49 1/2 Years of Peanut Butter on the Chin (and no peas on the stage)
December 21, 2005
Don’t let the “dinner theater” label fool you. The Crystal Palace is in an entertainment league of its own, unconnected to any regional style or familiar form.
In the Midwest, dinner theater is marked by the audience – the blue-haired elderly who come out to see safe, predictable revivals of “Hello, Dolly!” The Southern take on the form is distinguished by the undistinguished food, almost invariably served buffet-style. (There is a term for this brand of entertainment – “Peas on a stage” – recognized by most anyone who has worked in dinner theater; it is a reference to the food that inevitably finds its way from the buffet onto the stage.) Along the East Coast, dinner theater tends to be a classier night out, though the performances generally run along a theme – murder mysteries, Broadway revues – designed to please all theatergoers.Over its 49-and-a-half-year existence in Aspen (the business turns 50 in 2006), the Crystal Palace has invented its own niche in the realm of dinner theater. The show is entirely original, made up of satirical song-and-dance numbers that skewer – with good cheer, but often a sharp point – such newsmakers as George W. Bush, Barbara Streisand, steroid-pumped baseball players and those who have spotted the Virgin Mother in the oddest of places. The menu tends toward the basics (elk loin, roast duckling, wild salmon and much more), but no one would mistake it for a buffet. The wine list is extensive, the desserts reflect a definite measure of ambition, and Chef Brad Smith comes with the impeccable credential of having been sous chef at Piñons. The Palace atmosphere, heavy on stained glass and chandeliers, transports visitors out of the contemporary Western ski town and into the 1950s heyday of dinner theater.”There are dinner theaters that do ‘book’ shows. But doing political and social satire, and serving a full dinner with table service – not a buffet, not peas on a stage where you’re performing for a bunch of senior citizens – to my knowledge, this is totally unique,” said Nina Gabianelli, the Crystal Palace general manager by day and cast member by night. (Virtually everyone who works at the Palace takes on multiple roles, most notably the performing wait staff.)
Rick Crom has been the principal author of the Palace’s unique brand of humor since the late 1980s. The 48-year-old songwriter, lyricist and performer carries his own version of musical satire around the country; in his New York hometown, his show “Newsical the Musical” has had runs at Studio 54 and the Village Theater. But nowhere is Crom’s vision given as elaborate a production as in Aspen.”For me, it was and still is the only place where I can see my songs fully realized,” said Crom, who has made regular visits to the Crystal Palace since 1991, “with a big cast and an audience that’s fairly sophisticated and gets everything. When I do ‘Newsical’ in New York, it’s only four people in the cast.” (The Palace cast numbers between 10 and 14, depending on the night.)
While Crom is responsible for perhaps three-quarters of the material in recent seasons, and some cast members count 20 or more years of service, there is a larger figure who has created the personality, look and humor of the Crystal Palace.Mead Metcalf first came to Aspen in 1953. He and a friend, both students at Dartmouth, were on their way from New Hampshire to Texas for their summer of ROTC duty. They stopped in Aspen and camped up Castle Creek. Four years later, after Metcalf had earned his degree in English and served two years in the military – where his assignment was to play piano for U.S. soldiers in a German mountaintop hotel – Metcalf returned to Colorado.Metcalf’s first Aspen job was as a dinnertime pianist at the Hotel Jerome. But when dinner was over, he would continue entertaining by singing humorous songs for the hotel guests. That same year Metcalf, all of 23 years old, took the concept two blocks south, to the building most recently occupied by the Mother Lode restaurant. He rented the premises, installed a kitchen, hired a tiny staff and opened the Crystal Palace. While diners ate the specialty of the house, “Chicken à la Baby Doe,” Metcalf himself would play piano and sing; “Trouble in River City” from “The Music Man” was a signature tune. The dishwasher was Joan Higbie, stepdaughter of noted musician, letter-writer and fix-it man Freddie Fisher, and she introduced the concept of having the kitchen help double as the entertainment.
“Joanie would take off her apron, come out and sing – things like ‘Scotch on the Rocks’ – put her apron on and go back and wash some more dishes,” said Metcalf, who was also backed onstage by the Palace waiters. In 1962, Joan took on a third role at the Palace, as the boss’ wife. During the fall offseasons, the couple would travel the Midwest circuit – Des Moines, Omaha, Metcalf’s native St. Louis – as a song-and-dance duo, traveling in the private jet that Metcalf piloted. (Joan, from whom Mead had been divorced, died last month; her life was celebrated with songs and memories from her surviving castmates. In April, Mead married Diane Kelly, a Palace cast member from 1968-74.)Mead Metcalf did virtually everything at the Palace. He played the piano and sang, and cooked lunch for the first two years. When the Palace moved a few doors down in 1960, to its present location at Hyman Avenue and Monarch Street, he designed the interior and even installed the chandeliers. At 73, Metcalf still keeps fairly tight reins on the operation, from changing light bulbs to playing piano for half the show most every night.”It’s all about Mead,” said Meredith Nelson-Daniel, who has been in the Palace cast, on and off, for 20 years (or five years less than her husband, Gary Daniel). “He’s got the final word on everything.”
