Rob Alvey returns with a one-man show about Samuel Clemens
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Rob Alvey has raised the bar considerably when it comes to legendary American humorist and lecturer Samuel Clemens, who was better known as Mark Twain. For nearly a decade, Alvey has been donning a white suit and taking to the stage doing readings, not unlike actor Hal Holbrook, who has been doing a similar show since he debuted it in 1954. With a full head of hair and his bushy white mustache, Alvey is pretty convincing and will be coming north from his new home in South Florida to reprise Twain in a free event sponsored by the Garden City Recreation Department at the Garden City Senior Center on Friday, Oct. 25 at 3 p.m. Alvey will be in town to celebrate the 50th reunion of the Garden City High School Class of 1969. Attendees can expect Alvey to take center stage as Twain, something that he’s done roughly 20 different times dating back to 2008.
“I will be dressed up as Mark Twain and have my cigar. There will be some Clemens-type remarks and some of mine, because I try to bring it up to contemporary standards in terms of what Mark Twain would say if he was alive in the 21st century,” he explained. “I have so much information that I could talk about with the most recent presidential election. Politics is the same, but let people laugh a little bit. So that’s what it’s going to be about.”
Alvey has spent the bulk of his adult life as a geologist employed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the person who spearheaded the creation of the nine-acre Garden City Bird Sanctuary back in 1996 and a professor at York College. But it wasn’t until his middle daughter, Erin, who was a photography major, came home and needed to do a project and recruited her father to be a model that the Clemens bug, or what Alvey calls “Twainitis,” bit the former Garden City resident.
“She desperately needed a model, so she dressed me up as Einstein and as Kurt Vonnegut and the pictures were phenomenal. Then she dressed me up as Mark Twain and I thought I could do something with that,” Alvey recalled. “Right away I booked the parlor at the Garden City Community Church and I thought I could do Hal Holbrook’s play. After booking the room and starting to sell some tickets for the Garden City Bird Sanctuary fundraiser, I realized there was no script. I thought I could just rent the script. It turned out that Hal Holbrook had memorized 50 hours of material from his research starting from when he was doing it in the 1950s. So I had to do the same thing. Of course I did some different things, but it went really well.”
Alvey’s dalliance with Clemens couldn’t come at a better time given his recent retirement. He had a major wake-up call when he underwent open heart surgery back in September 2017. While he knew that the blockage in his aorta was an affliction his mother and grandfather dealt with, Alvey had been monitoring the condition, which had also driven his blood pressure up over the years and resulted in him having to be on medication. That said, he was feeling chronically fatigued and having trouble walking, despite being active as a dedicated gardener and walker. It was an experience a fellow EPA colleague was also going through.
“In summer 2017, I was starting to feel tired and then to be honest, a coworker was retiring. In June, I was helping him pack up his stuff. He said he was feeling tired and I was feeling tired. He was having trouble walking and I was having trouble walking. Everything he had was the same thing I had. Then I went to his wake in August,” he explained. “I thought that wasn’t right. He’d fallen. I was worried about falling, so I went and did more tests. My other regular doctor said I had every symptom and that I needed surgery. I really didn’t want the surgery and I was also scheduled to go out to Denver to attend this EPA meeting. I asked if it could wait until the spring when I came back from Denver and he said that I wouldn’t be around to operate on.”
Alvey got a cow valve transplant and has been feeling hale and hearty ever since. Part of transitioning into the Mark Twain chapter of his life involved booking a Mississippi River paddle boat cruise that went from New Orleans to Memphis as a retirement gift to himself. During the trip, he performed and shared the stage with fellow Clemons impersonator McAvoy Layne, who encouraged Alvey to go down this path.
“[McAvoy] got a contract years ago with the California State Department of Education and he goes into schools. I never even thought about something like that,” Alvey admitted. “As my science career and York College career ends, I want to be active. He said this is what keeps you young and he’s 76.”
Rob Alvey will appearing as Mark Twain on Oct. 25 at the Garden City Senior Center, located at 6 Golf Club Lane in Garden City. Visit www.gardencityrecreation.org or call 516-385-8006 for more information. Visit www.gardencity-life.com to read a longer version of this story.