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Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi at AAAA Theatre June 10-11

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Don Shelby, part-time resident of the Alexandria lakes area, will portray Mark Twain at the AAAA Theatre.2 / 2

Don Shelby will share performances of a one-man Mark Twain show entitled Life on the Mississippi at the Alexandria Area Arts Association (AAAA) Theatre.

Performances are Friday, June 10 at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday, June 11 at 2 p.m. Tickets are $20 in advance or $25 at the door; children 10 and younger are $10. Tickets can be purchased by calling the AAAA box office at (320) 762-8300. The show is a fundraiser for the theater.


Shelby has always been a Mark Twain fan. Twain, born in 1835 as Samuel Langhorne Clemens, is one of America's most famous literary icons, having published numerous short stories, letters, sketches and 28 books including The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calavaras County, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. He died in 1910.

"I own 20 first editions and am extremely fond of his work," Shelby explained.

Shelby became friends with Hal Holbrook in 1974 and was fascinated by Holbrook's show, Mark Twain Tonight - a one-man play in which he depicts Twain giving dramatic recitations of Twain's writings.

Shelby was so fascinated with the show that he eventually decided to do his own rendition of Twain. Whereas Holbrook emphasized Twain's comic works, Shelby focused on his more serious work. He spent five years trying to find Twain material that had not often been used.

"I realized there was a lot more to Mark Twain - a dramatic and even melodramatic side," he explained. "He was a world traveler, and was a journalist and reporter before becoming an author. He was a special correspondent, a Nevada silver miner...

"In my show I use a lot of material from his book Roughing It, about his time out West, and from his time in Hawaii," Shelby noted.

For the performances, it takes Shelby three to four hours to apply his Twain face, all of which he does himself.

"I actually started out in show business as a makeup artist," he explained. "I use 3D makeup - a hooked nose, fine wig, mustache, eyebrows...I do everything I can to try to inhabit the character."

According to Shelby, Twain's voice was never recorded, so no one really knows what he sounded like.

"A reporter once noted that he talked with a slow, halting drawl, and had a deep, gravelly voice," Shelby said, giving his best Twain impression.

"The first five minutes of the show people are looking at me, saying, 'Is that Don Shelby?' But after those first five minutes I hope they get past that and just listen to Mark Twain."

Shelby has been doing the show for 10 years.



Shelby has been a part-time resident of Alexandria for the past 25 years.

The way he came to be a resident was a bit of an accident, but it's an accident he says he's never regretted.

An avid bass fisherman, Shelby had fished tournaments in the area and was familiar with its many lakes and beautiful scenery.

When his employer, WCCO, purchased the Alexandria television station, Shelby joined a group of WCCO representatives for a presentation in Alexandria.

"During a speech I was giving, I made a comment about how I'd always wanted to live here," he said. "I thought I was just giving a compliment. The following week I had no less than 25 realtors leave me messages wanting to sell me a place.

"I figured I'd better put my money where my mouth was."

Shelby and his wife, Barbara, decided to see what the area had to offer. They chose a realtor and eventually ended up purchasing a house.

"When the realtor said that that owner of the house across the street was a basketball coach, I was sold," said the basketball enthusiast.

The Shelbys purchased the home and became great friends with those neighbors - Tom, Pat, Shannon and Josh Vickerman.

"Our kids were the same age and have stayed great friends through the years," he said. "We moved around a lot and didn't have family in Minnesota. The

Vickermans became our family. We never lost touch.

"It was a blessing we found this place."


Like many retirees, Shelby says he is busier now than when he was employed.

He noted that he has spoken 61 times since his retirement from WCCO last November.

That, along with his Mark Twain shows and his recently published book, doesn't leave him much time to lie in his hammock at his Alexandria vacation spot.

"It's been a process of changing brands," he explained. "I was only famous because the place I worked was visual media.

"I was in people's homes by invitation - they could have chosen another channel - and I took that very personally," he explained. "I always felt like a guest - I behaved and was always grateful and gratified.

"But, there's nothing worse than being known as the guy who used to be on TV. Once you are off TV, there's no reason for people to look twice at you. You're not famous anymore.

"So I've spent the past six months developing a new brand so that I'm not the guy who used to be on TV. Instead, I'm a community-based guy who is an authority on environmental science and global conservation and is still working in the public interest."

While he's busy developing his brand, he said his wife, Barbara, is trying to figure out what happened to his retirement.

"She thinks I'm a maniac," he said. "She was under the impression that after 45 years of working you are done and it's time to travel and that's not happening.

"And that hammock is one of the things I miss the most."


Shelby served as a reporter and TV anchor for more than 45 years - 32 of those were as an anchor, investigative reporter and environmental correspondent for WCCO-TV in Minneapolis-St. Paul.

Shelby has won all five of the nation's top journalism awards, including three Emmys, the Columbia-duPont Award, Scripps-Howard Award, and the Society of Professional Journalists Distinguished Service Award.

In 1997 he was honored with the Peabody Award, the broadcast equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize, for his ongoing work with Minnesota youth.

In recent years, Shelby's focus has been on the environment, and he was the force behind the Project Energy franchise at WCCO-TV.

Shelby recently published his first book, The Season Never Ends: Wins, Losses, and the Wisdom of the Game.

The book is made up of 32 essays that revolve around the sport of basketball, but, according to Shelby, it "contains precious little about basketball playing and more about the people, personalities and lessons of the game."

Tara Bitzan

Tara Bitzan is editor of the Echo Press. She joined the company in 1991 as a news reporter. A lifelong resident of Douglas County, Tara graduated from Brandon High School and earned a bachelor of arts degree in mass communications and English with a minor in Scandinavian Studies from Moorhead State University. She and her husband, Dennis, and their children live near Alexandria.

(320) 763-1211