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Column: A celebrity visit and considerable controversy

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Column: A celebrity visit and considerable controversy
Worthington Minnesota 300 11th Street / P.O. Box 639 56187

WORTHINGTON -- I wish the film "Lincoln" had been made when I was in high school. It would have been precious to have this image of Abraham Lincoln through all the passing years.

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The film lifts Lincoln off the penny and the $5 bill, off Mount Rushmore, out of his chair in the memorial at Washington and gives him flesh and blood and life. All we have ever heard of Lincoln -- masterful politician, master orator, storyteller, doting father, great president, a man of sorrows -- all those things which we usually read of randomly are brought together in a marvelous way. I hope everyone will get a chance to see "Lincoln." It is on cable television now and DVD. Blu-ray.

A problem with the film is that, necessarily, it is packed with famous characters from U.S. Grant to William Seward to the full Lincoln cabinet. Mary Todd Lincoln and Tad and Mary's dressmaker, Elizabeth Keckley. Robert Lincoln, who his father calls Bobby. On and on. It is hard to catch all the identities.

The old man with the white, wavy hair, the man who is one of Lincoln's friends and confidants -- that old man is Francis Blair, the original owner of Blair House just across the way from the White House. Blair is portrayed by the actor Hal Holbrook, who is 87 years old. Great credit be to a fine performer.

When I realized the Blair character was Holbrook, I was reminded of how Hal Holbrook nearly destroyed the budding Worthington Concert Association. Holbrook may not know this story -- he was gone from Worthington never to return as the drama unfolded. It was a cliffhanger.

Holbrook was scheduled to appear in Memorial Auditorium in one his earliest performances of the now-famed "Mark Twain Tonight." This was before Broadway or Hollywood knew of the evening with Twain.

Holbrook brought together all manner of things that Mark Twain wrote and shaped them into a warm, fascinating portrayal of the great author. He made his presentation in a Twain costume, from white suit to unruly hair and bushy mustache. After the first three or four minutes of the performance it was hard to believe it was not Twain himself who was making an appearance at Worthington -- just as, after the first three or four minutes, it is hard to believe Daniel Day-Lewis is not Abraham Lincoln.

Bringing Hal Holbrook to Worthington was somewhat unlikely. It was one of the milestone achievements of the Concert Association. Memorial Auditorium was filled. I sat downstairs in the very first row, craning up to the stage the whole time, because there were no other seats.

Mark Twain's reflections on his days in Hawaii and -- especially -- his reflections on U.S. missionaries in Hawaii were controversial in Twain's lifetime. They stirred controversy in Worthington nearly 100 years later. Twain reflected on men of the gospel who came to the Sandwich Islands to convert natives to Christianity and ended up hiring the natives at notably low wages to work in the pineapple plantations that the missionaries exchanged for their Bibles. As we know, Twain's humor had sharp teeth.

Well --

The Concert Association was supported completely by ticket sales and by gifts from members. It was a challenge year by year to keep the concerts coming. Some of the biggest gift-givers were deeply offended by Mark Twain's decades-old comments -- some of them rose and left the Auditorium. Some said they would never give another dime. It became clear the Worthington Concert Association might cease to exist.

There were panic meetings. Angry voices. Calls for apologies. Mini-sermons. Lectures on the good works of Christian missionaries. Twain -- and Hal Holbrook -- had defenders. There was insistence that Holbrook's show was a marvel and Worthington was privileged to have such an illustrious performance in its own auditorium. Holbrook, who still was doing his Mark Twain lecture when he was 80, had not yet been seen by New York or Chicago audiences when he stepped on the stage at Worthington.

Finally a compromise --

The Concert Association board agreed it never would sign another performance which was not musical -- violin, fine. Two pianos, excellent. Octet or quartet, wonderful. But never again an act or an actor.

Ray Crippen is a former editor of the Daily Globe. His column appears on Saturdays.

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