CHAD LUNDQUIST / Mark Twain Cultural Center

For 24 years, McAvoy Layne has transformed himself into the humorist as the "Ghost of Mark Twain," performing around the world.

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McAvoy Layne keeps the spirit of Mark Twain alive

Published: Monday, Sep. 26, 2011 - 10:51 am | Page 3D

See that man over there, the one with curly, grayish-white hair? Is that Mark Twain of Hannibal, Mo., or McAvoy Layne of Incline Village, Nev.? It's hard to tell them apart – and that's the point.

For 24 years, Layne has transformed himself into the famous humorist as the "Ghost of Mark Twain" to deliver more than 2,000 performances to fascinated audiences in venues worldwide.

Closer to home, he stars in the year-round "An Evening With Mark Twain for Adults" at the Mark Twain Cultural Center in Incline Village. The venue is a cross between a theater, a music hall and a living-history museum co-owned and curated by Layne and his wife, Rebecca (www. marktwainculturalcenter.org, www.ghostoftwain.org and www.spiritoftwain.org).

Layne's popular "Mark Twain's Tales of Tahoe" summer cruises take place aboard the two sternwheelers that ply Lake Tahoe – the Tahoe Queen and the M.S. Dixie II.

Layne played the ghost of Samuel Clemens in A&E's Twain biography and in the Discovery Channel's award-winning documentary "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn."

Layne as Twain will have his say Thursday at The Big Read/Bee Book Club event, where he will remind us that the reports of his death "are greatly exaggerated."

I caught up with Layne, 68, by phone at his Incline Village home:

Like Samuel Clemens, you've delved into a number of occupations, from lifeguard to radio personality. How did you become Mark Twain's doppelganger?

In 1975 I came over from Hawaii to Lake Tahoe to ski. I rented a cabin in Tahoma for five days. It snowed 5 feet the first night and I was trapped in the cabin.

I thought it was the worst stroke of luck, but it turned out to be the best, because on the coffee table was a book of Mark Twain's essays. I got cabin fever and my brain got soft, so in those conditions his essays made perfect sense. That seed was planted in fertile ground and my life started to change.

What happened next?

It took me 10 years to read the other 18,000 pages he left us – 29 volumes. I wanted to (market) myself (as a Twain double) but I wasn't sure I could pull it off. At the time, I was in my young 40s and training for a triathlon. I would ride my bike for hours and listen to (audiotapes) of (actor) Hal Holbrook (imitating Twain). Hal gave me the courage to try it.

When did you debut the character?

At my father's 75th birthday dinner at a restaurant in Carmel. I excused myself from the table and put on my Twain suit. I quickly messed up my hair and whitened it and my moustache (with baby powder) – everyone thinks it's a wig, but it's not – came back and did a short piece for my father. It left him with his jaw hanging so wide open that you could have put a ham in his mouth. He thoroughly enjoyed it and saw some socially redeeming value in my portraying Mark Twain. Before that, I was a disc jockey on Maui, (a job) he didn't think should be legal.

Do you still use baby powder?

No, now I spray my hair and moustache with Streaks 'n' Tips. I buy it by the case. It costs me about $500 a year.

How do you personally change when you're Twain?

His sense of humor has seeped into me and helps lighten the burdens of my daily life. There is something bigger than a sense of humor, which I call having a humorous outlook on life. If you have that, as Twain did, it keeps you from souring and cuts down on your doctor bills. He was a prodigious noticer of human nature, and (that nature) hasn't changed much. That's why he's so relevant today.

You're finishing a Twain/Layne biography/autobiography.

"Becoming Mark Twain" is about ready. It chronologically follows Twain's life and my life in becoming him. It's arranged by the exciting things that happened in his life in certain years – meeting the love of his life, publishing another book. Then I go along as kind of a trailer, telling what was happening in my life at the same age.

You've traveled the world portraying Twain.

The State Department sent me to Europe on three occasions to appear in American schools. I was invited to Leningrad University in Russia to lecture on Twain's life. I went to Hawaii and (performed) his letters from the Sandwich Islands, which he wrote for the Sacramento Union in 1866.

If you could ask Twain one question, what would it be?

I'd ask the one thing he said or wrote or did that he would like to take back. We all have regrets.

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Read more articles by Allen Pierleoni



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