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Monday, February 8, 2021

Hal Holbrook on Mt. Tom, Holyoke, Massachusetts

Beloved memories and tributes pour forth as we note the recent passing of actor Hal Holbrook, perhaps most famous for the one-man show he created: “Mark Twain Tonight!”  He first achieved his actor’s union Equity card working for a noted summer theater on top of Mt. Tom, in Holyoke, Massachusetts in the early 1950s.  The ramshackle wooden playhouse was called, grandly, “The Casino.”  The resident troupe was The Valley Players.

Though their name paid tribute to the region of the Pioneer Valley, that broad swath of history and dinosaur tracks that comprise that section of the Connecticut River valley, the playhouse was actually on the grounds of an amusement park…on the top of a mountain…at the edge of a factory town.  No scenic shoreline summer barn, but a working, vibrant company in a glorified shack in as unlikely a place for traditional New England summer theatre as one might find. 
Holbrook and his first wife, Ruby were members of the company for a few years in the early 1950s.  In 1957 he returned as a guest to open the season with his show on Mark Twain, performing it in its full-length version for the first time.
The following passages are from my book, Comedy and Tragedy on the Mountain: 70 Years of Summer Theatre on Mt. Tom, Holyoke, Massachusetts.
We begin with Holbrook’s own recollections from his memoir:

While The Firebrand was playing eight performances, Monday through Saturday, we were also rehearsing Goodbye My Fancy to open the following Monday.  While Fancy played its eight performance schedule we’d rehearse the next play, and so on down the twelve-week summer season.  We rehearsed five hours a day, but only two hours on matinee days, Wednesdays and Saturdays, and we learned the lines at night after the evening’s performance.  Jean and Carlton’s rambling old home became our clubhouse, where there was close companionship and plenty of beer on ice.  We cued each other over and over until we had nailed those pages of lines into our brains.  Sleep was the only thing that was rationed.
In an on-camera interview for the locally produced television documentary, Mountain Park Memories, Mr. Holbrook recalled,
You had to learn all new lines.  A new play…I can’t even believe  today what  we  did.   You’d stay up till 2 o’clock working real hard on your lines.  You’d go back, you’re trying to get six, seven hours sleep.  Get up, rehearse all day, do the show again at night, then learn the lines in the middle of the night for the next.  And you do that every night, every day, week after week.  And it took spirit…
Mr. Holbrook’s chapter in his memoir, Harold, on The Valley Players is filled with delightful reminiscences of specific plays.  He would receive his first featured role for The Valley Players in Candlelight in late August.
 The Valley Players managers noted of Holbrook in a program at the end of the 1953 season:
Admirable actor as he was from the outset in 1951, his work has broadened and deepened and humanized as season after season unfolded.  One of the greatest rewards of summer-theater management is to see a fine actor mature in ever-greater and greater achievements.  All that we can provide is the opportunity: the credit for making the most of it belongs to the actor.  Mr. Holbrook, we believe, will go far in the world of theater…
The local press had equally warm thoughts that summer towards the acting company:
The Valley Players have made this community a richer place in which to live during the summer season.  They’ve made for us a happy feeling that they belong to us…  The Valley Players themselves, as persons, make a happy factor in our community life.  A group with high standards as individuals, people you wish you might know better and still be able to invest them with the glamour that they lay upon us.  We could wish we might show ourselves as hosts eager to do them honor, we thank Carlton and Jean Guild for choosing to settle into our Holyoke life and for wanting to stay with us…
 In 1954 Hal Holbrook went to New York and had a regular job on the radio soap opera, The Brighter Day.  He did regional theatre, and appeared in clubs in New York with skits on some new material he had worked up himself – on the nineteenth century humorist Mark Twain.  It would be his making as an actor.  He performed his Mark Twain persona on The Ed Sullivan Show and The Tonight Show with Steve Allen on television, and by the end of the decade, would debut a full-length one-man show on Twain—at The Valley Players as a special guest performer in 1957.
Mr. Holbrook notes from his autobiography, Harold
On June 6, just before heading to Holyoke, I got another appearance on NBC’s Tonight Show with Jack Lescoulie as host.  Would that help me fill the big open-sided Mountain Park Casino in Holyoke?  I wondered.
Mark Twain Tonight!, presented at Holyoke in its first full-length version, was a career-making event for Hal Holbrook.  It opened The Valley Players’ sixteenth season.  The reviews were fabulous.
From Louise Mace of the Springfield Union:
“…a unique and rewarding program…in all life, so it seemed, there was Samuel Langhorne Clemens himself, complete with immaculate, comfortably wrinkled white suit, brisk red tie, drooping white mustache, ample white headpiece, and the inevitable cigar…a re-creation of a man and a mind in a deeply kneaded personification.”
From the Daily Hampshire Gazette:
His portrayal is both a science and an art. He has paid scrupulous attention to detail, from the shuffling walk to the twinkle in his eye.  Hal Holbrook never draws a breath on stage—it is Mark Twain even when he tells a story requiring the dialect and mannerisms of three or four additional characters.  A remarkable piece of showmanship, Mark Twain, Tonight at the Casino through Saturday merits your attendance.
The Holyoke Transcript-Telegram called it “a fascinating artistic masterpiece…the young Mr. Holbrook, remembered as the company’s handsome leading man a few year ago, is dropped from mind the instant Mark Twain enters the stage…”
 Barbara Bernard, who attended the opening night performance, remembers:
I thought: this is going to fall flat on its ear, or it’s going to be something so different.  Well, it was—and it was magnificent.  He came out in that rumpled white suit.  Oh, he was terrific.
William Guild recalls:
It took him two hours to put on that makeup.  You know, back then you had to use putty and all kinds of stuff that they can do so easily now.  But I mean he was late twenties or maybe thirty.  But I used to drive him up to the theater three hours before the performance for the week that he was doing it, and we would sit in the dressing room while he did makeup, and talk.  I have very fond memories of that.  He was kind of like an uncle in a way.
In less than two years, Holbrook’s one-man show would be a smash on Broadway.

(Note, the above photo is of Holbrook as Twain as he preformed it in 1957 on Mt. Tom.  Courtesy Holyoke Public Library History Room and Archives.)

For your copy of Comedy and Tragedy on the Mountain: 70 Years of Summer Theatre on Mt. Tom, Holyoke, Massachusetts, please see this universal link for the eBook available at Barnes & Noble, Apple, and a variety of other online shops.

For the print book and also eBook, please see this link to Amazon.

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