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For his senior honors project at a small Midwest college, an aspiring actor and his young wife assembled an hour-long platform piece called Theatre of Great Personalities — Hamlet, Victoria & Albert, The Brownings — which they then take out on a series of grinding tours to schools and community groups throughout the South. One of the eight skits features the 23-year-old actor slathered in makeup as Mark Twain. After almost a decade of trials, tribulations, and the breakup of the marriage, the actor is doing 20 minutes of Twain at a tiny upstairs cabaret in Greenwich Village. (Yes, Mark Twain in a smoky, boozy, afterhours nightclub!) One night someone brings in Ed Sullivan, who puts the act on his Sunday night variety show. This leads to a smashingly successful Off-Broadway run, which results in the actor — finally — getting the chance to act on Broadway and elsewhere without those three-hours of makeup.
This is more or less the story that is told in "Harold: The Boy Who Became Mark Twain" by Hal Holbrook [Farrar, Strauss and Giroux]. In the course of this, Holbrook recreates a world of small university theatre and touring-out-of-the-back-of-a-station-wagon-in-the-days-before-Interstate-highways that has altogether disappeared. And a fascinating world it is, too, with dedicated teachers and bookers and showfolk of the sort that don't seem to exist anymore. (I was surprised and pleased to find one of my closest friends there in Lakeside, OH, in 1948, helping find props for that initial tour — and later offering the couch in his fifth-floor Prince Street walkup whenever Hal came to New York looking for work.)
The book only takes us through the Off-Broadway opening of Mark Twain Tonight in 1959. Holbrook, of course, went on to a celebrated and distinguished acting career which includes a Tony Award and multiple Emmys.
But this is only part of the story. Consider a fellow whose parents desert him when he's two; whose father briefly returns — only to be committed to the state insane asylum — when he's six; who is then sent off to a Dickensian boarding school, where he is abused by a sadistic headmaster; and who never sets foot in Los Angeles without thinking that maybe, somehow, he will find his mother. Holbrook, who is now 86, tells how he has lived under a shadow of depression, with fears of suicide or — worse! — ending up like his father.
"Harold" is a mesmerizing double tale, with theatre — and Mark Twain — on the one side and a tortured upbringing which Hal Holbrook can't quite shake on the other.
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