Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Extra! An educator and a kid … 50 years of Mark Twain later

Critic At Large

Michael J. Hermans, Parker Drew and ‘Mark Twain Revisited’

Parker Drew portrays a beloved humorist in “Mark Twain Revisited.”


Ashwaubenon Performing Arts Center will host Parker Drew as he presents “Mark Twain Revisited” at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 11. Info:

That’s just the surface of what lies beneath, which is what this column is about.

The one-man show started 50 years ago, when Parker Drew was a 14-year-old student at Green Bay Washington Junior High School. More than 500 performances across 37 states would follow along with two public TV specials.

Imagine you are an educator with a kid like that in your midst. Seeing a product of yours develop and present something of meaning to a lot of people, what does that mean today?

Michael J. Hermans can tell us, having been that educator.

He said, “To see someone succeed whether it’s in the arts or the sciences, music or whatever it is, to see them do well gives you a satisfaction and an example you can use for other students who are in that early stage of, ‘I can never do that.’ Yes I can, yes I can. ‘Others have done it, you can do it as well’.”

Successes of students become a bonus more and more as time goes on.

“Absolutely,” Hermans said. “Every time I would see ‘Mark Twain Revisited,’ I could look back and say, ‘Look at not only what Parker has accomplished but his classmates, other students that grew and now have gone across the world with a lot of experiences’.”

Parker Drew as Mark Twain.

Eventually, Mike Hermans became the longtime principal of Edison Middle School.

In 1969, he was responsible for the school play at Washington Junior High as part of his duties of teaching English, though Parker Drew was not directly one of his students.

“Parker was in classes throughout the school with other students that I did have in class, and they said to me, ‘Parker – this was an eighth grader at the time – can do a Mark Twain thing.’ I said, ‘Well, let’s give it a try’ (as part of the play offering). He had already done forensics with Mark’s voice and the experiences there. When we brought him on, every kid in that school knew who Mark Twain was and had an appreciation. Mark, a classmate, had shared history with a lot of young people, who I hope still appreciate that today.”

Note that Parker Drew had already become Mark Twain. And from where did Mark Twain come to him to use in forensics?

Drew said, “The honest truth – which has never been published before – I was sitting in my homeroom class, and there was a new girl who had moved from Wausau as I recall. This is important. She was sitting over here (nearby), and I kind of thought she was very cute. The announcements came on in the morning and they said in the end, ‘Don’t forget the forensics competition, which is immediately after school. Come out and support people.’ At the end of the announcements, the teacher said, ‘Is anybody in class here in the forensics competition?’ Out of the corner of my eye, I saw this young lady’s hand go up, and, I don’t know what possessed me, mine went up. Now I had to do something, right? I had already seen Hal Holbrook on television, and the only thing I could remember was ‘How to Tell a Ghost Story,’ which is better known as ‘The Golden Arm.’ And I sort of remembered it pretty well and on the fly did the competition and won.”

A floodgate opened a crack.

Parker Drew went on, “This led to doing that five-minute speech for the whole school. It was at that point Mike said, ‘You know, I’m in charge of the school play this year. Why don’t you do a one-act, and why don’t you flesh this out with costuming, make-up, the whole thing, and expand it to a half hour or something, and you can do that for a show. And that was May 9, 1969. So that’s when ‘Mark Twain Revisited’ came to be.”

Michael J. Hermans, left, and Parker Drew, 10.7.2019. (Warren Gerds)

The floodgate opened wider.

“Within a very short time, I was called over to (Green Bay) East High to perform there – as a middle school student. And then by the time I got to East, I was called to do it at West, and then as time went on, I did Premontre and Pennings and Oshkosh North. It just very gradually grew. I was a musician at the time (clarinet, keyboards, percussion). Every time I was at music camp or a school with a talent night, I’d win it. It just grew and grew and grew.

