By Scott MacClelland
Let us pray with Ambrose Bierce, author of The Unabridged Devil’s Dictionary: “Pray, v.: To ask that the laws of the universe be annulled in behalf of a single petitioner, confessedly unworthy.”
At this point in my conversation with Taelen Thomas we both laughed. It came right after he reminded me that in 1910 Bierce, who is among the many characters Thomas has played in his one-man shows, stopped at Carmel’s Pine Inn and memorably described its guests as “too many cranks and curios” and “a nest of anarchists.”
This Saturday afternoon, Thomas will appear at Carmel Visual Arts in The Barnyard Shopping Center to perform “The Heart of Steinbeck Country.” One week later, at the Carmel Art Association, he will transform into Dylan Thomas on that poet’s 100th birthday anniversary, with violinist Laura Burien at his side. On November 8, at the Pacific Grove Art Center, he will celebrate “Dylan and Dylan”—Thomas and Bob—with harpist Richard Rosen and guitarist Steve Mortensen.
Taelen Thomas is not an actor in the traditional sense. Instead he does one-man personifications of historic figures, from Mark Twain (pictured left) to Teddy Roosevelt to Jack London, from John Steinbeck to Stanley Ketchel, a prize-fighter from the turn of the 20th century who lived and died—at the hand of a murderer—a colorful life. In each case, Thomas has developed deep research, acquired appropriate costumes and regional accents, and allowed his subject characters to invade him. For many years, especially back in the ‘90s, he was a favorite of visiting conventions and corporate meetings. He’s busy just now but there are periods in between. He writes poetry and historic profiles. A few years ago he produced a CD of poems by Robinson Jeffers. As for adding more characters to his stable, “It’s a matter of the research I want to do.”
Thomas began his one-man performances around 1970, and started doing them at Carmel’s Carl Cherry Center in ’77. He came from the upper Midwest, “rambled” in Hawaii, attended Stanford University, resided in Santa Cruz, then settled in Carmel in the mid-1980s. Ketchel was Thomas’ first act. In Thomas’ published bio I found this description: “As the Middleweight Champion of the World, Ketchel, known as The Michigan Assassin, was a contrasting enigma of violence and gentle sentimentality who lived a spectacular life during the ragtime era,” he says. “A dancer and singer as well as a fighter, he idolized Frederic Chopin and Jesse James, was close friends with Jack London and Jack Johnson, and knocked out 50 opponents before he was 24.”
Among his stable of characters he, “only recently added Ogden Nash,” he says. “Oddly enough, I’ve just been thinking about James Thurber.” Taelen Thomas can sound a bit laconic, in conversation as in performance, but don’t be fooled. His style of delivery is paced, deliberate, conversational. He will break up his narrative into short pictures, leaving his audience in a state of heightened expectation for the next bit. It’s called showmanship. Offer him the right terms, and he’ll come to your home, your office, your hotel, your conference room. (Warning: don’t use a sound-system that is prone to howling feedback, as one did that drove him out of character at a recent Monterey Plaza Hotel appearance.)
As I thanked him admiringly for his time, Thomas thought of another Bierce aphorism: “Admiration, n. Our polite recognition of another’s resemblance to ourselves.” Works for me.
Photos by Kelli Uldall