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McAvoy Layne Perfects Mark Twain

January 17, 2024 | Member Submitted

Originally Published in IVCBA’s Live Work.Play Magazine, Written by Richard Minor

Thirty five years after beginning his stage career as The Ghost of Mark Twain Incline’s McAvoy Layne rang down the curtain at Virginia City’s Piper’s Opera House on the evening of September 30 with what he claimed to be his final stage performance. Mac’s amazing career spanned three and one half decades and over 4000 performances for audiences across the USA and around the World. His penultimate performance was staged just a week earlier with an outdoor performance for locals at St. Patrick’s Church which was also a standing room only affair. For those of you who missed my article in the Spring Edition of Live.Work.Play about how a local radio morning show host became famed author and humorist Mark Twain’s meme you can read all about that at the following web address: https://issuu.com/articles/21009152

Over the course of attending his performances over the years many of you have said that if they had the chance they have questions they’d like to ask McAvoy. Some of these questions recur regularly so I’ve asked Mac some of the most frequently raised ones and here are his answers.

The Famous White Suit: McAvoy always performed as Twain wearing a beautifully tailored white suit so to start down that thread (nice pun, that) I asked him when did the historical Mark Twain first start wearing white in public? McAvoy responded that historians agree Twain first started wearing white suits upon the death of his beloved wife Olivia in 1904. But it was his appearance in 1906 in an address to the Library of Congress on the occasion of their consideration of new legislation regarding changing the provisions of the copyright laws that marked the first time he began wearing white any time he appeared in public. Twain, according to McAvoy, called his all white attire “my I don’t give a damn suit.”  Mac’s first public appearance in white came while he was still working as the morning show host on Incline radio station KLKT and trying out his Mark Twain stories in the afternoons for local elementary school children. For what he regarded as his breakout performance he decided to make a surprise appearance as Mark Twain at his father’s 75th birthday party at the LaPlaya restaurant in Carmel, CA. For the occasion he ordered a tailored white suit from a Carson City seamstress named Josephine Baldassare. At the time Mac was also training for the Iron Man races in Hawaii and for the bicycle portion of that event he was riding round trips on SR 50 from Carson City to Spooner Summit and back. “I’d ride downhill, have a fitting with Josephine and then ride back up to Spooner.” How’s that for a training regimen?

After his performance for his dad and his dad’s long time business friends and social cronies McAvoy decided he’d found his niche and the white suit became his attire for all subsequent performances including his visits to area schools. Over the course of the next thirty plus years Mac admits to having had at least a dozen white suits made to order, three or four by Josephine and after she passed (Mac spoke at her funeral) three or four more ladies stepped up to the task and made the rest. He currently admits to having seven white suits with accessories, “…six in the closet at home and one I keep in the car so I can still go to work in case the house burns down.” For years McAvoy’s suits have always been lovingly cleaned and pressed by his friend Mike Trute’s Incline Cleaners.  Mike, for his own part, also has a thespian streak and now performs as Snowshoe Thompson in venues around the Wasach, in no small part encouraged by his friendship with the Ghost of Mark Twain himself.

McAvoy’s Twain Monologues: Among many others, I have always wondered how many different Mark Twain stories McAvoy has had in his repertoire over the years and whether each one is an exact copy of Twain’s text on the subject or if they are edited or rearranged to fit the circumstance of each show. Mac replied that he probably has mastered some 400 Twain monologues that are combined, lengthened or shortened from the original text, to suit the audience or occasion. As an example he mentioned that his rendition of 1601 which was the grand finale of his final Piper’s appearance on September 30 was a good example of this kind of adaptation. Walking over to the book case he pulled off a rare copy of that story which he explained was written by Twain just to amuse his good friend the Reverend Joseph Twichell of Hartford, CT and was originally not published and had never been performed, at least in public, to McAvoy’s knowledge. Mac was gifted a bound copy on a trip to Germany many years ago and set about seeing if it could be condensed for verbal performance. That slight and beautifully illustrated volume easily runs to twenty or more pages of text with exquisite calligraphy—enough material to easily comprise an entire half of a normal Ghost of Twain stage presentation and contains Twain’s not for public language which would make even a constable blush. So Mac shortened the text to something like 10-12 minutes and delivers it in flawless period English to the rare audiences who are probably hearing Twain’s words for the first, and perhaps only time they ever would otherwise. And similar editing is required for much, if not most, of every monologue McAvoy has performed over the years as Mark Twain.