“By the time I got to the University of Louisville, I did a show for the public on campus at Louisville, and this was more or less a music conservatory environment – and the Courier-Journal (daily newspaper) did an incredible review of it. And then I started to have faculty members say, ‘Hey, you’re a really good musician, but are you sure you wouldn’t be happier on stage because this is …, you know.’

Louisville Courier-Journal headline about Parker Drew.

“Eventually, I took the advice and came to St. Norbert and got re-connected with Dudley Birder (educator, conductor, musical producer). Right about then, through mutual friends, got my first agent, who was in Illinois. The first thing that they did was put me on the college circuit. That led to a New York agent, and then it just went on and on and on from there.

“Gradually over time it’s so weird because we’re human beings and you can flash back 50 years in (snaps his fingers) an instant, but there’s a lot of miles from what happened back then and now. And a lot of experiences. A lot of different settings.

“I’ve done it from the tiniest little theaters, and of course a lot of corporate shows and things where you’re dealing convention-type size things to big theaters, a couple of arenas. By chance, for instance, I spoke at the commencement for all of the Stevens Point area high schools at UW-Point’s arena. Just about anything you can do.

“These days, I really prefer keeping it the way it’s supposed to be. It is a piece of theater. It’s always been a piece of theater – rather than try and pluck it out and plop him down in settings that don’t always work. Like nothing outside. It never works outside.

“Now I’m very selective about when I do it, and when I do I like to have control over lighting and sounding. It’s a theater piece that’s meant for people to be sitting there in the dark and watch this occur on stage. That’s in spades what this Friday is all about.”

Mark Twain lived a long time for someone in the 19th century. Who is Twain in Parker Drew’s show? Is he a humorist, a witty old gent with a knack for timing?

Parker Drew as “a witty old gent,” Mark Twain.

He said, “A witty old gent is pretty close. He is a brilliant humorist. In the Will Rogers persona (which Drew also does), Will said, ‘Listen folks, I’m not a humorist, I’m just a simple comedian. The difference is that a comedian entertains, and a humorist annoys.’ I would say (his Twain is) brilliant humorist and the beginnings of what today we would say is a very funny stand-up comic. That’s where the timing comes in. He apparently – there’s no recording, nothing – had impeccable timing. I made one concession to 100 years. Apparently, he spoke so slowly – and this was part of his deal – that people were leaning forward, hanging on every word. And then the punchline comes, and the audience erupts and he remains deadpan, stone-faced, apparently never having seen what they were laughing at. One concession I made is – and this is just practical – modern-day audiences are used to rapid-fire everything that I had to pick up the pace.”

The material includes a new opening section and portions Parker Drew has written.

“As I like to say, 50 years of doing the same character, once in a while I think I channel him, and it just comes,” he said. “Or you can call it improvise on the spot.”

Mark Twain has a timeless quality.

Drew said, “All you have to do is change the names in some of these stories, and he’s talking about current things. And when you get an audience that all of a sudden realizes that this is 100 years ago that the guy said this and it applies to the news that they will hear on the newscast tonight – that’s the genius of Mark Twain. That’s the brilliance. That’s what sets him apart from so many other people who over time their material has become somewhat dated.”

Attending Friday will be Mike Hermans and Ron Goska, another former Washington Junior High teacher who, Drew said, “was one of the judges who awarded me first place.”

Michael J. Hermans and Parker Drew as Mark Twain at a convention of English teachers in La Crosse.

Before the interview closed, Drew added, “One thing I wanted to say, and you said it right at the very beginning. Mike and I were talking about how the very off-hand sort of thing he did 50 years ago has had this afterlife. About 20 years ago, there was a convention of English teachers in La Crosse. I was the entertainment, and Mike was there. At the end of my show, he came out and addressed the 400 or 500 people and talked about this – that you never know when something relatively small and off hand is going to have this kind of afterlife. I don’t think that Mike is an English teacher. He is an educator. You used that word. And there is a difference. His responsibility – and he was a young teacher (“Still am,” Hermans inserted) – the difference is an educator is more concerned and interested in the whole person who is sitting in that desk in front of them.”

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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