David Keltz has committed more than five hours of Edgar Allan Poe's work to memory.
The actor has appeared as Poe on The History Channel's "Baltimore's Haunted History," The Food Network's "Ace of Cakes" and, last weekend, to literary fans at The Hotel Hershey during "A Chilling Encounter With Poe."
Keltz said his photo was once accidentally published with an article about Poe. When he moved to Baltimore several years ago, Poe's grave and Poe's house in the city were a few of the first places he visited.
His first performance as the macabre writer was on Halloween 1991 at Poe's grave, in front of a crowd dressed as monsters and ghouls. Since then, he's performed dozens of performances in America and abroad. He's in demand around Poe's birthday on Jan. 19 and during April for Library Month, but he books more gigs in the fall.
On Oct. 7, there are usually memorial celebrations to commemorate Poe's death and Halloween is the perfect time to read some of Poe's famous works of horror. In between haunting schools and theaters as Poe, Keltz took some time to talk about his show.
How did you get into acting? I've been an actor all my life. In 1987, I started doing a one-person show four months out of the year. I've always been fascinated with the thought of meeting people out of history. A common question is, 'If you could have anyone as your dinner guest from history, who would you choose?' Poe was top on (my) list. For the one-man shows, I performed as (writers) D. H. Lawrence and H. L. Mencken and (Capt.) John Smith. The first time I performed as Poe was Halloween night in 1991. I recited "The Tell-Tale Heart" and "Annabel Lee." Audiences really enjoyed Poe more than the others.
What are your shows like? I will introduce and then recite works (including) "The Black Cat" and "The Cask of Amontillado." (Poe) traveled around the East Coast from 1843 until his death in 1849 giving lecture recitals. I share his critical views on other authors at the time. For the audience . . . it's like going back in time and see one of those talks. I take more theatrical licenses to entertain a modern audience. I try to find out the age range (of audience members) to think about what they would be interested in. Younger people are usually interested in horror, but what I really enjoy most is (presenting) a comprehensive view of his life and work. I do a wide range of his stories. "The Spectacles" is a romantic comedy about a 21-year-old man who is wealthy, and he's very handsome. He refuses to wear glasses out of vanity, and the end result is that he marries his great-great grandmother.
Why do you think people are still interested in Poe so many years later? He invented several different genres. His horror (stories) were based on psychotic personality and lunacy and alcoholism instead of (supernatural phenomenon). In that way, they are more frightening. That's one reason why his work that has lasted. He also (introduced) science fiction . . . and detective stories. They had such enormous impact. There was no genuine literary criticism before Poe's time. In the 1800s, magazines were just coming into being. Before that, authors used pseudonyms to write praise for each other and no one was paid to write criticism. Poe was the first critic (to) put his name to (his writings). It was really upsetting and controversial at the time. He made a great many literary enemies. He would not get invited to parties.
Was Poe recognized in his time? A lot of people think he wasn't famous until "The Raven." But when he started writing the literary reviews, he increased the circulation in magazines. His stories were well read. "The Raven" was very popular. People at the time were saying that (a raven) should replace the bald eagle as the American symbol. It was like when a popular recording artist releases a CD today. The very first time he spoke was in a large church there were 2,000 people there. People were turned away at the door. He's more recognized now because no one in his time knew the influence he would have on other authors (including) Fyodor Dostoevsky's "Crime and Punishment," James Joyce and Joseph Conrad. (Poe's) "The Balloon Hoax" inspired Orson Welles' "War of the Worlds." In every city he lived, except maybe Boston, they take great pride in the fact that he was there. They like to claim him. The French even try to claim him . . . but Poe never (lived there).
What are some misconceptions about Poe? Poe never used opium, but he did have a problem with alcohol. Many people don't understand the extent of his drinking problem. He was not an everyday drunk. He would swear off (alcohol) for long periods of time. He was not a friendly drunk. He knew when he drank his behavior was egregious (and) he spent a lot of money. In those times, it was considered an insult for people not to accept a drink. There is great evidence to suggest he was bipolar. A lot of people think that he never wore anything but black, but the last three months of his life, he wore a white suit in the summer months. I smile on stage, and people tell me that Poe never smiled. But he would be sarcastic and loving with his friends. Most of the friends throughout his life were women, and he had a number of doctor friends.
