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Dinner at the Palace comes with side of social satire

Stewart Oksenhorn

There is a phrase, not a very positive one, known to most anyone who has worked in dinner theater. “Peas on a stage” describes a humdrum version of the entertainment form, referring to the food that inevitably makes its way from the buffet onto the performance space of low-budget dinner theaters.

In the history of the Crystal Palace, which hits 50 years this summer, it is likely that no one has uttered the term in the direction of Aspen’s dinner theater. Mead Metcalf, who founded the Palace in 1957 and still takes his nightly turn at the piano, aimed high from the beginning. In effect, Metcalf invented his own niche in the entertainment world, one that has taken both halves of the “dinner theater” experience ” the cuisine and the performance ” to uncommon heights.

The show, instead of reprising old, familiar Broadway, it is made up of original, satirical song-and-dance numbers that skewer ” with good cheer but a sharp point ” such newsmakers as steroid-enhanced athletes and the trio of “Condi, Rummy and Dick.” The show changes each season, so audience members can expect that whoever distinguished ” or, more likely, disgraced ” themselves this spring will be fodder for a song in the summer.

On the dining side, the Palace tends toward the high-end basics, but with welcome twists. Chef Brad Smith, whose experiences include being sous chef at Pinons, prepares the wild salmon with Thai spices, and finishes the elk loin with a chipotle-blackberry sauce. No one would mistake the meal for a buffet, not the least because it is served by the entertainers. The wine list is extensive. And the Palace seems to save the best for last: There are as many dessert choices as entrees, from the Fallen Chocolate Souffle Tort to the Kick Ass N’Awlins Bread Pudding. All of them are capable of getting the audience dancing in the aisles.

The Palace further separates itself with the atmosphere. The space is filled with stained glass and chandeliers, collected by Metcalf over the last half-century. The dark elegance goes a long way toward transporting visitors from a 21st-century ski town to 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 Palace’s general manager by day and cast member at night.

Metcalf, a military veteran whose assignment was to play piano for U.S. troops in a German mountaintop hotel, settled in Aspen in 1957. His first job was playing dinnertime piano at the Hotel Jerome. When the plates were cleared, Metcalf continued the entertainment by singing comedy songs for the guests. That same year he took the concept two blocks away, where he installed a kitchen and opened the first Crystal Palace, a few doors down from its current location. While diners ate the specialty of the house, Chicken à la Baby Doe, Metcalf would play such signature tunes as “Trouble in River City” from “The Music Man.”

As early as the Eisenhower administration, the Palace was doing song satires. But Metcalf had his impish sense of humor stoked on a visit to a cutting-edge New York dinner theater, Upstairs at the Downstairs, in the ’60s. By the ’70s, proper show tunes were shoved aside by edgy, original material: “The Neighborhood Porno Lady” and “My Garden Went to Pot.” There have been customers put off by “Fairies in the Firehouse,” and recently Metcalf had to run down a group outraged by “Lost in a Red State” (which offends both Red Staters and Blues Staters in roughly equal measure). But Metcalf, now 73, considers himself fortunate to cater to a tolerant crowd.

“It’s dinner theater to provoke people, definitely,” he said. “But the people who come to see us have good understanding of these things. They don’t take things so seriously.”

“It’s not show tunes. It’s edgy,” added Gabianelli. “It’s for an audience that’s accustomed to ‘The Daily Show.'”

This summer’s show gets only a slight adjustment to celebrate the Palace’s birthday. The cast will revisit some old material, and there will be a tribute to the late Joan Metcalf ” the Palace’s first dishwasher, and Mead’s first wife ” featuring songs performed over the years by Joan. In addition, the Aspen Historical Society will honor the Palace with an exhibit, Crystal Memories: 50 Years of Palace Shenanigans, opening June 16, featuring photos, costumes and old albums.


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