
know that he was not the first person to impersonate Mark Twain.
In fact, there is a phonograph record at the Mark Twain Museum in
Hannibal, MO with the performance of Twain material by a man who impersonated
Mark Twain in his own day! To be sure Hal Holbrook has received the
most notoriety as Mark Twain. But there were Twain impersonators
before and there have been many since. On one visit to Hannibal,
I boasted to the museum curator that I did Twain-he replied "everybody
around here does Mark Twain."
When I was 22, Hal Holbrook
was a "god" to me. If you can imagine having God ticked-off
at you, then you have an idea of what its like being sued by your idol.
In December of 1975 he filed a federal suit charging copyright
infringement and asking for "damages" to be determined by the court.
We met in March of 1976 face to face for oral depositions.
Our lawyers (I had one-he had three) agreed that we should talk off the
record first. I went first and explained that I was just a "stupid kid"
who hadn't ever really planned to make any money from doing Mark Twain
and that legal advisers had told me that Mark Twain was "public domain"
and that there was no way that anybody could sue anybody for "doing Mark
Twain Material." I also pointed out that while I was playing
to 80 people nightly at the Cedar Knoll, he was playing to three thousand
at the Kennedy Center.
Throughout our oral depositions
Holbrook glared at me over his reading glasses. Piled high
on the massive conference room table was his personal collection of
Twain books. Holbrook's story was that he was tired of having
people "steal his show." He said that he had put a lifetime of
work into putting his characterization of Mark Twain together. Besides
actors blatantly lifting his scripted version of "Mark Twain Tonight," he
said he was often bothered by people contacting him for the "rights" to his
show-his "bread and butter." He said that some of the plagiarists were
so bold as to approach him in airports or after his show and claim
that they were doing his show! He felt it was time to put a
stop to people making money off of his work and that the main reason
he nabbed me was because I was "accessible". Until that time, no other
Twain impersonator had ventured into the Big Apple.
The oral depositions lasted
the entire day. When it was over we had come to an agreement to
put together a "consent order and judgement"-a document of "dos and don'ts"
governing my future performances of Mark Twain. Mostly what I had
to drop from my show were the "Holbrookisms" (pieces of material that
were created from scratch or put together by Holbrook with a few real
Twain shreds to create something new). The "look" of my show
could not be the same. The next day we made copies of the
legal document, signed them (yes, I got his autograph again) shook
hands and that was it. In the 20 odd years since-Hal Holbrook has
continued his version of Mark Twain and I have continued with mine.
I guess that there are dozens of "Twains" out there-maybe even hundreds-I
have corresponded with a half dozen of them myself. I wish all "Mark Twains"
"We must not allow our
past to slip away from us, but talk about our history, teach our history
live surrounded by its memorials."
Monthly Magazine, March 1909
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