How do you prepare to be Poe? I read as many biographies and personal letters that I could and try to get into his mind. There are a lot of things to take into consideration (including) what he sounded like and how he moved and walked. (I) just work on getting the character ready and sometimes it seems the process goes kind of slowly and then you have a breakthrough. (When I was preparing for my first show) I lost track of my car in hospital parking lot at night. I just ran my lines as I was walking around. It was unplanned, but I felt like I really had it. For each performance, (I) have to pull that back up again. In the beginning, it seemed like (Poe) suffered a great deal of stage fright. I try to think about that every time I have a new part I perform. I researched what he owned and what he wore and studied . . . portraits and statues. I have costumes made. I had a wig made. I use an eyebrow pencil and grow my own mustache.
Do people ask you a lot of questions? At the end part of the program, I stay in character and ask for questions. Many of them are very good. Some people ask me about the Civil War and that's a hard question to answer in character (since Poe died before the war). I have to ad-lib and say something like "I met my untimely demise 11 years before the war."
Was there a time that you were really stumped? (Poe) attended the University of Virginia and won honors for French and Latin. One time a woman was talking to me about that and she began speaking French, and, of course, I don't speak French.
POPeye is a bi-weekly column focusing on the ever-changing landscape of popular culture. To reach writer Erin McCracken, call 771-2051 or send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
"The Raven" movie
According to IMDB.com, John Cusack is slated to star as Edgar Allan Poe in a fictionalized account of the writer's last days. The plot involves Poe pursing a serial killer whose murders mirror those in his stories. Shooting is set to begin this month, and the film is scheduled to be released next year.
About Edgar Allan Poe
Born to traveling actors, Edgar Poe was orphaned before the age of 3 and taken in by John and Frances Allan, a Richmond, Va., merchant family. Poe entered the University of Virginia's School of Ancient and Modern Languages in 1826.
In 1827, he enlisted in The United States Army in Boston. After two years of service, he was discharged from the Army and went to Baltimore until he received an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. After a quarrel with Allan, Poe no longer received aid from his foster father and was dismissed from the Academy in March 1831.
In 1836, Poe married his first cousin, Virginia Clemm, and embarked on a career as a magazine editor in Richmond, Philadelphia and New York. Poe became the leading literary critic of his time and invented the literary genres of science fiction, the detective story and the modern horror story. He gained fame for his work, but struggled with alcohol addiction, especially after Virginia's death in January 1847.
Poe's life ended in mystery. On a trip from Richmond to New York in the fall of 1849, he stopped to visit friends. He was found in Baltimore and taken unconscious to a hospital where he died on Oct. 7. He was likely the victim of an election practice known as "cooping" when political gangs abducted foreigners and drunkards, put them in cellars, drugged them and forced them to vote repeatedly for the same candidate.
More Poe encounters
Visit an artistic tribute to Edgar Allan Poe "Tell Tale Hearts, Ravens and Black Cats" through Nov. 7 at the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts, 410 Museum Drive, Hagerstown, Md. Museum hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday. For details, call 301-739-5727 or visit www.wcmfa.org.
"Poe Evermore" begins Tuesday and runs through Nov. 24 at the Mount Hope Estate and Winery, Route 72, Cornwall. Join the ghost of Edgar Allan Poe for stories and poems including "The Masque of the Red Death" and "The Pit and the Pendulum." Admission to midweek performances costs $18.95; Friday, Saturday and Sunday performances cost $21.95; Dinner performances range from $42.95 to $59.95; Lunch performances cost $31.95. For details and tickets, call 665-7021, ext. 231, or visit www.parenfaire.com/poe.html.
Halloween at the Poe House will feature live performances of Poe's works at 12:15, 1:15, 2:15 and 3:15 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at the Baltimore Poe House and Museum, 203 N. Amity St. Admission is $6. For details, visit poebicentennial.com.
Be sure to check out a Poe pumpkin tribute from the York Daily Record/Sunday News' Pumpkin Carving Contest in this weeks' York Sunday News or online at www.ydr.com/living.
Read more about David Keltz at davidkeltz.com.