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Aspen’s piano man

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Paul Conrad Aspen Times Weekly
ALL |

David Dyer is determined to stay in Aspen. To that end, he and two colleagues from the local theater scene, Pat Holloran and John Goss, have been exploring the idea of a dinner theater in Glenwood Springs. Dyer, a pianist, conductor and music director, has contemplated other options that would keep him here ” possibly doing musical gigs around the region that would take him out of town for a month or two at a time, supplemented by a flexible day job in Aspen. He also may try his hand at film scoring.

The other option is to leave Aspen, and that will be the valley’s loss. Dyer has been the conductor for some five shows for Aspen Community Theatre, including “My Fair Lady” and “Annie,” and vocal director for another seven or so. For 18 years, he was the organist and choir director for the United Methodist Church. Wherever else a pianist is needed, Dyer is likely to be found: Currently, he is the accompanist for Theatre Aspen’s student production of “Cats” at the Crystal Palace; for Aspen Community Theatre’s grand 30th anniversary celebration last year, Dyer shared the roles of artistic director and conductor with Wendy Larson, and also charted arrangements for approximately half of the numbers.

Dyer’s ubiquitousness has not led to an underappreciation of his talents. Talk to his associates, and the praise flows generously. When Larson anticipated being conductor for the ACT bash last year, she said she needed a “musical genius arranger” to collaborate with ” and considered herself to have found one in Dyer.

Dyer’s main gig for the last 27 years, of course, has been at the Crystal Palace, where he has shared the title of piano man with Mead Metcalf, who founded the dinner theater in 1957. But Metcalf has sold the building that houses the Palace, and dinner theater will no longer be served up in the distinctive space adorned with stained glass and Victorian hues.

Dyer and his fellow talented locals will no longer have that anchor job here, jeopardizing their ability to survive as creative professionals, in Aspen. Just as worrisome, the Palace won’t be there to attract such people in the future, who typically spend their time away from the theater in other theatrical ventures like ACT, and the Wheeler Opera House’s Broadway Players series, founded by former Palace cast member Jeannie Walla. The demise of the Crystal Palace won’t just take high-minded, satirical comedy dinner theater off the plate for tourists; it will likely drain Aspen of some of its performing talent. (The Palace’s last night of performances is scheduled for April 12.)

“I think that’s a real concern,” said Dyer. “Will I stay here? Because there won’t be an outlet to do what I should be doing.”

Dyer, whose desire is to stay in Aspen, sees a best-case scenario in which enough of the current and recent Palace cast sticks around so that an occasional Palace-type performance can be staged. “It would be so wonderful if we could find a space in town where we could reincarnate ourselves,” he said. “The core staff could put a show together and continue Mead’s tradition. We talk about that frequently, talk about keeping some material together to do a 45-minute cabaret show, and I can envision that happening. I think there are enough core people who will stay around. Maybe we do need to cobble together an artistic existence, and fill in with some real jobs, and stitch together a living like that.”

Dyer was one of those performers who moved to Aspen specifically for a job at the Crystal Palace. He is also one of those people who seem to have been magically drawn to Aspen, knowing the minute he arrived that he was home.

Dyer grew up in Denver but, as a child, never visited Aspen. When he first came here, in the summer of 1980, to audition for Metcalf, he was 22, and had some experience in dinner theater, but no background in the kind of accompaniment required at the Palace. Still, he saw his future ahead of him.

“I drove over Independence Pass and I knew I had the job, that this was where I was going to live. I felt it immediately,” said Dyer. “I met Mead that afternoon and we hit it off immediately. We went to the Tent and saw a concert and I was dazzled. How could you not be dazzled?”

That evening, Dyer saw the show at the Palace for his first time, and auditioned afterward, sometime after midnight. He wasn’t offered the job until Metcalf and his then wife, Joan, a singer at the Palace, traveled to Grand Lake to see Dyer perform in a summer stock production of “Man of La Mancha.” “And then it became pretty clear that I was going to be [in Aspen],” said Dyer.

Dyer remembers being fascinated with the piano by the age of 5, though it wasn’t till he was 13 that his parents ” including his father, who had been an ambitious percussionist before David was born and returned to drumming later in life ” bought him a piano. By 15, Dyer was performing, and at the University of Northern Colorado, he studied music education.

Dyer envisioned a short stay at the Palace, before he settled into the real working world. That view didn’t change right away. “It was the end of an era of a core crew who had been there for 10 years,” he said. “I remember thinking, ‘Oh, who would stay here for 10 years? I’ll be here two or three at the most.’

“I was still in that mindset of, I have to go and get a real job, use my degree, do the teaching thing. But I quickly realized I love the town, I love the gig.”

The schedule at the Palace has allowed Dyer to pursue other opportunities. In 1987, he discovered a piano bar on the Greek island of Mykonos; he has returned every spring to play Broadway tunes and American standards at the bar there. He has done theater work in Denver and spent one offseason playing on a cruise ship.

Once, Dyer felt the pull of the outside world. In 2002, he moved to New York, hoping to get work conducting a pit orchestra. But he found the New York theater a hard scene to break into, and in 2006, he returned to Aspen. By the end of the year, after a stint as a concierge at the Aspen Square hotel, he was back on the Palace’s piano bench. It is a satisfying place for Dyer, as the pianist occupies center stage there.

“It’s a unique situation that evolved because Mead was the show in the early days,” said Dyer. “He would just do patter songs ” very wordy, witty songs ” and show tunes. The geography of the room is that the piano is the focal point. I think that’s because Mead wanted it to be the focal point.”

Dyer is also pleased with what he has been able to learn at the Palace’s piano. The style of a comedic revue is not much like doing Broadway shows; Dyer’s job requires more punctuation of the lines and allows for more improvisation. For Dyer, the essence of the role is supporting the singers, a job that suits him ideally.

“I think my greatest gift is as an accompanist,” he said. “It’s about zeroing in on what the singer needs, letting them be in charge and anticipating what they do musically. It’s absolutely thrilling when you can work on that level. And that ability doesn’t come from technical prowess. I know people who can play rings around me, but I feel fortunate that I have this gift to work with a singer. Doing what I do at the Palace has allowed me to fine-tune that skill.”

The Palace has allowed Dyer to develop other talents. When he began at the Palace, he was also given the job of wine steward and wine buyer; he no longer has those duties, but maintains an interest in wine. At After Hours at the Palace, the bar adjacent to the theater space, he does weekend shows where he plays show tunes and jazz standards ” and the singer he is accompanying is himself.

“I seized the opportunity to sing more,” he said. “I had been shy about using my own voice.”

Dyer says that this last season for the Palace has become an uncommonly emotional one, and is becoming more so as the clock ticks down toward the final curtain. And as it has, Dyer is finding even the tiny things about the job and the place and the life hold great meaning. Like hoisting up the elaborate chandelier at the beginning of the season.

“I felt poignancy there,” he said. “I’ve always stood underneath when Mead cranks that up, telling him when to stop. That’s the last time I’ll ever do that.”


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