McAvoy Layne climbed the stage chomping on an unlighted cigar, his shock of spray-painted white hair bright in the spotlights. “You can’t beat an audience that’s been waiting 100 years,” he said to the crowd.
Layne, 67, is a Mark Twain impersonator, and for men in his business this is something of a golden age. Long consigned to the dustbin of historical-society meetings and elementary school classrooms, Twain impersonators are now selling out shows, entertaining at fancy parties, presenting at conferences, making real money and adding new members to their ranks.
They attribute much of this to spinoff attention that came with last year’s surprise best-seller, the 736-page Autobiography of Mark Twain, edited by Harriet Elinor Smith and published by the University of California Press on the centennial of Twain’s death. While some of the reviews have been withering, so far some 500,000 copies are in print.
Most in the audience at this tiny storefront theater in a snowy shopping center on the shore of Lake Tahoe had not ventured to buy, let alone read, the hefty hardback. But many had nonetheless been inspired by the book’s promotion to come out to hear Layne tell Twain’s stories, which they said left them nostalgic for simpler, more adventurous times. “Mark Twain just makes you feel good,” said Jim Giancola, 62, a retired banker.
For some ersatz Twains, the popularity of the autobiography is motivation enough to kick-start a comeback tour. Ken Teutsch, 48, of Dyersburg, Tennessee, had all but given up on his one-man show about Twain’s time working on the Mississippi as a steamboat pilot. Teutsch had not done a show in more than a year and had shaved off the bushy mustache he had grown for the role. Then last fall people began watching clips of his show on YouTube, and inquiries started coming in.
After celebrating Christmas clean-shaven, Teutsch made a New Year’s resolution to forgo the use of his razor and start booking Twain shows again. “My wife will not be happy, she’s not a fan of the mustache,” Teutsch said. “But hey, if I can make a little money with it, she might forgive me.”
For decades, Alan Kitty, 62, of Lawrenceville, New Jersey, made cold calls to businesses trying to sell his Twain act. Recently though, organizers started to call him. He expects to make 25 percent more this year than last and with fewer, better-paying events, including several in China, he said.
Kitty now caters his shows to deep-pocketed corporate clientele interested in Twain’s entrepreneurial spirit (never mind his bankruptcy after a ruinous investment in a typesetting machine). Last year a multinational French pharmaceutical company hired Kitty, as Twain, to coach employees on innovation. For US$1,500 per session, Kitty leads businesses in team-building exercises by role-playing portions of Twain’s novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.
The undisputed monarch of Mark Twain impersonators is Hal Holbrook, 85, who has played Twain going on 57 years, longer than Samuel Langhorne Clemens did. Holbrook began a successful Hollywood acting career with his one-man show Mark Twain Tonight! which continues to sell out theaters. (He declined to be interviewed for this article.)
Among self-described “Twainiacs” it is sometimes said that the legions of Mark Twain impersonators would be more accurately described as Hal Holbrook impersonators. While newspaper reviews of Twain’s lectures from the late 19th century hint at his delivery (slow, with a Southern drawl), no recordings of Mark Twain’s voice exist, making it difficult to judge how well his imitators approximate his stage presence and Missouri-laced cadence. Most probably talk much too fast.
Most also perform in a three-piece white suit, though Twain himself took to wearing the signature garb only in his later years and almost never while speaking in public. Although the flagrant inaccuracies of most impersonators make Smith cringe, she and her colleagues at the Mark Twain Project, at the University of California, Berkeley, concede that these men in their fake mustaches and feigned accents play an important role in keeping the real man alive in the public’s imagination.
“There are a large number of people who have not read Mark Twain except perhaps Huckleberry Finn or Tom Sawyer,” said Smith, the book’s principal editor. “They get their impression, their idea of Mark Twain, from these impersonators.”
Such figures fall into two distinct camps: those who hew closely to Twain’s writing, memorizing anecdotes and commentary just as written (Holbrook is said to have memorized more than 14 hours’ worth), and those who use the costume to put on a show of their own devising.
Ad-libbing would-be Twains show up regularly in his boyhood home of Hannibal, Missouri, but the competition does not faze Richard Garey, 64, who has been playing Twain there for 40 years. “They soon find out it’s a whale of a lot more work than they think it will be,” said Garey, who added that in the last year he’s sold more tickets than ever to his frequent Hannibal shows.
A map of Twain mimics would show clusters in the places where Clemens lived and traveled — along the banks of the Mississippi River, in Missouri where he was raised, in the Northeast, in California’s gold-rich foothills and in the other locales described in Roughing It, Twain’s Wild West travel tales.
Geographical proximity made Pat Kaunert, 61, a Twain fanatic from an early age. Kaunert grew up near Angels Camp, California, the backdrop for Twain’s short story The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County. After a career with the National Forest Service, Kaunert retired on the first of this year to be a full-time Twain impersonator.
“The autobiography just ramped up the demand for all things Mark Twain,” said Kaunert, who has been memorizing Twain’s writings by reciting them aloud to his cat. He said he had shows booked well into this year. “I finally felt comfortable making the decision to retire,” he added, “knowing full well I have this other lifetime adventure and career to pursue.”
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