Monday, March 5, 2012

A Tribute to Poe

This bust of Poe overlooked the proceedings.
Saturday night was a delayed "Tribute to Poe" in Baltimore. It had been a scramble; they had planned a mock-seance with faux ghosthunters, but plans fell through at close to the last second because of logistical difficulties. So instead some local actors stepped up to the plate and got a tribute together. It was once again held in Westminster Hall, the deconsecrated church where Poe is buried; there were cracks about how they could do the show elsewhere, in a facility with better seats and better sound, but it just wouldn't feel right.

It was a sellout crowd, although I saw a number of empty seats (it seems some folks couldn't make it). It opened with a cello solo, which played hauntingly through the space. Then four actors took the stage, including my friend John Spitzer (who some in the DC cabaret/variety scene will know as Professor Sprocket), and tribute stalwarts Mark Redfield and Tony Tsendeas. (There was a lady on stage but I never caught her name, embarrassingly enough.) They did a marvelous four-way tribute to both Baltimore and Poe, one of those great examples of verbal choreography as they bounce from one person to the next with rarely a noticeable misstep. Lots of quotes from Poe's stories and poems flew out, expertly done.

There was a brief intermission, where I had a chance to chat with friends in the audience (Hi, Mike and Nora!), Then the Baltimore Men's Chorus assembled on stage, but there were some tense moments as the star of the second half, John Astin, was taking his time getting ready so there was quite a bit of stalling going on, including a number from the chorus that sounded rather out of the place but may have been an impromptu. But eventually Astin took the stage.

John Astin is quite a dear. He's devoted to Poe and studies his works, and has his own interpretations. He gave his own presentation. Sadly, it covered some of the poetry that was recited in the first half, making the show seem a bit repetitive. However, Astin also discussed George Bernard Shaw's defense of Poe; to Shaw, Poe was like Hogarth, someone you simply didn't question or criticize. One quote from Shaw that I managed to scribble into my notebook was that Poe was "never a mere virtuoso." Once he got past some of the repetitive stuff, Astin was fun and chatty, like an entertaining talk-show guest. The chorus did a rendition of "The Bells" that was well-done.

Poe museum director Jeff Jerome took the podium then; it was a stroke of luck we were having a celebration at all, as it turns out. (Last year they had been frank about how it might be the last...) A consulting firm had been hired to explore possibilities of making the museum self-sustaining, as if any museum is self-sustaining. I have to admit that going to the Poe House was scary for a long time, largely because it was in a bad neighborhood, but now it seems the area is being renewed, so it'll be more desirable for tourists. Still, they're waiting on the report, which is overdue, but it does look dire. Jerome ended his chat with a note of sadness and finality; I had a distinct impression he would be going into another line of work before long. (I caught remarks later that people would move heaven and earth to do another celebration, although one observed that this is likely the last with Jerome.)

It was unsettling, to be sure. I went to grab a late bite with Mike and Nora and some friends of theirs at a lovely place, Alewife, that was only a couple blocks away, but the sadness of the situation lingered with me on my long drive home. I'm going to write another letter to the mayor of Baltimore, and hope my readers do as well. And I hope some folks throw some fundraisers or make donations. The Poe House is part of our country's cultural heritage, and the Poe tributes celebrate American letters. It would be a damned shame to see them vanish.

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