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Published: Sunday, 10/23/2011

How Holbrook became Twain

BY ROBERT HURWITT
SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE

"The Mark Twain sketch was a problem," Hal Holbrook writes. "I thought it was the corniest thing I'd ever read."

From such inauspicious beginnings, it seems, the most enduring theatrical chemistry may be born. Not that Holbrook could have suspected at the time that he'd become inextricably linked with Mark Twain for a half century (and counting). It was 1948, and the ex-GI and his Canadian war bride, Ruby, (the closest he got to the front was Newfoundland) were preparing their Denison University (Granville, Ohio) senior theater project -- a potpourri of two-person scenes they'd already been booked to tour to school assemblies in the fall. The Twain sketch was a late addition to their scenes from Shakespeare or about the Brownings, Queen Victoria, and others.

Twain doesn't make an appearance in Holbrook's autobiography until that point. The man who's been portraying Twain longer than Samuel Langhorne Clemens did (at 86, he's still taking the show on the road) isn't telling that story here. Harold ends just after the nail-biter opening and surprise rave reviews of his Mark Twain Tonight off-Broadway in 1959.

The story of how that success has affected his life ever since, and his adventures onstage and in film, will have to wait (he's well into writing a second volume). Harold is the story of how he got there. It's a gripping and illuminating tale, a peculiarly American saga of loneliness, sometimes misguided determination, luck, perseverance, marital failure, and the life of a touring player in pre-interstate America. And, yes, Mark Twain, whose cadences and fierce sense of justice infuse the narrative.

It's the story of a boy growing up in Depression-era New England, in a reasonably well-off family but without a mother or father, or even the comfort of knowing why they were absent. Showbiz was the skeleton in the prim family's closet. He wouldn't find out until he discovered clippings and posters in a trunk in the basement that Mom had run off to become a chorus girl.

Dad, who may have hoofed with her, had become a roving vagabond, escaping from the mental hospitals to which the family kept committing him.

The child Holbrook did hard time, separated from his two sisters, at a private school where the headmaster had a fetish for spanking little boys. During a stint in a military academy, he stumbled into his first stage experience and got hooked. By the end of his first year at Denison, before joining the Army, he'd decided to become an actor.

Acting assuaged a frustrating World War II service when he joined a small company while posted in Newfoundland and was cast as the romantic lead opposite a local girl named Ruby Johnston. Within a year, they were married; within three, they'd graduated, had many college and some summer stock roles under their belts, and were taking their own show from one remote rural school to another over small paved and dirt roads -- throughout the Midwest and as far as California -- in a sturdy but challenged Ford station wagon.

A meticulous record-keeper, Holbrook draws on his notebooks and letters to plunge us into a cavalcade of postwar Americana and an idiosyncratic theatrical touring life as they change their act on the fly. They're outraged by their encounters with segregation in the South. A meeting with his father is traumatic. His depressed younger sister dies during a botched abortion.

Ruby becomes pregnant with the first of their two children, and they have to hire an actress to replace her. The growing distance between the young Holbrooks develops a tragic undertow. Harold, with no marital or parental models to draw on, tries to fight it by booking more gigs to support his new family. Ruby, pretty much alone during her pregnancy and then as a new mother, returns to Canada and fights postpartum depression with the new therapeutic fad of electric shock treatment. In one desperate attempt to find some breathing space, Harold, on a whim, tries to climb Mount Shasta, alone, in a blizzard.

From this fraught morass, Mark Twain Tonight is born. The decadelong gestation period is marked with serendipitous grace notes. The Twain sketch was a success, and Holbrook is an actor most comfortable disappearing into character roles. One of their touring bookers, Bim Pond, was the son of Clemens' lecture booker, had known him, and not only coached Holbrook in the Twain drawl but encouraged a full solo show.

A steady job on a soap opera allowed Harold and Ruby to try rebuilding a life together in New York, and some breathing room to develop the show -- on tours and in a tiny downtown nightclub. The process is a richly rewarding page-turner, fueled by New York's great Argosy Bookstore and abetted in cameos by Ed Sullivan, Art Carney, Steve Allen, and others. The more immersed Holbrook gets, the more we learn about Twain, too -- as a comic artist, social critic, and performer, editing his own material, and calculating his pauses for maximum effect.

If Holbrook has some scores to settle -- with that child-abusing headmaster, a sadistic drill sergeant, and such social outrages as segregation and McCarthyism -- he does so with something of the crusty moral rage of the late Twain. And he's always harder on his own failings as a husband and father than anyone else.

At the end of the book, his first marriage is still holding on (it would last a few more years). His show is a huge success, but he realizes that it's Twain's hit, not his own. "Nobody knew who I was ... the 34-year-old actor inside him." The way the first book leaves us hanging, anticipating the next volume of his life and career, glints with a bit of the twinkle in Mark Twain's eye.



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