Still Ridin' That Twain

Hal Holbrook has enjoyed the career that all actors dream of having. Since the 1940s, he has worked continuously onstage, in movies and on television. His acting has received numerous honors including Tonys, Obies, and five Emmy awards. His film work stretches from '60s kitsch classics like Wild in the Streets to hugely popular dramas such as The Firm. Onstage you'll find him playing a wide range of characters including King Lear, Shylock and Willy Loman. You might even catch him in such musicals as The Apple Tree or Man of La Mancha. But despite a long-lasting and widely varied career, Holbrook will be forever known as the man who brings to life a true American icon in Mark Twain Tonight!.

The show began taking shape in the early '50s while Holbrook was making his living working on the perfectly titled daytime soap The Brighter Day. At night he would perform early versions of the piece in New York clubs. Over a few months' time, he worked out about two hours of material, which brought him to the attention of theater critics and won him an appearance on Ed Sullivan's Talk of the Town television show. This led to national tours where Holbrook would do his one-man show in major cities and small towns all across the country.

After five years of researching the character and perfecting the format in front of every kind of audience available to him, Holbrook's show was ready for the big time. His return to New York saw him in Broadway theaters instead of Greenwich Village nightclubs. Since then, he has spent part of every year bringing the old man to life on stages around the world.

1999 marks the 45th consecutive year of this remarkable run. It's a unique achievement, especially when you consider that Holbrook has successfully avoided being typecast as an actor while becoming synonymous with a much-loved historical character. Mark Twain Tonight! is also an ever-changing piece of work. Holbrook continues to add material to the show and currently can draw on some 12 hours of stories, thoughts and musings on life. He doesn't work from a set script, instead choosing the program to fit the news of the day and the mood of the audience.

In a neat bit of timing, Holbrook's show this Saturday at ASU's Gammage Auditorium hits town a few days after the news of a major rediscovery of some articles written by Twain in 1868 while working as a newspaperman in Virginia City, Nevada. The chilling eyewitness account of a public hanging was recently unearthed and published for the first time in some 131 years. Perhaps Holbrook has a few new pieces to learn.

Also on the one-man-show front, hipster performance artist and radio host Josh Kornbluth performs his monologue Red Diaper Baby, about growing up as the child of devoted American Communists, at 8 p.m. Friday, October 15; and 8 p.m. Wednesday, October 20; and The Mathematics of Change, about failing to become a math prodigy at Princeton as he expected, at 8 p.m. Saturday, October 16; and at 8 p.m. Thursday, October 21, at Scottsdale Center for the Arts.

And like Holbrook, Kornbluth has a monologue that explores the life of a great American: At 8 p.m. Friday, October 22, Kornbluth performs his newest piece, Ben Franklin Unplugged.

Hal Holbrook is scheduled to perform Mark Twain Tonight! at 8 p.m. Saturday, October 16, at Gammage Auditorium, Mill and Apache in Tempe. Tickets range from $9 to $37. For details call 480-965-3434 (Gammage) or 480-503-5555 (Dillard's).

Josh Kornbluth is scheduled to perform on Friday, October 15; Saturday, October 16; Wednesday, October 20; Thursday, October 21; and Friday, October 22, at Scottsdale Center for the Arts, 7380 East Second Street. Tickets are $15 and $20. For details call 480-994-2787 (SCA) or 480-784-4444 (Ticketmaster).

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David Gofstein