Just one day after presenting his famous “Mark Twain Tonight!” program at Hannibal High School, Hal Holbrook again entertained a Hannibal crowd on Sunday, Nov. 18.
This time he was at the Mark Twain Museum Gallery, where he received the 2012 Mark Twain Lifetime Achievement Award. Holbrook’s appearance had not changed, except for losing Twain’s moustache and white suit.
Holbrook shared some experiences from his own life and also was interviewed by Steve Potter of St. Louis Public Radio.
Museum Curator Henry Sweets said he has been a Holbrook fan since college. The lifetime achievement award is new, said Museum Executive Director Dr. Cindy Lovell, and marks the museum’s 100th anniversary.
Also present was the award’s creator, artist Don Wiegand, whose sculpture shows Twain working in bed. Rick Warren, host of the radio show, The Midnight Special, reported Holbrook has been portraying Twain longer than Sam Clemens lived.
During his interview, Potter asked Holbrook to describe Hannibal in Twain’s time, and he said it is important to remember Missouri was a slave state, and Twain enjoyed hearing stories told by a slave on his Uncle John’s farm.
Asked how he keeps Twain fresh, Holbrook said, “usually the night before the show I hear television news and try to find out what’s going on.” He said in the election process, “we have made telling lies an OK deal, and if anything is dangerous in a democracy it’s telling lies about who you are and who the other fellow is. ... Fact and truth are so important, and it makes me so angry I cannot wait to get on the stage and let them have it.”
Regarding the lack of young people at his shows, he said his first Twain programs were at colleges, but in the 1960s concerts became more popular.
His funniest stories were about how he met his late wife, Dixie Carter, and her family. They were married in a movie but he was rude to her at first, then accidentally lassoed her with his rope. He had been a solitary person until becoming part of her Tennessee family. The crowd was laughing about his experiences with her Republican dad and President Ronald Reagan and his “little” head.
Before the interview Holbrook shared some personal experiences, first expressing his appreciation for the honor, noting that “praise here goes a lot deeper than what you get in Hollywood.”
He said the sculpture of Twain in bed looks “exactly like Clara (Twain’s daughter) did - if she had a moustache” when he met her two years before she died.
Page 2 of 2 - Reporting “it is very important you understand how far Hannibal has come,” Holbrook said his first Twain program in Hannibal “only drew 50 people.
“The most important thing in my whole life has been to bring Mark Twain to the people in this country in a way they will understand who we are, where we came from and where we are going. ... He was a critic of the entire human race. Everybody likes to be patted on the back but we tend to refuse to look at ourselves frankly, clearly with a vision wider than our street, town and even country.”
Twain lived when America was changing from a farming country to industrial country, Holbrook said. “Millionaires were becoming fact,” such as Carnegie, Vanderbilt, Roosevelt, Jay Gould and J.P. Morgan. “Falling in love with money and wealth and making heroes became part of our culture. Mark Twain was one of them. They had clubs. They knew each other. And he went home and quietly in his autobiography wrote about them.”
“He saw the other side,” Holbrook continued. “He saw people in mines and steel mills. He saw the beginning of the darker side of this great experiment in our country and saw it was not very pleasant. They took 14- and 15-year-old children and worked them 14 hours a day in sweatshops. ... He saw this and wrote about it. It became very important to me, because it worries me deeply where this country is going.
“I wrote a book and have discovered a great deal about who I am. It takes a lifetime to figure out who you are, how you ended up being the person you are. My whole life has been going down this road with this man. At the end of my life, the thing that gets me out of bed is Mark Twain. I don’t want to retire.
“I am deeply grateful four this honor you are giving me and deeply grateful for the way you have kept the legacy of Mark Twain going forward,” Holbrook said. “Thank you for everything you have done for Mark Twain. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.”