Monday, November 19, 2012

How Hal Holbrook's Hartford Insurance Tale Ensnared Ed Sullivan

Hal Holbrook at the Mark Twain House, 1960

Hal Holbrook first showed up at the Mark Twain House & Museum when it was the Mark Twain Memorial, back in 1956. It was three months after he first performed as Twain on The Ed Sullivan Show. Sullivan had come to a New York club called Upstairs at the Duplex to see the young actor, who had a regular gig on a popular TV soap opera, do a new show he had designed in which he reproduced some of Mark Twain’s stage routines.

The performance had not been a smash. One audience member thought he was supposed to be Colonel Sanders. The New Yorker reviewed a young female singer at the club enthusiastically, but added: “I think you can overlook the young man who comes on first and impersonates Mark Twain.”

As Holbrook tells it in his memoir, Harold: The Boy Who Became Mark Twain, he was putting on makeup to make his smooth, 30-year-old face look like the wrinkled old visage of the 70-plus Mark Twain when a friend told him Ed Sullivan was out front.

“What in hell should I do for him?” Holbrook wondered. Then it struck him: He should do the routine that had gotten him the biggest laughs. It came out of Mark Twain’s Hartford days, and was about accident insurance. It was risky, given that this was the 1950s, and TV was not prone to blasphemy and dark humor, even as practiced by Mark Twain. And insurance companies -- potential TV sponsors -- were notoriously humorless.

Holbrook walked out and growled in slow, measured phrases, punctuated with studied  pauses, wreathed in cigar smoke.

I’ve just been reading an article in the newspaper which has so impressed me that I’ve got to tell you about it. The article speaks with enthusiasm about our railroad system and its splendid record of achievement. It says that the trains only destroyed – let me see – three thousand and seventy lives last year by collisions, and twenty-seven thousand two hundred and sixty by running over heedless and unnecessary people at crossings.

He continued. It was the early show, four or five people in the back, Sullivan right up front.

My home is in Hartford, which, as you know, is a city whose fame as an insurance center has spread to all parts of the world. As a matter of fact, we citizens of Hartford have got the reputation of being a triple band of brothers working sweetly hand-in-hand. First, the Colt Arms Company making the destruction of our race easy and convenient; second, our life insurance companies paying for the victims when they pass away; third, our fire insurance comrades taking care of their hereafter.

“If ever there was the sound of a chuckle, that was all the response I got,” Holbrook recalls. “I walked back down to the boiler room in disgust.” The disgust was short-lived. Sullivan sent for him, invited him to audition, and Holbrook went on the show. “The curled wig and the mustache and white greasepaint was about all I had to introduce Mark Twain to America,” he writes.  

In fact, he had a lot more to offer, and he has proceeded to display it over the next five decades, right up to today, when at 87 he continues to perform Mark Twain Tonight! Including just last weekend in Twain’s boyhood town of Hannibal, Missouri. And this Sunday here at the Mark Twain & Museum, he’ll be on stage again, but this time the focus will be on "Hal Holbrook, Himself."  

He’ll be interviewed onstage by Ray Hardman of  National Public Radio, and then we’ll dedicate the Great Hall of our Visitor Center in his honor, and then we'll celebrate further with a reception. He’ll be telling stories of his own life, and perhaps what it was like to go on the Ed Sullivan Show eight years before the Beatles did. (You can read more about this event at Tickets to the on-stage interview, dedication ceremony and reception are $100. They can be obtained at 860-280-3130.)

As mentioned above, three months after that Sullivan appearance, he was at Mark Twain's Hartford house  to help raise funds. It was the first of many such visits over the decades: Sunday’s is only the latest.

It appears to be a labor of love. When we asked Hal to write an introduction to our keepsake book on the house, The Loveliest Home That Ever Was, he put his affection into elegant prose: “We can only recapture the past for a future generation by preserving it,” he writes, “allowing them to measure their own way of life against its presence and to find what is precious in it. Mark Twain’s Hartford house, its design inspired in places by his own mischievous vision, the memories of its former great tenant and his family seem to whisper there in the rooms and on the porches – a way of life gone long ago and dearer now for the loss of it.”

Ed Sullivan never knew what was getting under way when he listened to Hal Holbrook’s Hartford insurance routine.