His original presentation in Incline Village elementary school classrooms usually ran the likes of the classic Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County to excerpts from Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Fin. For his coming of age performance for his father’s 75th birthday party he worked his first version of Twain’s “The Cure for the Common Cold.” His real breakthrough came when Carol Piper Marshall heard about his achievements with local school children and asked Mac if he’d be interested in performing at her fabled opera house in Virginia City. McAvoy was still hanging on to his morning radio job but had afternoons off and with a baby son on the way needed the extra income. He agreed to do two shows a day at one an three PM six days a week for four months and it not only forced him to develop new material but also gave him the opportunity to perfect his “Twain Voice” as well as discover what worked with live audiences and what didn’t. It also allowed him to finally quit his job in radio and devote full time to becoming the Ghost of Mark Twain.

McAvoy notes that Mark Twain had a rhythm of writing that Mac came to call “American Folk Song” echoing the kind of Peter, Paul and Mary cadences of the time and notes that “…once I could get into that space it made memorizing passages of text much easier for me.” 

Perfecting Twain Speak: “I was 45 years old when I started perfecting my notion of how Mark Twain must have sounded in his 60’s and 70’s when speaking publicly back in the day. Now I’m six years older than when Twain died so I sure don’t need to sound old anymore. If anything, I need to sound a little bit younger than I actually am!” As a matter of fact, no recording of Mark Twain actually speaking exists today because the only known one was made by Thomas Edison on a wax cylinder which was subsequently melted in a fire at Edison’s studios. “I have to give a big hand to Hal Holbrook,” says McAvoy. “Holbrook was the consummate actor and Twain impersonator before I came along. However Hal effected a voice for Twain that was just a little too “southern” for my thinking.” Scholar William Dean Howells said this about Sam: “He was the most desouthernized southerner I ever knew.” Mac continues, “By the end of his life Sam pretty well had shucked the Missouri accent and from what his friends have said he pretty much spoke the King’s English.” As a final comment on whether Twain’s writings should be strictly followed when turned for use in stage performances Mac suggests Twain long since answered that question by saying “Literary work must be broken up for a listening audience.” I’ll let Sam have the final word on that subject.

I conclude by mentioning several more questions that folks have asked McAvoy over the years.

How many performances as Mark Twain have you given over the years? Probably over 4,000.

How many Twain stories have you memorized and performed? At least 1000.

What is your favorite Mark Twain book? Roughing It.

What is your favorite Mark Twain story? “Wheresoever she was, there was Eden…..”

What was your most gratifying performance? Piper’s Opera House, September 30, 2023.

Bonus Question: If you did just one more performance, something you’ve never done before, what would it be? I’d perform “The Diaries of Adam and Eve” with my old high school and college sweetheart, Tina Cole, in period costumes (Twain’s period, not Adam’s) here in Incline Village for charity.

Bonus Story: Some years ago the Western Governor’s Conference was hosted in Carson City by then Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval and it had been arranged that the visiting governors and some of their staffs would be transported to Cave Rock on the south shore of Lake Tahoe for a history lesson with Washoe Indian tribal officials. McAvoy Layne dressed as Mark Twain was invited to accompany the dignitaries to enliven the journey. When their chartered bus pulled up to the entrance to the boat harbor below Cave Rock the driver was ordered to stop by the guard who informed him that the parking lot was full and they must turn around and come back another day. The driver protested saying that he was carrying Governor Sandoval and the governors of several other states to an important meeting and they must come in. The guard was resolute and said show me the governor. The driver invited the guard to step into the bus whereupon he spotted McAvoy Layne dressed in his whites seated behind the driver. The guard looked at Mac smiled and exclaimed to all within earshot, “That’s not the governor, That’s Mark Twain!” 

PS: They were allowed to come on in….


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