Don Shelby has found that the most difficult aspect of portraying Mark Twain on stage is to avoid portraying Hal Holbrook.
Shelby, the former WCCO-TV news anchor, has been impersonating Twain for about 20 years. He dons a white suit, wig, mustache and prosthetic nose, and for two hours recites passages and tells tales from Twain’s life and work.
A few years ago, after a show in western Minnesota, Shelby met with members of the audience. “One man said, ‘You look just like Mark Twain. But you don’t sound like him.'” Shelby was puzzled, since Twain’s voice was never recorded. “Then I realized he was saying I don’t sound like Hal Holbrook,” Shelby said.
Holbrook, of course, is the king of Mark Twain impersonators. The actor has been presenting his award-winning “Mark Twain Tonight” since the 1950s, and has become the most famous impersonator of Samuel Clemens, the man who, as Mark Twain, was in 1900 the most famous man in the world. Holbrook’s Twain, with his shuffling gait, smokey cigars, impeccable comic timing and inflected voice, has become Mark Twain in our collective imagination.
“That’s been troublesome for me from the beginning,” said Shelby, who will present his Mark Twain show Saturday night at the Sheldon Theatre in Red Wing.
Shelby has seen performances of “Mark Twain Tonight” and has met Holbrook several times. In fact, it was Holbrook — or rather, photos of Holbrook applying his Twain makeup — that first got Shelby interested in the whole idea of portraying Twain on stage.
As a boy, Shelby said, he had an unusual fascination with theatrical makeup. “Halloween was my favorite time of year,” he said. At the same time, he said, “I had read my fair share of the juvenile end of Clemens. I was interested in Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer. I wanted to live that life really bad.”
Then, at one point, Shelby’s father bought him a book about theater makeup, which included the photos of Holbrook using makeup to age 40 years and become Mark Twain. “It was a remarkable transformation,” Shelby said.
Fast forward a few decades and Shelby, a popular Twin Cities news anchor and respected investigative reporter, found himself doing Twain impersonations “just for laughs.” Then he got serious about it. He had Minnesota-based makeup artist Crist Ballasmake him a rubber nose. He got a white suit and a wig. He did the makeup and looked in the mirror. “You know what?” Shelby said. “I looked like the dude.”
“The dude” was Mark Twain as he would have appeared on the worldwide lecture tour he undertook later in his life to pay his many debts. On stage, though, Shelby at first found himself impersonating Twain’s impersonator.
“It started out as an imitation of ‘Mark Twain Tonight’,” Shelby said. “Then the devil of originality got me and I thought, ‘This isn’t the right thing to do’.” So he read every book he could find about Twain, as well as everything Twain wrote, and developed his own original show.
On stage Shelby quotes from “Huck Finn” and other popular Twain works, but also shines a light on the relatively unknown dark side of Twain.
“The first act is more up, the second act is more thoughtful,” Shelby said. “The Mark Twain I love is in the second act, but the Mark Twain everyone else loves is in the first act. The second act is what I want them to take home.”
Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain
Mark Twain was the pen name of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, author of some of the most popular books in American literature.
Clemens was born Nov. 30, 1835, in Florida, Mo. His family moved to Hannibal, Mo., on the Mississippi River, where he enjoyed an adventurous boyhood. Those experiences were later turned into “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” and “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”
Among Clemens’ other books: “Roughing It,” “The Innocents Abroad,” “Life on the Mississippi,” “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court,” “The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson,” and “The Prince and the Pauper.”
Later in his life, after a series of failed investments, Clements had debts that in today’s dollars were equal to about $22 million. He paid off those debts with the earnings of a worldwide lecture tour. It is that lecture tour that many Twain impersonators, including Hal Holbrook and Don Shelby, portray in their performances.
Twain died on April 21, 1910, a sad and bitter man following the deaths of three of his children and his beloved wife. He has come down through history, though, as perhaps the greatest of American writers.
In a widely quoted statement, Ernest Hemingway said, “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called ‘Huckleberry Finn.'”
William Faulkner called Clemens “The first truly American writer.”
And novelist William Dean Howells, a contemporary of Clemens, called him “The Lincoln of our literature.”
What: Don Shelby in “Mark Twain: Life on the Mississippi”
When: 7 p.m. Saturday, March 19
Where: Sheldon Theatre, 443 W. Third St., Red Wing
Tickets: $35 and $22 in advance, $38 and $25 day of show; 651-388-8700