When Steve Martin was awarded the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor in 2005 by The Kennedy Center, they commissioned a custom, one-of-a-kind banjo from Gibson to present to him. It was a gold plated model, engraved with his name on the armrest, the prize logo laser-etched and inlaid in the back of the resonator, and pearl images of the Center inlaid in the fingerboard.
The Mark Twain Prize has been given each year since 1998, initially to Richard Pryor, to someone whose humor can be likened to its namesake. Or as the Center’s web site proclaims…
The Mark Twain Prize recognizes people who have had an impact on American society in ways similar to the distinguished 19th century novelist and essayist best known as Mark Twain. As a social commentator, satirist and creator of memorable characters, Samuel Clemens was a fearless observer of society, who startled and outraged many while delighting and informing many more with his uncompromising perspective of social injustice and personal folly. He revealed the great truth of humor when he said “against the assault of laughter nothing can stand.”
And now Martin has made a donation of this unique instrument, along with a 1927 Gibson Florentine banjo from his own collection, to the American Banjo Museum in Oklahoma City. These two, along with rare photos and videos also donated by Martin, will serve as the focal points of a new exhibit chronicling the life and contributions of Steve Martin to the banjo community.
Long time fans recall that when Steve first entered the world of stand up comedy in the late 1960s and ’70s, his banjo was a major part of the act. He would often appear on stage with the banjo strapped on and an arrow through his head, and play comical songs in 3-finger style. A hit single in 1978 for his song, King Tut, was backed by him playing Sally Gooden’ on banjo, and the trusty five string usually accompanied him on many visits to the late night talk shows.
After a break from stand up to pursue a successful movie career, Martin has returned to the banjo and music as his primary career since the turn of the century, recording and performing new material with the Steep Canyon Rangers.
Steve says that he is happy to see his Kennedy Center banjo showcased at ABM.
“The museum is fantastic and will be a really good home for this special banjo!”
And Museum Director Johnny Baier is proud to have it.
“To many people of the current generation, Steve Martin is the banjo. Being able to display and share one of his personal instruments – a banjo which melds both the musical and comedic sides of such a beloved and respected entertainer and musician – is truly an honor for us.”
The two Steve Martin banjos will be on display starting February 15.
The American Banjo Museum is open Tuesday through Saturday from 11:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., and Sundays from noon to 5:00 p.m. They are supported by admission fees, memberships, and donations. More details can be found online.