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Rod as Mark Twain at Selby Gardens, Sarasota, FL
original photo by Heidi Kurpiela
Rod Rawlings: Twain Incarnate
 
Longboat Key Observer
by: Heidi Kurpiela | A & E Editor


Mark Twain would have a hard time calling Rod Rawlings’ bluff. He’s got
all the right moves, the right looks and the right attitude. Fuzzy-white
unkempt hair? Check. Fuzzy-white unkempt moustache? Check. Tailored
ivory suit? Check. Red socks? Check. Corncob pipe? Check.
Tight-lipped smirk? Check. Slow, deliberate speech pattern? Check.

As far as Twain impersonators go, Rawlings is a dead ringer. Just being in
his company can make you feel like you’re dangling your feet in the
Mississippi River, watching a riverboat chug out of sight. Maybe it’s his
low voice. It has a calming effect.

Mark Twain and Friends of the Era

“People in their 50s and older have no trouble recognizing me,” Rawlings
says. “Some of the younger ones, when they see me, they know I’m one
of those dead writers whose books they had to read in school. Or they
mistake me for Einstein.”

Einstein and Twain Cartoon Comparison

If you’ve ever adventured with Huck Finn or Tom Sawyer, you’d never
mistake Twain for Einstein.

A real-estate broker by trade, Rawlings is sitting stoically under a canopy
of imposing oaks at Marie Selby Botanical Gardens. As anticipated, he’s
dressed in full Twain regalia, down to the suspenders holding up his
Italian-made britches. His hair, he reveals, is naturally brown. He started
dying it two years ago when he decided to embody the famous author
and humorist at the peak of his celebrity: age 70.

Mark Twain on the Platform

But why Twain?

“I found out late in life that I really like acting,” Rawlings says. “And, to
my surprise, I’m good at it. I thought, ‘If this is what I’m going to do,
I don’t have a lot of time to do it.’”

He scans the open lawn, where two Christmases ago he once stood as a
10-foot-tall oak tree named Obadiah Oak during Selby Gardens’
“Festival of Lights.”

It was around the same time that he landed his first stage role —
as Benjamin Guggenheim in The Players Theatre’s “Titanic: The Musical.”

Obadiah Oak and Benjamin Guggenheim

“I’m Medicare age,” he continues. “It’s too late to be a general-purpose actor,
so I decided to specialize.”

He chose Twain because the writer has an endless vault of material from
which to pull: hundreds of stories and witticisms that Rawlings has cherished
since he was a little boy. Of course, it helped that he looked like the writer
after he ditched his glasses and grew a white horseshoe moustache.

“Here’s what I looked like when I was Rod Rawlings,” he says, presenting
a business card for Action Team Real Estate. On the card is an image of
a clean-cut real-estate broker in a black suit coat and tie. “It’s just hair,”
he shrugs. “I’m on my third hairdresser. The first two just couldn’t
get the color right.”

Rod as Rod and Rod as Twain

The undertaking has been nothing short of a transformation. To prepare
for the role, he hired former Broadway director Bob D’Angelo. He traveled
to Twain’s home in Hartford, Conn., and to his hometown of Hannibal,
Mo., the small riverside town that served as the setting for many of
his most famous stories.

Tom Sawyer Cave in Hannibal

Dig at Florida, Missouri farm of Sam Clemens' uncle.

He read and re-read stacks of the author’s books and articles. He
memorized quotes and passages, mastering Twain’s sentence structure
and ponderously slow delivery.

He assumed his mannerisms. (Twain rarely smiled with his teeth.)
He brushed up on his trivia. (Twain smoked 40 cigars a day.) And
he engrossed himself in the author’s attitude. (Twain held a grudge
and loved revenge.) He spent hours digesting the research of
countless Twain scholars and in the process learned that he and Twain
have a lot in common besides a hairline.

Rod Rawlings as Mark Twain

To test-market his act, he performed a 90-minute bit at a Manatee
County Library in front of a small gathering of people. Part performance
art, part monologue, Rawlings strummed his guitar and sang a song, as
Twain once did on the eve of his 70th birthday. “I knew it was a success
because people laughed and nobody left,” Rawlings says. “Some
people even wanted pictures with me when I was through.”

After the Show with Rod Rawlings as Mark Twain

A former hospital administrator and Vietnam War veteran, Rawlings
says he’s just beginning the third act of his life. “Act One is: You do
what you’re told,” he says. “Act Two is: You do what you must.
Act Three is: You do what you like.”

Mark and Rod at Twain's Boyhood Home in Hannibal, MO


On the Steps to the Study at Quarry Farm, Elmira, NY

The father of two daughters, Rawlings moved to Florida with his family
as a teenager. After serving two tours in Vietnam, he studied journalism
at the University of Maryland and later worked as a reporter for a
business newspaper in California.

Rod Rawlings portrays Mark Twain

A voice actor, he produced a nationally syndicated radio program
that ran for a year-and-a-half leading up to the 1984 summer Olympics
in Los Angeles. And as a fundraising consultant, he helped pad the coffers
of many big nonprofit organizations.

“Twain was always trying to get rich, but he didn’t care much for money,”
Rawlings says. “He wasn’t good at taking orders and he was always
steering his own course.”

Mark Twain, Pilot

 Not that he hasn’t already created a little stir at Selby Gardens, as curious
visitors make their way to his table to ask Twain for advice and
hard-earned wisdom. Rawlings obliges, spilling forth with timeless quips
until his fans smile and thank him for the commentary.

Rod as Mark Twain at USF Fundraiser

“The guy’s been dead for 100 years and we’re still talking about him,”
he says of Twain. “It’s like what Thomas Edison once said: ‘The average
American loves his family and if he has any love left over,
it’s generally saved for Mark Twain.’”

--oo0oo--




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