Betwixt and be Twain

2002-01-14T00:00:00Z Betwixt and be TwainBy Daniel G. Clark of the Muscatine Journal Muscatine Journal
January 14, 2002 12:00 am  • 

MUSCATINE, Iowa - Max Churchill, 70, has portrayed this river city's famous resident, Mark Twain, "a few over 400 times" since August 1979.

His lines weren't hard that first time. The monologue would come later.

Retired from a 40-year career at Kent Feeds where he was an animal nutritionist and researcher, Churchill said he's always had a penchant for history.

Muscatine's Twain (Samuel Clemens) connection interested him before Norbert Beckey opened his insurance agency in the McKibben House where a 1983 historical marker outlines the story. Beckey asked Churchill's help in researching the history of the neighborhood prior to the August 1979 dedication.

"He says, 'Idea: let's do it. Buy a mustache and wig. I'll advertise you can meet an old friend who used to live in Muscatine.'" Churchill recalled.

"The door would open, and I greeted them, 'Hi, I'm Mark Twain; I used to live across the street.'"

Churchill said he was in two high-school plays at Lewiston, Ill., but had no other training for acting.

"I was voted the soberest senior," he said.

As Twain, he wore a white suit he'd bought for his other character, Norman Baker. He'd started portraying that notorious Muscatine figure in 1976.

"I thought it was kind of stupid to pay $125 and not get more use from it," he said. "Mark Twain wore white suits. I replaced it twice."

The impersonation was a hit, so Churchill did it again for the Great River Days parade later that month, then several more times.

"Robert Gamble, pastor of Letts United Methodist Church, called me to do a mother-daughter banquet. 'Oh,' I said, 'I don't do programs.'

"I made up 26 cards. After four or five performances, I threw them away."

He has so studied and steeped himself in the material, he said, that it's now easy to put on the character and "converse" with an audience "for 25 to 35 minutes, depending on how it goes."

He watched Hal Holbrook and other Twain actors and got ideas and studied all the other information he could find.

"I tried to get down mannerisms," he said. Some people considered his Twain portrayal the best, he said, hurrying to add that he didn't mean to brag.

"If I said yes every time the phone rings, my wife and I wouldn't be able to get out of town," he said.

After founding the Hanni-bal Journal in the family's Missouri hometown in 1849, Orion Clemens, Samuel's older brother by 10 years, moved upriver in 1853 and became half-owner of the Muscatine Journal, with John Mahin. He published dispatches from 18-year-old Samuel, two from Philadelphia in December, then one from Washington in February.

"Sam came from St. Louis on the packet Keokuk in 1854," Churchill recounts, adding that nobody seems to know just when that was.

He lived in the small house at 109 Walnut St. with Orion and their mother, Jane Clemens, and three-years-younger brother Henry. He worked at the Journal, without pay, as printer's devil (apprentice) and news writer. He left for St. Louis sometime in early winter. The Journal published two of his reports from St. Louis, in February and March 1855. Orion married in December 1854, sold his share of the paper and moved to Keokuk in June 1855.

Henry Clemens worked at Burnett's bookstore, Churchill said.

"Sam would loaf in the bookstore. Supposedly he was often seen carrying a book around - probably where he got interested in books."

"An interesting thing about the sunsets," he said, referring to the locally most-remembered passage in "Life on the Mississippi."

"In 1854, there were several volcanic explosions, including Mount Saint Helens, that put a lot of dust in the air. He mentioned sunsets around the world."

Churchill said he's enjoying a new book, "Mark Twain: An Illustrated Biography," by Geoffrey C. Ward, Dayton Duncan and Ken Burns. It is the companion book to the latest Ken Burns PBS television program, which will be air tonight and Tuesday. He borrowed it from the library and has been reading in preparation for watching the four-hour show.

Then he will write to the authors, he said.

"There are three or four corrections I want to make and then congratulate them on an excellent biography," he said. For one thing, the book includes no reference to Muscatine.

Churchill said he's not finished with stepping out in his Mark Twain persona.

"Samuel Clemens was 145 pounds, 8-1/2 inches, with hazel blue eyes," he said, his own blue eyes looking ever so sober. His own white suit would have fit the author without alteration, he added.

"If you see another Mark Twain who's taller or shorter, bigger or smaller, then you know he's a fake."

Daniel G. Clark can be reached at 563-263-2331(ext. 322) or mailto:dan.clark@muscatinejournal.com

Copyright 2015 Muscatine Journal. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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