Tony Winner Hal Holbrook Shares the Pain That Led to Twain in New Autobiography

By Mervyn Rothstein
15 Oct 2011

Ruby onstage during their two-person Mark Twain show
How did you meet your first wife? And please tell me about the two-person show you put together.
HH: I was in the military in World War II and I got sent to Newfoundland and met this young woman named Ruby Johnson, and we did a play together. And when I came back to the States we got married. Then, at Denison University [in Granville, Ohio], in my senior year the head of our theatre department, Ed Wright, to whom I owe my whole career, came up with this offer of a job in the Southwest — playing school assemblies in Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico — if Ruby and I could put a show together. It had to be educational. So we used my senior year to put it together. We did some Shakespeare, scenes from Hamlet, As You Like It, etc. And one of the [pieces] was Mark Twain being interviewed…at the end of the show.

We were playing audiences that had never seen theatre, and didn't know what in hell we were doing in green tights, dancing around the stage. We played 307 shows in 30 weeks, two and three shows a day in different towns, driving 80 miles an hour in a station wagon to make the dates, carrying our own equipment in and out of the schools. The audiences were from first grade to the twelfth. It was like being in front of a bullring. We had to learn how to survive. How to capture an audience's attention and hold it by any means you could think of. One thing that saved us is that we were always, always serious about what we were doing. We didn't know how to quit.

How did you get interested in Twain, and when did you decide to put together what became Mark Twain Tonight!?
HH: We moved to New York when we had a baby. My wife and I had played summer stock in Holyoke [Massachusetts, the Valley Players], where we got our Equity cards. We moved to New York and Ruby had a nervous breakdown. She should never have gone back to work with a little six-week-old baby that summer.

A young Holbrook as Mark Twain

I went into New York and got an apartment, and I had no money. I had some shows booked, and she couldn't do them. I had hired somebody while she was pregnant to tour with me, but it wasn't the same. At that time, after four or five years, Ruby and I had moved up in the ranks, away from high schools, to colleges and women's clubs. We were, in our own little way, very successful. We were getting 200-300 bucks a show, a lot of money in those days. And then we couldn't do the show any more.

A friend of mine, who ran an important magazine for that particular business, named James B. Pond, was the son of Mark Twain's lecture manager. So I went to his office and asked if he thought I could get booked with somebody else playing Ruby's roles. And he just looked at me. He said, "Why don't you do a solo? With Twain." He'd known Mark Twain as a boy. I said, oh my God, a solo, you mean go out alone on the stage? I'd be frightened to do that. He just looked at me and said, "I think you could get booked."

So I walked out and walked around the streets of New York, looking for work. I couldn't find work. I went to agents' offices. I walked miles every day. Sometimes I walked all the way to 107th Street to try to get rid of the anger inside me. Finally, I went to the Argosy Book Store on 59th Street over by Bloomingdale's, and I walked into their dusty corner and I started looking at Mark Twain books and I sat down and started to put a show together. For one reason only: to get bread on the table.

I didn't really know who Mark Twain was. I knew his picture was on a cigar box. I'd never read any of his books that I can remember. And that's how I started.

How long did it take for your Mark Twain show to get noticed, for you to become a success?
HH: It took five years, touring all around this country. At one point I got together with [singer] Lovey Powell and Bruce Morton, her accompanist, and we opened a nightclub down in Greenwich Village on Grove Street, which I named myself. Upstairs at the Duplex. It was above the Duplex bar and grill. We made it successful, but Lovey was the star. I'd come out, and I did Twain, two or three times a night, in the curve of a baby grand piano, at the end of a rectangular room that sat 59 people according to the fire laws on the wall.

I also really ran the club. And one night Ed Sullivan came in. All of a sudden, out of nowhere. And sat right in front of me. There were three other people in the club — it was the first show. After the show, he invited me to sit with him, and invited me to his apartment the next day. And we talked, and he put me on his TV show. And that started things rolling.

I never intended it to be a career. But as I got into it, as I began to get serious about who in hell Mark Twain was, and read his writing, get beyond the boy on the banks of the Mississippi River, and get into his sociological stuff, I thought, holy cow, this guy's really got a bead on America.

It was at that time, the middle 1950s, that the Civil Rights movement — I'm in Birmingham. I'm playing here tomorrow night. The Reverend [Fred] Shuttlesworth died yesterday. He was the guy who stood up to Bull Connor, the police chief, and the fire hoses right here in this town [in 1963]. I remember what it was like then because I was touring down here doing tough stuff — the lynching speech in "Huckleberry Finn." My show developed the same time the Civil Rights movement was developing. That was what I understood about Mark Twain in those days — I saw that he was deeply involved in not only what was going on in our country but particularly the terrible racism that had gripped our guts, and we couldn't shake it loose.