Key to celebrating a great 90th birthday with Mark Twain

February 18, 2015  •  Leave a Comment

Firstly, I am not that old.  It was not my birthday being celebrated at The Bushnell in Hartford last night.  It was 90 years young Mr Hal Holbrook giving a consummate performance as his alter ego, Sam Clemens, at a fund-raiser on behalf of the Mark Twain House.  I can understand why this "one night only" event was a treat so here's a little recipe to share.

Start with a young person searching for an engaging senior year thesis and then imagine Mr Holbrook in the 50s as he developed a taste for Twain.  Add a surprise discovery of Clemen's classic writings and sprinkle in a handful of wit.  Oh go on: toss in another handful for good measure and perhaps flourish a further fistful into the air just as Twain would have tossed his finely crafted observations to listeners, not caring if they were eagerly absorbed or fallen to the floor because there was another wry comment following close behind.  

Mix a dash of religion with the merest pinch of politics because too much political clap trap would spoil anyone's appetite.  Twain's observations on both topics are just as relevant in 2015 as they were in 1905 when Holbrook's evening piece was set.  If you listen to the one liners and the engaging stories you realize you know so much more of his craft than you realized. How many of today's writers, humorists and social commentators will be recalled word-perfect in a hundred years? 

Back to the recipe.  Add a personal visit to the Mark Twain House because that is where the young student, Mr Holbrook, really understood the context for Twain's life, particularly the formative period when so many of his fine books were written.  There is such a lovely story to the restoration and preservation of this precious house that was nearly lost to the nation a generation ago.  Heartache and happiness seeps from the crazy brick patterns and flows over the wooden balconies, each with a different pattern and into the unique rooms with their "modern"innovations.  If you haven't been for a while, take a tour and fall in love with the stories again.

Stir all the stories with vigor, much as Mr Holbrook spun his yarns with perfect pitch and pause.  The first half developed as I expected with a loose collection of recognizable quotes and short humorous stories as he took the podium, strode the stage, sat in the chair and "nodded off" with the mannerisms we have absorbed by watching his performances on film or tv over the years.  What I wasn't expecting was the physicality and variety of voices as he recounted a chapter from Huck Finn.  Of course he's a talented actor but Mr Holbrook's sense of energy and emotion had me sitting upright at full attention.  How would anyone enthuse that portrayal with that verve would astound me, let alone doing it on your 90th birthday.  Mr Holbrook is the best advertisement for senior living without boundaries.

Once the persona is perfectly formed by proofing and refining it for 2,000+ performances over 6 decades, let it rest for just a moment before the finishing touches while holding back the near-tears from Cindy Lovell, his friend and Executive Director of the House.  Garnish with a personal letter of congratulations from The White House from Michelle and Barrack Obama, sprinkle on some touching words from the Governor Dannel Malloy and Hartford Mayor Pedro Sagardo (both of whom were quick to confirm they had never been in Congress, the topic of some lively Twainisms) and roll a large cake onto centre stage while the audience rose to sing Happy Birthday again.  

As heartfelt as the official words were, they were no match for the guest of honor's entreaty to turn off the tv and to read history to really comprehend the facts of the situation to understand people better.  Simple but true for our changing times.  

I don't know what passion you will pursue for 60+ years if you will be so fortunate to find a mission to craft and mold so it's inextricably tied to your persona.  It made me think deeply about the meaning of a real legacy.  Go back and revisit the writings (and of course the House, a treasure in our midst): you'll be glad you did.

As I drove home with a smile, I made certain to drive down Farmington Ave and give a little wave to his house, imagining it filled with lights, laughter, good food and wine (perhaps with two warm scotches) and stories - of course, always the stories.  



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