Metcalf’s most inspired touch involves the entertainment. As early as the Eisenhower administration, the Crystal Palace was doing song satires. Metcalf boasts that he has ridiculed, in song, 10 leaders of the free world. But in the early years, comedy was the smaller part of the show, with most of the stage-time devoted to Broadway tunes.Metcalf, however, has an impish personality. And on a visit to New York, his imagination was stoked by seeing the satirical show at the venue Upstairs at the Downstairs. Unabashedly, he lifted the concept of doing contemporary musical satire. By the ’70s, familiar, proper songs from “Carousel,” “Oklahoma” and “My Fair Lady” were being shoved aside for edgy original works like “The Neighborhood Porno Lady,” “My Garden Went to Pot” and “Haldeman, Ehrlichman and Dean,” a tweak at the Nixon administration that has evolved through the years, and has become “Condi, Rummy and Dick” in the current show.
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“It’s dinner theater to provoke people, definitely,” said Metcalf.Plenty of dissatisfied customers have been turned off by specific political airings or the general sense of indecency. “Fairies in the Firehouse,” about gay firefighters, drew consistent complaints in an earlier era, said Metcalf, and recently a group outraged by “Lost in a Red State” walked out of the building (To this audience member, it is unclear who should be most offended by this campy number, the Red Staters or the Blue.) But Metcalf feels he has been blessed to do this sort of show in sophisticated, tolerant Aspen.”The people who come to see us have a good understanding of these things,” he said. “They don’t take things so seriously.”
Metcalf says that no topic is off-limits, and he has been as good as his word. The Crystal Palace is, above all, a bastion of political incorrectness. There have been numerous songs about sexual topics (“Hooters Air,” “Lesbian Madness” and “You Punched the Wrong Hole, Murray,” filled with double entendres about the Florida election ballots) and religion (“Have I Ever Told You I’m Jewish,” “New Time Religion”), and some that mix the two subjects (“Welcome to the Priesthood”).No prominent politician gets off easy; whichever party is in the White House can expect to be the butt of most of the jokes.While dinner theater has become more marginalized, the Crystal Palace has only raised its stakes. These days, each season features approximately 60 percent brand-new material. The current show has bits on Hurricane Katrina, stem cells, baseball players on steroids and Howard Dean. Songs about the Taliban, Jesse Ventura and even the runaway Georgia bride have been rotated out, considered too dated.
The only old number that is occasionally resurrected is “The Peanut Butter Affair,” a shaggy-dog tale about the CEO with peanut butter on his chin, prompting his employees to follow suit. (The song is the source of the Palace’s tag line, “49 years of peanut butter on the chin.” “It’s still requested on a nightly basis,” says Gabianelli. “And it’s still requested on a nightly basis that Mead not sing it.”)”Our show is new each year, and evolves and grows with the audience,” said Gabianelli. “It’s not show tunes. It’s for an audience that’s accustomed to ‘The Daily Show.’ It’s edgy.””It couldn’t withstand being the same show every year,” added Gary Daniel.
The show may be more ambitious than ever, but that hasn’t translated into blockbuster business. Attendance at the Palace has crept downward over the years, mostly due to changes in Aspen. The growth in second-home ownership has meant fewer tourists shuttling in and out of town, and thus a smaller potential audience. And the competition has multiplied since Metcalf first started entertaining. In 1957, there was a handful of restaurants to choose from, and a similarly small number of entertainment options. Now, the valley is flooded with restaurants, movie screens, concerts and more.There was a time when Aspen couldn’t get enough of the Crystal Palace. In the ’60s and ]70s, the Palace presented two shows a night, followed by late-night opera performances after the second show. For five years in the mid-’80s, Metcalf extended his offerings with the Grand Finale, a smaller, more elegant, Broadway-focused show staged next door to the Palace. The Palace now does two shows a night only around the Christmas and New Year’s weeks.
Still, Metcalf and his crew continue to raise the bar for dinner theater. Cast members find the show material stronger than ever. A few years ago, Metcalf started up the Palace After Hours, a late-night, Broadway-themed piano bar. This coming July, the Palace will celebrate its 50th season by inviting all former employees for a three-day reunion. And the faithful continue to find good reason to put the Palace show on their must-see list, year after year.”I’m from the South, so I’ve been to some cheesy dinner theaters,” said Margaret Lewin, a part-time Snowmass Village resident who has attended the Crystal Palace four or five times over the last 10 years, but otherwise stopped going to dinner theater. “And then I came here, and the dinner was great, the theater was great. It was an ‘Oh!'”Crom understands what Lewin is saying – both about writing off most dinner theater, and about embracing the Crystal Palace.
“It’s a difficult form,” he said. ‘But when it’s done well, it’s a treat. Mead has kept the experience fresh.”And kept the peas off the stage.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is email@example.com