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Marvin Cole will portray Mark Twain
at Gen. Butler State Park

By Levi King
Staff Writer

CARROLLTON, Ky. (November 2005) – Marvin Cole was the dean of Dekalb College in Atlanta when he rediscovered Mark Twain.

Mark Twain

Sam Clemens - Mark Twain

“They asked me to sit in on a discussion of ‘Huck Finn,’ and it was a completely different novel than the ‘Huck’ I read when I was 13,” he said. Noticing Cole’s curiosity, as well as his resemblance to the author, faculty members suggested that he portray Twain at an upcoming event. One appearance led to another, and 25 years later, Cole is still performing as Twain. Cole, 73, will present “An Evening With Mark Twain: Tall Tales & Anecdotes” at the Butler-Turpin House at Butler State Resort Park at 6:30 p.m. on Nov. 12. The dinner theatre performance will include selections from Twain’s novels and short stories, as well as personal accounts taken from his notes and letters.
“I have about six hours memorized,” Cole said. He plans to open with the famous fence-painting scene from “Tom Sawyer,” then segue into other bits. Cole modifies the program to match his venues, which range from nursing homes and Elderhostels to elementary schools. “English teachers laugh in different places than accountants,” he noted.
Cole, who grew up in western North Carolina, retired to his grandfather’s farm in Asheville in 1995. He maintains a schedule of about 40 presentations each year. These performances have taken him to 20 states, and included gigs on the Delta Queen, Mississippi Queen and the Belle of Louisville. These riverboat excursions are special because they allow audiences to see Twain in a setting that figures heavily in the author’s life and work.
The re-enactor avidly reads new books and articles to better understand his subject. “We keep studying Twain and learning more about him,” he said. Some biographers have not been kind to Twain, painting him as a miserable pessimist, but Cole disagrees. “He was a complex person,” Cole said. “It took us 100 years to figure out ‘Huck Finn.’ I don’t think we’ve even recognized some of his other writings yet, like ‘Puddin’ Head Wilson.’ ” Cole has also visited Twain’s hometown, Hannibal, Mo., numerous times, and met with other Twain impersonators. There are at least a dozen other Twains in the country, Cole said. Every four years, several of them convene in Elmira, N.Y., where Twain died, to compare notes.
It takes more than research to put on a good show, however. Cole first recruited a drama major to critique his act, practicing in the college gymnasium. Today, Cole and wife, Miriam, a retired kindergarten teacher, are members of the Asheville Storytelling Circle, the North Carolina Storytelling Guild and the National Storytelling Network. Miriam sometimes performs with Cole in a 40-minute Twain piece called “The Diaries of Adam and Eve,” but the majority of her stories are autobiographical. The Asheville group holds regular meetings, where storytellers take turns introducing new tales or refining old material. Fellow members then offer suggestions for improvement. The couple attends state storytelling workshops, which Cole said are also popular among comedians, ministers and district attorneys.
Hal Holbrook, actor and Twain impersonator, has also been an influence on Cole. “Hal is fantastic,” he said. “When I go see him now, I know what he’s going to say, so I pay more attention to his delivery.” The quality of a performance, Cole explained, is in the details. “Twain was a master of the pause. I’ve tried to achieve that.”
People still connect to Twain because “he’s current,” Cole said. “Congress is still lousy, state legislators are still dishonest, and people still can’t get along with their neighbors.” Cole said that audiences enjoy segments that jab at politicians and school boards, but beyond Twain’s sarcasm lies a greater significance. “There really is a message that I hope sometimes gets through, and that’s about getting along with each other, and not looking down on others.”

• Tickets are $30 and include dinner. Call Gen. Butler State Resort Park at 1-866-462-8853.

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