Happy Birthday Hal Holbrook!

Tracy Wuster

Today marks the 87th birthday of Hal Holbrook.  Hal has performed the character of Mark Twain longer than Samuel Clemens.  Much has been written and said about the importance of Mark Twain Tonight! and Hal’s performance as Mark Twain (not to mention his other wonderful acting work).

I want to offer my own story of meeting Mr. Holbrook in Elmira at the 6th International Conference on the State of Mark Twain Studies (which should be renamed, “Mark Twain Summer Camp,” in my humble opinion).  For a graduate student, Mark Twain Summer Camp already meant meeting top scholars in the field–rock stars, if you will (if you are a nerd, that is).  But Hal Holbrook is as big a star as you will find for Mark Twain fans, unless the man himself were to appear.

I was convinced that my panel would be empty, as it was scheduled opposite that panel at which Mark Dawidziak would be discussing “Mark Twain Tonight!” with Hal Holbrook in the audience.  I was thus shocked and delighted when Lou Budd walked into my panel just as I began to give my paper (causing me to lose my place for a moment).  For Twain scholars, you can’t get much more important than Lou Budd.

Hal Holbrook Speaking at Mark Twain Summer Camp

Photo Courtesy Patrick Ober

This video is the audio of Hal Holbrook’s brief remarks at the conference.  Recorded by Patrick Ober and combined with images from the beautiful campus of Elmira College.

I had witnessed first hand the star power of Hal Holbrook the night before.  After a full day of conferencing, I  meandered down toward the evening’s banquet a bit early.  In front of the building I found Shelley Fisher Fishkin and Hal Holbrook quietly talking.  Shelley introduced me to Hal and mentioned I lived in Austin.  As Hal began to say something, we were suddenly surrounded by a group of scholars who had been momentarily possessed by the spirit of teenagers at a concert when they spot the band backstage.  That is to say, I was elbowed out of the way by a gray-haired college professor who had been star struck.

Hal was now surrounded by a group of admirers jostling for his attention.  In my memory of the event, they are waving pictures for him to sign and taking photos with old-fashioned flash cameras.  My memory may not be exact.  As I stood there awkwardly outside of circle, a momentary gap opened and Hal said to me, as if our conversation had not interrupted:

“I was in Austin recently.”

I replied:  “I know.  I saw you perform.”

“When was that?”

I pondered a moment.  “Spring.”

“What is it now?”


“Sounds about right.”

And then Hal was engulfed by the adoring crowd of academics-turned-teenager.

The following night, the conference ended with a party at Quarry Farm, the summer house of the Langdon and Clemens family.  I experienced another nerdy rockstar moment.  While talking with Tom Quirk–no slouch of a Twain scholar himself–Lou Budd walked up and mistook me for a waiter.  I will leave the story he told in explanation to his mistake out here, but it more than made up for any confusion.

After a wonderful dinner and a tour of the house, many people made the trek up the hill to the spot where Twain’s octagonal study sat.  There are moments in one’s life that you know you will tell stories about for years–maybe 5 or 10 or even 20–but there are few stories you know, at the time, that you will tell for the rest of your life.  For those of us who walked up the hill at Quarry Farm to the spot of Mark Twain’s study to smoke cigars, to sing songs, and to listen to Hal Holbrook tell stories, there is no doubt of the fact.

A heck of a time, then, to test out the video function of my new camera.  I wasn’t even sure it recorded in sound… but it did and in pretty good sound, too.  Since a number of people couldn’t hear Hal speak, or were on the porch playing music, I have posted the below clips of his story of meeting Clara (and Isabel Lyon).  I stopped recording as he described his heartbreaking meeting with Nina, which seems fitting in retrospect.  I hope you enjoy.
Click to see videos.
Joe Csicsilla lighting Hal Holbrook’s Cigar
Photo by Tracy Wuster
(c) Tracy Wuster, 2012

10 responses

  1. […] Happy Birthday Hal Holbrook! Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. from → Academic Society, Huck Finn, Humor Studies, Mark Twain ← The third best gift of all: The Muppets and Laughter Book of Knowledge → No comments yet […]

  2. Loved your article, and listening to the videos – They appeared as total blackness to me, except the occasional spark of light when someone lit or puffed on a cigar!

    Thanks for sharing.

  3. Tracy, I enjoyed this. It gives you something to tell your grandchildren.

  4. […] Many kudos to Hal Holbrook.  I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Holbrook at the 6th International Conference on the State of Mark Twain Studies (i.e. Mark Twain Summer Camp) in Elmira, NY.  I told the story of our meeting and posted clips of Mr. Holbrook telling stories awhile back. […]

  5. Here is a story from the Hartford Courant that retells this story: http://blogs.courant.com/cgi-bin/mt/mt-c.cgi

  6. […] attended the previous conference would testify that it was the best conference ever.  See our post on Hal Holbrook for video/audio of Mr. Holbrook telling stories on the site of Mark Twain’s study.  Here is […]

  7. […] The highlight of the last conference was the presence of Hal Holbrook, especially his storytelling on the site of Mark Twain’s study lit by the moon and cigars.  I wrote about this event and posted the audio of his storytelling in a previous post. […]

  8. Reblogged this on Humor in America and commented:

    Happy 88th Birthday to Hal Holbrook.

  9. […] In addition to high-quality papers on Mark Twain and related subjects, the conference features themed dinners, fancy speakers, Twain scholars singing songs, and storytelling.  Hal Holbrook telling stories on the original sight of Mark Twain’s study was an event we will all remember for the remainder of our lives (you can read more about the last conference and listen to Holbrook speaking here). […]

  10. […] for a barbeque on Quarry Farm, smoking cigars in the dark where Twain’s study once stood, with Hal Holbrook recounting the time he met actual Clemenses as a young man pretending to be Mark T…. And I got to know Larry, a man who knew my parents as kids, who played in a band with my […]

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