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It's a bountiful life: Making his mark

May/June 2017 California Bountiful magazine

Agricultural communicator brings American author and humorist to life




Mark Bagby works in agricultural communications by day. But costume and makeup transform him into legendary author Mark Twain for his side gig entertaining and informing audiences. Photo: courtesy Mark Bagby

You wouldn't know it by meeting him in his everyday role as communications director for Bakersfield-based Calcot Ltd.—one of the world's largest cotton marketing cooperatives—but Mark Bagby is also a nationally recognized Mark Twain interpreter.

Costumed in a white suit, stage makeup and mustache, Bagby performs Twain's satire with a characteristic drawl, engaging audiences of all ages. A lifelong fan, Bagby brings the Missouri-born author and humorist to life after years of researching and rehearsing material from Twain's works and original texts.

What inspired you to become a Mark Twain performer? An issue of LIFE magazine had a story about one of my heroes—Dick Smith—executing makeup on Hal Holbrook to turn him into Mark Twain for Holbrook's landmark one-man show, "Mark Twain Tonight!" That led me to explore Holbrook and the show. Avid reader that I am, I had read some Twain and knew about him. Years and years later, I was asked to play Twain in a musical of "Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." That was my first real performance.

How do you prepare for a performance? A 25-minute appearance takes adapting works, days of memorization and rehearsal. Makeup takes me about two hours—prosthetic nose and chin, et cetera. There's an audio recording of an actor neighbor of Twain's, who was credited with being an excellent mimic. I've heard it, but I don't copy it. If accurate, I don't think audiences could tolerate it today—really long, slow drawl—so I've come up with my own, with "Missourah" pronunciations.

Who is your audience? I've performed to schoolkids, business groups, mixed audiences. Lots of Twain fans. I hope to give them a range of experiences—laughter, provoking thoughts, tears, the whole gamut—plus an appreciation for the range of his writing and a sense of the history of the 19th to early 20th centuries.

What is something about Mark Twain that most people don't realize? If he ever wrote or said, "Whiskey's for drinking, water's to fight over," I've never found it. People will come to me after a performance and credit Twain for all kinds of stuff: "If you don't like the weather, wait a few minutes." Nope, sorry. I try never to use non-Twain material.

How does your knowledge about Mark Twain inform what you do on a daily basis? I try not to let too many Twain quotes slip in, but I do work hard to follow his advice on writing: finding the best word and striking out adverbs.

Which era of Twain's life do you portray? All of us are indebted to Holbrook, who plays Twain at 70ish. Twain lived to be 74. Playing him at 70 means a white suit, white hair, which most of us associate with Twain. Plus, at that point, he'd done all his major work and spent his last years commenting on life, politics, events of the day. Why eliminate so much material?

Why do you think Twain has inspired people of many generations? There are so many entry points into his work: simple, fun adventure stories like "Tom Sawyer." Serious works like "Huckleberry Finn." Short, humorous stories. Essays. Speeches. His ability with language and ability to find truth, even if clothed in humor, is remarkable. He once noted, "All the great books are wine. Mine are water. Everybody drinks water."

Mark Twain wrote a short story called "How I Edited an Agricultural Newspaper" in which the narrator takes a temporary job editing a farm paper, even though he knows nothing about the topic. Are any lessons from the story applicable today? Amazing how relevant it still is. "Louder the noise a man makes, bigger the salary he commands"—even if he knows nothing. On the surface, of course, as the populace has less to do with agriculture, the less we know. It's up to us to tell that story and properly. You have to know your audience and write for them. There are also lessons in human nature there.

What is your favorite Twain quote? I don't have "one." I bounce around, based on what's going on in life and the news.

Editor's note: Want to brush up on your Mark Twain facts and quotes? Mark Bagby recommends www.twainquotes.com and the Mark Twain Papers collection at the University of California, Berkeley: http://www.lib.berkeley.edu/libraries/bancroft-library/mark-twain-papers


Mark Bagby applies Mark Twain's writing advice as communications director for Calcot Ltd., a marketer and major supplier of raw cotton from California and other Western states to the world's textile mills. Photos: © 2017 Matt Salvo

 More online: Watch Mark Bagby perform.


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