Hal Holbrook on the Springer: It’s a beautifully restored old house
Actor Hal Holbrook, left, appears with Springer Opera House producing artistic director Paul Pierce in 2012.
Hal Holbrook, two weeks shy of his 92nd birthday, will stand on the main stage of the Springer Opera House Friday night as Mark Twain, a role he has played and perfected since 1954.
Performing the one-actor play “Mark Twain Tonight” at the Springer is not lost on Holbrook, he said during a recent interview. He holds the restored 19th century theater in high regard.
“It’s special — it’s extraordinarily special,” Holbrook said of the Springer. “It has so many special qualities about it. To begin with, it’s one of the few theaters that has anything like the history or the antiquity of the Springer Opera House.”
He has twice performed the Mark Twain play at the Springer and said any actor would treasure the experience of performing on that stage.
“To begin with, it’s a beautifully restored old house,” he said. “There’s not many houses in the United States that can even come close to matching the restoration job that has been done on this beautiful theater. It’s like going back in time.”
The Springer Opera House opened in downtown Columbus in 1871 by immigrant businessman Francis Joseph Springer. It was renovated in 1964 and saved from demolition. In 1998, there was a $12 million renovation that restored the theater to its full glory.
The old theaters hold a special place in his heart, Holbrook said.
“The other thing is the theater’s built today, modern stages can’t even touch it — none of them,” he said. “They can’t touch the acoustical quality, or the charm, or the tradition that the Springer has. The Springer is just a very special place.”
The Holbrook performance will celebrate the new Georgia Repertory Theatre partnership between the Springer and the CSU Department of Theatre. As part of his visit, Mr. Holbrook will also conduct a symposium for students in the CSU Department of Theatre and the Springer Theatre Academy.
There are a limited number of $75 tickets remaining to the “Mark Twain Tonight” performance, said Springer producing artistic director Paul Pierce. The show begins at 7:30 p.m.
Having Holbrook perform at the Springer sends an important message, Pierce said.
“It is a reminder that the good old days are today,” Pierce said. “The Springer stage is just as alive and as important as it was in 1871. It is not a museum. It is a living, breathing artistic element that lives within this community.”
Holbrook, an award-winning movie and theater star, has played the Mark Twain role much of his life. In the early 1950s, he was searching for a way to do a one-man play when he was introduced to Twain, a 19th century American writer, publisher, lecturer, humorist and entrepreneur.
He had performed with his first wife, Ruby. She would interview him as he portrayed historical figures.
“I had to find a way to put together a show all by myself because I couldn’t work with her anymore,” he said. “She was sick. A friend of mine suggested I look at Mark Twain to do a solo play. Actually, it was the son of Mark Twain’s lecture manager.”
As Holbrook puts it, the idea “scared the hell out of me.”
“I went up to his office to ask him what I should do, and I walked out on the streets of New York and walked around in this terrible cement jungle with no family and no money in the bank,” he said. “I looked at the people going by in the taxi cabs. I don’t think I ever felt so helpless.”
He did what he knew to do, research the character.
“So, I went up to 58th Street to the Argosy book store on the east side and I asked where Mark Twain was,” he said. “They said upstairs, to the left. I went up there, started looking at some books, and that’s when I started working on Twain. I had never read Mark Twain. I had no knowledge of him at all. I didn’t know anything about him, basically, except his name.”
The first work he picked up was “Tom Sawyer.”
“I started reading that book, and I was feeling pretty low, and hopeless, and no friends, no money,” he said. “About three or four pages in, I stopped and said to myself, ‘You know I’ve been feeling pretty horrible, but now I feel a little better. I wonder why? What is it about this guy, the way he writes, that makes me feel better?’”
The more he read, the more connection he felt to Twain.
“It was very lucky I found him, he found me, whatever,” Holbrook said. “Because there’s nothing about him that dates itself. He’s not old. He’s just as relevant today because his head was very modern, or even more. It was futuristic. He will never date himself because the human race will never date itself.”
There are five dates for “Mark Twain Tonight” booked through May and they are in in larger cities. Holbrook is scheduled to play Mesa, Ariz., later this month; Newport News, Va., in March; two dates in Denver in April; and Philadelphia in May.
Chuck Williams: 706-571-8510, @chuckwilliams
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