Randall 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" everywhere well.
"We must not allow our past to slip away from us, but talk about our history, teach our history
and live surrounded by its memorials."
American Monthly Magazine, March 1909
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