Remembering Hal Holbrook, Proctors performer and patron

Hal Holbrook as Mark Twain. (Tribune News Service)
PHOTOGRAPHER:

Hal Holbrook as Mark Twain. (Tribune News Service)

Hal Holbrook was not only a performer at Proctors but a patron who helped shine a light on the historic theater. 

(It was announced this week that Holbrook, 95, died on Jan. 23 at his home in Beverly Hills.)

In 1981, just a few years after the theater had reopened, Holbrook performed “Mark Twain Tonight!” a show that Dennis Madden, former executive director of Proctors, well remembers. 

“It took him four hours to get [his] makeup on every night and, me being rather new at Proctors, a good deal of that time . . . I sat with him as he put his makeup on in our old dressing rooms and got to know him a little bit,” Madden said. 

After the show, Madden remembers he wanted to take Holbrook to dinner, but it took the actor another two hours to remove all the stage makeup. So he called up a restaurant on Jay Street and the owner agreed to stay open late for the pair. 

“The two of us walked over there about midnight and sat down and unfortunately drank two bottles of wine and talked and got to know each other and got to be pretty friendly,” Madden said. 

At around 2 a.m., Madden remembers Holbrook asking him to get a press conference together for 9 a.m. at the airport so that he could announce a challenge grant for Proctors. He would contribute $1,000 if five other people in the city could match his donation. 

“Now, $1,000 doesn’t sound like a lot right not but in 1981 it was a ton of money for us. Our shows at that time, for a Broadway show, were $12.50 down to $5. So a thousand was a big deal,” Madden said. 

He got a press conference together and they were able to secure the donations, some of which went to the refurbishment of the building. 

That financial assistance certainly helped, but months later, with the theater still struggling, Madden reached out to Holbrook to see if the actor would be interested in doing a few advertisements for Proctors. To Madden’s surprise, Holbrook immediately agreed to do it as a donation and even wrote one ad himself. 

“When I played Proctors with Mark Twain it was a wonderful experience for me. I felt moved to be in a theatre with great traditions. What a valuable treasure you have here. You couldn’t replace this at any price,” Holbrook said in the commercial. 

“We were really struggling. Consider again what the ticket prices were and how hard it was to convince people to come to the theater but now we had Hal Holbrook standing up on TV and saying ‘This is a special place. When I perform here I can hear the voices of George Burns and Red Skelton’ And he would go on in this ad about the history and the beauty and the incredible acoustics,” Madden said. 

According to regional history expert Marilyn Sassi, Holbrook felt that the theater connected him with his mother, who was also in show business. 

“He always said when he was in the wings, waiting to go on stage, he always felt like his mother was around him and that was another reason why he loved the theater so much. He felt like somehow her spirit was in connection with him,” Sassi said. 

Holbrook returned to the Electric City several times in the ensuing years to perform, and once to be named a Patroon of the city by then-mayor Karen Johnson. The “HH” row of refurbished seats in the theater is dedicated to Holbrook, and there is a portrait of the actor on display in the theater’s history museum. 

“It was terrific to know him. He’s an incredible actor obviously but he meant a lot to . . . the theater. He didn’t keep it from getting torn down but he sure made it a bigger success than it ever would have been I think,” Madden said.

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