Kurt Sutton ends Mark Twain role with Jan. 14 performance

Bringing history to life for more than 20 years, one nationally acclaimed man is saying farewell by putting on his white suit once more and gracing the local stage with a show that delights every age.

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By Kayla Elder >> Photography by Kathryn Ingall

Kurt Sutton, 72, will bring to life Samuel Clemens’ Mark Twain for the last time at Canton Theatre on Jan. 14 with his popular show, “An Evening with Mark Twain.”

“It is a good way to go out,” he said. “One of the reasons I picked Canton Theatre for the farewell performance…Canton Theatre was one of the first places I played. I wasn’t as good as I am now, I was shaky. Canton Theatre played a major influence in my early years and it is only fitting that I close out my Mark Twain career there.”

Sutton said he has a “love and appreciation for Canton’s people” and the farewell show is to “honor them.”

Though a German native born in a bomb shelter at the end of World War II in September 1944, Sutton calls Cherokee County his hometown. He emigrated with his family from Mannheim, Germany, to Chicago in 1950.

“It really wasn’t that much of a change for me because Chicago had sections: Italian, German and Polish…we lived in the German section and when I came over I didn’t speak English but it didn’t matter because everybody was German,” Sutton said remembering when he was 6 years old.

He has always been a performer due to his childhood.

“To stay alive, I was a performer and outgoing,” he added. “When I look back, everything I have done…I have never really worked for anybody, I have worked for myself by creating companies and it all had to do with being in front of people.”

He grew up in Canton and graduated from Reinhardt University, the University of Georgia in 1968 and received his master’s of arts in education from Western Carolina University.

“What really shocked me was when I moved from Chicago to Ball Ground. I learned English in three months. From Ball Ground we moved to Macedonia,” he said. “Then I went to Western Carolina University, graduated from there and came back to Canton and lived in the city. I taught at Canton Elementary School and Woodstock High School.”

Sutton boasts an illustrious career of teacher, musician, business speaker and stage connoisseur.

“I was in a band for seven years and we toured the United States. We opened shows for Waylon Jennings and Barbara Mandrell, so I was used to being on stage and in front of pretty big audiences. We were a working band, Top 40,” he said.

He was a history teacher for six years and taught at Western Carolina University.

“I came back and taught at Sprayberry High School as a coach. I have a long history with this area. I was in front of people coaching and playing music when I wasn’t coaching. Then I started my own business,” Sutton said. “I was a speaker and I spoke all over the country, motivational and practical application of behavioral science, so again I was up in front of people.”

He then decided to take the stage as the well-known Mark Twain 12 years ago.

“When I decided it was time to do Mark Twain, it wasn’t a big jump for me. It was just different material, personality and approach. I feel more comfortable on stage in front of 2,000 than I do in personal discussions,” he said.

During his time as Mark Twain, he also appeared in the movies, “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” featuring Paul Winfield, and “Night Shadows” featuring Wings Hauser.

“Whatever he does, he does it really well. Always has,” said Kurt’s wife, Linda Sutton, producer and director of the tour. “Everything he has done, he has done it with enthusiasm and care.”

“An Evening with Mark Twain” gives the audience a look at the man and the myth, by having Mark Twain and Samuel Clemens on stage at the same time, portrayed by none other than Sutton himself.

“I became interested in Samuel Clemens, not Mark Twain. I started looking into his life, but Samuel Clemens was a Renaissance man. He could do a little bit of everything; he was a writer, printer, miner, riverboat pilot back when that was like being an astronaut, inventor, investor, you name it, he did it. I like that, that’s my kind of man,” Sutton said.

After telling his wife he would portray Mark Twain in the future because he related to him, she bought him a white suit that stood hanging in his closet for 20 years until it came to fruition.

“When I got ready, I got the suit out, wrote a two-act play which I do now in one-act sometimes,” he said.

He was inspired by Hal Holbrook and Mark Twain, who made historical figures into famous one-man shows.

“When I started I didn’t have a problem getting a hold of theaters all over the country and I was used to traveling. Linda and I bought a mobile home and traveled the United States,” he said. “The way I paid for it was by doing shows. I have played large theaters and small theaters like Canton Theatre, which is home.”

The show is an intriguing approach to this American literary icon featuring tall tales, stories and music with dramatic pieces out of Twain’s most famous books, “Huckleberry Finn,” “Tom Sawyer” and “Roughing It.”

Sutton also presents the audience with the opportunity for participation in the singing and music of Clemens’ time period, while enjoying Twain’s hilarious tall tales and witty humor. He uses his musical talents to play harmonica, guitar and banjo.

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