HANNIBAL — Eight years ago, film crews were in Hannibal, beginning the process for a new documentary about Hal Holbrook, the famous star of the one-man theater show, “Mark Twain Tonight.”
Dr. Cindy Lovell, then executive director of the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum, remembered how the documentary, “Holbrook/Mark Twain: An American Odyssey,” came together as crews with Director Scott Teems and Producer Laura D. Smith came to the first Clemens Conference and interviewed Twain scholars. Lovell, who is now director of education at Epic Flight Academy in New Smyrna Beach, Fla., said Holbrook has been a lifelong Twain scholar, and his performances were accurate and ever-changing from 1954 over the next 63 years.
The new documentary was originally requested in 2010 by Holbrook's late wife, Dixie Carter, to showcase the longest-running show in theater and the personal research and hard work that went into each performance.
Lovell commended then-marketing director at the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum Ryan Murray, along with the citizens of Hannibal during the process of filming the documentary.
“I've got to also give credit the townspeople,” she said. “Pam and Mike Ginsberg ... took the film crew out on a boat and went up and down the river in front of Hannibal and shot really beautiful footage of the town from that perspective. That's one of the perspectives, of course, that Mark Twain wrote about.”
Lovell said the filmmakers were in Hannibal during the conference because Holbrook “is a true Twain scholar.” She said he attends Twain conferences every four years in Elmyra, N.Y. As a result, his realistic portrayal of Twain constantly changed as he honed his craft during the live show that reached all 50 states and 20 countries.
The documentary is shot in black and white, and Lovell said it does an excellent job portraying how “Mark Twain Tonight” evolved over the decades, along with the impact on his personal life and portions of the later performances as his continued with his research and honing his craft.
Lovell appeared in the film to share the impact Holbrook made on her the first time she saw him — when she was a graduate student at the University of Iowa in 1997. That fall, she found out Holbrook would be performing in Burlington, Iowa. She had always wanted to see him perform, but she was preparing for her first Iowa winter after moving from Florida. She had recently purchased boots for $35 from Walmart to help fend off the cold.
“When I found heard about Hal Holbrook, the tickets cost $35, and I didn't have 35 extra dollars,” she said. “So, I took my boots back to Walmart, got a refund, and got my money to get my tickets to see Hal Holbrook. So I went and I saw Hal Holbrook, and I never regretted it — it was an amazing experience, I got to meet him after the show, and I could hardly even speak I was so excited. I will tell you, I spent two winters in Iowa getting my pHD without boots.”
Lovell said she lost count after seeing Holbrook perform 20 times or so, and each experience was “magical” to the fellow Twain scholar.
“In my mind, it was the closest I could ever get to meeting Mark Twain,” Lovell said.
With the Nov. 19 release of “Holbrook/Mark Twain: An American Odyssey,” Lovell stressed that viewers will receive an up-close look at the personal dedication and challenges of performing a demanding and ever-changing show, along with how Holbrook took on the persona of Twain each time he took the stage.
More information is available by visiting www.holbrooktwain.com, using the hashtag #HolbrookTwain on social media or by searching for the film on iTunes.