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.
“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.”
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, 65, 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.
But why Twain?
“I found out late in life that I really like acting,” Rawlings says. “And, to my surprise, I’m really 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.”
“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.”
The undertaking has been nothing short of a transformation.
To prepare for the role, he hired former Broadway director Bob D’Angelo and Sarasota acting coach and Florida Studio Theatre regular Jamie Day.
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
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.
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.”
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.”
The father of two daughters, Rawlings moved to Bradenton 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.
A voiceover actor, he produced a nationally syndicated radio program that ran for a year-and-a-half leading up to the 1984 summer Olympics. 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.”
Rawlings’ course is about to take a big turn. Earlier this month, he auditioned for “Senior Idol,” a talent competition at State College of Florida, and on Feb. 25 he’ll serve as the emcee of the Sarasota Chorus of the Keys concert at the Riverview Performing Arts Center.
He was hired by chance.
During lunch one afternoon at a tavern in the Hillview district, a member of the chorus spotted Rawlings in costume. He wanted to know if the actor would bring his Twain to the chorus’ Dixieland-themed concert.
Even if his genteel affectation didn’t show it, Rawlings was flattered and thrilled.
He said yes and immediately started gathering stories, letters and prose by some of the major players of that era, including Twain.
The concert, which marks Rawlings’ professional debut, will likely bring the impersonator a lot of visibility.
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.
“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.’”
IF YOU GO
Rod Rawlings will appear as Mark Twain at the Sarasota Chorus of the Keys’ 62nd annual show, “Musical Voyage to Dixieland,” at 2:30 and 7 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 25, at the Riverview Performing Arts Center. For more information, call 484-7589 or visit chorusofthekeys.org.
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