PHOTO/DAVID ROBERT: McAvoy Layne: “I consider myself to be an educator in a costume rather than an actor. I’m most effective in the classroom.”

McAvoy Layne points to a large photograph on his living room wall to illustrate a story about his son’s view of his dad’s 35-year career as the Ghost of Mark Twain.

Years ago, Layne presented his son, a San Francisco 49ers fan, with a note from Jerry Rice, the team’s star wide receiver. The slip of paper had been inserted beneath the glass of a large photo of 19th century abolitionist Frederick Douglass. The younger Layne showed off the keepsake to a friend, who studied the photo above it and asked if the bearded man was Rice. “No, that’s Frederick Douglass,” his son replied. “He’s dead. All my dad’s heroes are dead.”

The scores of portraits that peer from the walls of Layne’s Incline Village home confirm that he does have a close connection to the 19th century. Some photos and artwork portray members of Mark Twain’s family and other contemporaries—but most of the portraits are of Twain, never smiling, captured with cameras and artists’ brushes throughout his life.

Layne, even without his white suit, resembles America’s most famous humorist. He will be turning 80 on Sept. 18, and is six years older than Twain was when he died. After performing in Nevada and all over the globe, Layne is scheduled for a final stage performance on Sept. 30 at Piper’s Opera House in Virginia City. That’s a venue where the real Twain lectured—and where Layne got his start as Twain’s specter more than three decades ago.

Over those years, the two men, living and dead, seem to have merged. Twain speaks through Layne and vice-versa. Layne said he will always remember the lessons he learned while inhabiting another man’s skin.

“He’s made me a better man,” Layne said. “He’s taught me so many things.”

As for where Twain ends and his doppelganger begins, Layne isn’t certain. “I used to know the answer to that question,” he explained, “but now I’m not sure any more.”

There are some differences—Twain loved cats while Layne favors dogs—but both men were, and are, consummate storytellers. In his one-man shows, Layne has focused on an honest portrayal of the Bard of Hannibal, Mo. He lectures—and often answers audience members’ questions—using Twain’s own words.

“I consider myself to be an educator in a costume rather than an actor,” Layne said. “I’m most effective in the classroom.” His research has encompassed not only the facts of Twain’s life, but the times he lived in, and the lives of his contemporaries. There are lessons everywhere.

Frederick Douglass, for example, helps Layne/Twain teach high school students an appreciation of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a novel that is often banned in school libraries due to a proliferation of a racial slur. The n-word used to describe Jim, who ran away from enslavement, is in contrast to Twain’s obvious sympathy for the character. When talking about the novel in classrooms, Layne said, his knowledge of Douglass and the times that he and Twain lived in “makes my job a little easier.

“When kids read it today, and they get past that word that appears 200 times and makes you want to put it aside, they realize Huckleberry Finn is a strong indictment against racism, prejudice and narrow-mindedness,” he said.

“I love it when the kids call me the ‘Twain dude.’ They like the old guy. They really do.” McAvoy Layne

Layne still gets a thrill when he sees students respond to Twain’s wry wit. “I love it when the kids call me the ‘Twain dude,’” he said. “They like the old guy. They really do.”

Some young pupils have trouble distinguishing between Layne and the character he plays. A student at Mark Twain Elementary School in Carson City, for example, penned a heartfelt thank-you note to the guest lecturer: “You were a great author, also a very great part of history,” the kid wrote. “Because of your greatness, you were named after my school.”

A ghost on the radio

Layne’s first 40 years laid the groundwork for his second career. In his pre-teen years, the Orinda, Calif., native visited Piper’s Opera House during a vacation. While at Disneyland, he photographed a replica of the paddle-wheeler called Mark Twain, and still treasures the image. As a child, he had a bit of Huckleberry Finn in him; he preferred being in the outdoors over practicing on a piano or watching TV. He loved swimming and diving, which led to a job as a lifeguard at Lake Tahoe and joining a swim team in college.

Layne went to Hawaii during his freshman year, but didn’t return to his studies. Instead, he joined the Marine Corps and was sent on a 13-month tour of duty in Vietnam. After his discharge, he took to the airwaves as a disc jockey in Hawaii, often working morning shows and making a name for himself as “the riddle king.”

Hawaii had surfing, but no skiing, so Layne took a trip to Lake Tahoe. There, he got stuck in a cabin nestled in five feet of snow. The cabin had firewood, food and books. Layne hunkered down to read The Complete Essays of Mark Twain, edited by Charles Neider.

He moved back to the mainland in 1983 and eventually took a job at KLKT radio in Incline Village. His interest in Twain continued. He memorized quotations and recited them while running and practicing for Iron Man competitions. “At some point, I thought, ‘I can do this (perform as Twain),’” he said.

In 1986, when Halley’s Comet returned to our corner of the solar system—as it had in 1835 and 1910, the years of Twain’s birth and death—Layne was nearly ready. At a dinner celebrating his father’s 75th birthday in 1987, Layne donned a white suit and did a live show. His father, a doctor who had always been a bit worried about a son who finished his workday at noon and then went surfing or skiing, got caught in Twain’s spell. “I saw a gleam in his eyes that I’d never seen before,” Layne said. That connection enabled Layne, for the first time, to tell his father that he loved him.

In 1986, when Halley’s Comet returned to our corner of the solar system—as it had in 1835 and 1910, the years of Twain’s birth and death—Layne was nearly ready.

The following year, the Layne/Twain train really got rolling. Carol Piper Marshall, the owner of Piper’s Opera House, booked Layne for a four-month run, doing two shows a day, six days a week. “Boy, that gave me the chance,” Layne said. “By the end of that summer in ’88, I was not ready for prime time, but I was ready to go on the road.”

He performed in many U.S. states, Germany, Russia and other corners of the planet. Like Twain, Layne has become a citizen of the world. His latest project involves using his alter ego to plead for a peaceful settlement in the Russia-Ukraine war.

In 1993, when Layne lectured at Leningrad University in Saint Petersburg, he discovered that the Russian people love Mark Twain. The Kremlin issued a Twain postage stamp in 1960, and the average Russian knows about the American humorist and his works, he said. Recently, Layne wrote a letter to the U.S. Department of State, which was translated into Russian and sent to the presidents of Russia and Ukraine. He volunteered his services as Twain to help work toward a cease fire.

“I feel a little like Don Quixote tilting at windmills,” Layne said, alluding to the classic Miguel de Cervantes book that he and Twain share as their favorite novel.

Barring a trip to a war zone, Layne plans to stay close to home. He will continue writing his “Pine Nuts” column for local publications. Twain may sometimes appear in his parlor to talk to a few guests at a time, he said. But after more than 4,000 performances, he feels he has spent enough time in front of the footlights.

So why retire now?

“A smart lady once told me that it’s better to retire two years too early than two minutes too late,” Layne said. “Go out with a bang, not with a fucking whimper.”

Mark Twain: The Bohemian of the Sagebrush, a benefit for the Comstock Foundation for History and Culture, will take place at 7 p.m., Saturday, Sept. 30, at Piper’s Opera House, 12 B St., in Virginia City. Tickets start at $100, but are sold out as of this posting. For more information, visit

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