McAvoy Layne climbed the stage chomping on an unlighted cigar,his shock of spray-painted white hair bright in the spotlights. You cant beat an audience thats been waiting 100 years, he said to the crowd.
Layne,67,is a Mark Twain impersonator. Long consigned to the dustbin of historical-society meetings and elementary school classrooms,Twain impersonators are now selling out shows,and making real money.They attribute much of this to spinoff attention that came with 2010s surprise best seller,the 736-page Autobiography of Mark Twain on the centennial of Twains death. So far some 500,000 copies are in print.
Ken Teutsch,48,had all but given up on his one-man show about Twains time working on the Mississippi as a steamboat pilot. Then last fall,people began watching clips of his show on YouTube,and inquiries started coming in. He made a New Years resolution to start booking Twain shows again.
The undisputed monarch of Mark Twain impersonators is Hal Holbrook,85,who has played Twain going on 57 years. Holbrook began a successful Hollywood acting career with his one-man show Mark Twain Tonight! which continues to sell out theatres. It is sometimes said that the legions of Mark Twain impersonators would be more accurately described as Hal Holbrook impersonators. While newspaper reviews of his lectures from the late 19th century hint at his delivery (slow,with a Southern drawl),no recordings of Twains voice exist. 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,concede that these men in their fake moustaches and feigned accents play an important role in keeping the real man alive in the publics imagination. They get their impression,their idea of Mark Twain,from these impersonators, Smith said.
Geographical proximity made Pat Kaunert,61,a Twain fanatic. He grew up near Angels Camp,Calif.,the backdrop for Twains short story The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County. After a career with the National Forest Service,he 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,I felt comfortable making the decision to retire,knowing full well I have this other lifetime adventure and career to pursue, he said.