Friday, April 16, 2010

Hal Holbrook Any Night

My senior year in high school (1962) I worked at Tenth Street Cut-Rate Sundries, located in a storefront long since torn down to provide Peachtree Street frontage for the Crescent Street apartment building now known to tourists as the Margaret Mitchell House, but which she called “the dump.” I worked after school for an hour each Tuesday and Thursday, then on Saturday from 11 a.m. till 4 p.m. I swept the floor and dusted the packets of headache pills and powders, products for the care of hair, tooth, eye, ear, nose, and throat, and preparations for other body parts in pain and discomfort. I earned $7 per week.

I walked a dozen blocks down Peachtree one Friday afternoon and spent $7.50 at the box office of the Tower Theatre. The marquee announced, “Hal Holbrook, Mark Twain Tonight, 8 p.m.“ I had read about it in the newspaper. I had never been to a live stage performance of any kind. The lady ticket seller asked me where I wanted to sit. I had no idea. She suggested I enter the theatre, locate a seat I liked, then tell her the number on the armrest. Inside the theatre, at the center of the dimly-lit stage, a grown man sat silently in a high-back chair. I was directly in front of him, a few rows away from the stage when I first saw him. I could see his face well enough to tell he had not shaved that day. He stared toward the balcony, as if in some sort of trance. I looked down at the number on the arm rest of the nearest seat.

From the time I read “Tom Sawyer“ in elementary school, almost all of my book reports were Mark Twain. Pudd’nhead Wilson, Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur‘s Court, The Prince and the Pauper, Roughing It, Innocents Abroad, Life on the Mississippi. I could not understand why my teachers let me get away with this. Mark Twain’s cat “once sat on a hot stove lid. Afterwards, he never sat on a hot stove lid again, but he never sat on a cold one again either.” I was hooked. Then I read “Huck Finn,” but I could not even speak about it. Nobody had told me about the runaway slave. I was sure I had misunderstood. The author’s explicit notice: “Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.”

I arrived with my ticket at 7:45 p.m. and was shown to my seat. I think I expected to see something like the Fredric March film The Adventures of Mark Twain, made in 1944, the year of my birth. On stage, a figure in a white suit, with bushy hair and mustache to match, appeared from behind clouds of cigar smoke. “Chaucer is dead,” he began, “Spenser is dead, so is Milton, so is Shakespeare, and I'm not feeling so well myself.” Then he puffed some more on the cigar. Several cigars later, he told the campfire ghost story. “Who got my golden arm?“ he asked. He raised his own arm and foot as if he were about to climb into the dark sky: "W-h-o — g-o-t — m-y — g-o-l-d-e-n-- a-r-m?" He let his arm fall pointing right in my face as he stomped his foot on the stage. "You've got it!" he boomed. My heart was pounding. I was glad he took an intermission: “I don‘t know about you,” he said, “But I need to go outside and smoke.” When he returned, a childlike voice introduced itself: “You don’t know about me, without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but that ain’t no matter. The book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly.” I knew what this was. It was magic.

Next week, April 21, on the 100th anniversary of the death of Mark Twain, Hal Holbrook, now 84, is scheduled to perform his masterpiece in Elmira, N.Y., where Mark Twain is buried along with his beloved wife in her family plot. Holbrook himself is in mourning for the loss of his own wife, Dixie Carter. Actors are real people, too, with spouses, children, and friends who grieve, but known to their audience by the characters they bring alive for us and leave in our hearts and minds. Dixie Carter was Julia Sugarbaker, smart and sassy, the sort of Southern girl some of us were lucky enough to marry, saved from those that might always depend on the kindness of strangers. Mr. Holbrook is also scheduled to be Mark Twain Tonight in Hannibal, Mo., during this centennial celebration season . The show must go on. In the audience, there could be some kid whose life will change forever.


tina said...

I didn't know those two were married, and I didn't know Hal Holbrook was still living. Two big talents, for sure. Good article.

Yvonne said...

Dixie Carter was one classy lady. Wish I could see Hal Holbrook portraying Mark Twain. I am a big fan of Mark Twain. I recently read a book of his speeches. His humor is timeless.

Paw Paw Bill said...

From what I can tell, the "Mark Twain Tonight" performances scheduled in conjunction with the 100th anniversary are sold out. Otherwise, it would be tempting to think about some sort of special vacation trip. The performance I attended in 1962 was yet several years before Hal Holbrook won his Tony Award for the Broadway run of this theatrical landmark.

Lorraine said...

I attended a production at the Mark Twain Theater in Elmira, NY. It was quite a show and definitely worth the drive and price of admission. However, the actor was No Hal Holbrook.


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