Final bow for Aspen’s Crystal Palace
January 14, 2008
ASPEN ” In an effort to stave off her sadness, Meredith Daniel reminds herself that she is far from the only one having this particular bout of melancholy. Night after night at the Crystal Palace dinner theater, Daniel performs for people who have a similar sense of loss about the fact that the Palace is in its final season, that the building that houses the theater has been sold and will be turned into something else, that a piece of Aspen that dates back more than five decades is about to be eliminated.
“I have to remember that this means as much to them as it has to me,” said Daniel. “There are people who consider it a special part of their tradition, and feel a little ownership of it. They have it in their hearts, too. It’s a part of people’s family history, over generations.”
Still, when 75-year-old Mead Metcalf ” who founded the Crystal Palace in 1957 and moved it into its current stained-glass-filled space at the corner of Monarch and Hyman a few years later ” takes his final turn on the piano bench come April 12, Daniel is bound to feel the impact as much as anyone. She joined the cast of the Palace’s satirical musical show 22 years ago, and, with a few breaks for pregnancy and child-rearing, has been there since. It is a family affair for her, too: Her husband of 17 years, Gary, who remains a cast member, predates her at the Palace by a handful of years; it was there that they met.
The Crystal Palace has provided the Daniels not just jobs, but security. In a profession ” theater ” where stability is the last thing one expects, the couple has been able to put down deep roots in Aspen, while still being able to call themselves actors. They have raised two adolescent children they have together in Aspen, and established day jobs and offseason jobs (Meredith works at Aspen Mulling Spices; Gary is a bartender at the Aspen Mountain Club on top of Aspen Mountain) that allow them to perform at the Palace.
“It’s been a consistent job in the theater, and that’s rare [to have] something in the theater you can count on,” said Meredith, who says the family is hoping to stay here ” the kids are begging for it ” but has left the future an open question. “So this has been the best of all worlds. We could raise a family, be in a good school district, live in a great place.”
The other world that Daniel refers to is the creative one. At Moorehead State University, in her native Minnesota, Meredith trained for serious theater. She did two shows at Boulder’s Dinner Theatre in the mid-’80s, before being pulled toward Aspen. Twenty-two years of doing musical-sketch comedy at the Crystal Palace and two kids have kept her from doing Shakespeare or Pinter. And while many of her Palace colleagues, including her husband, have pursued other stage opportunities ” mostly with Aspen Community Theatre, which schedules its productions so that Palace performers will be available ” Meredith has done just one straight show, an ACT presentation long ago.
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Still, she feels challenged and fulfilled. “It’s not at all what I intended to do,” she said. “When I first saw a show, when I auditioned, I went ‘neehh.’ But it’s grown on me. It’s a style that really suits me. It’s playful.”
As an example of the challenges, she offers up her experience in “Surabaya Santa.” The solo piece is modeled after “Surabaya Johnny,” Kurt Weil’s heart-ripping wail from a woman in love with an uncaring sailor. Daniel was cast as Mrs. Santa Claus, “left on the Pole a few too many times, while Santa’s riding the sleigh.”
The piece, debuted years ago, didn’t work. “We had three different people doing it, and everybody said, ‘Please, don’t let it be my night.'” Despite their pleas, Metcalf, who maintained control over artistic and business decisions most of the years, left it in the show through the summer. And Daniel simply kept at it, using it as an opportunity to stretch her abilities.
“I don’t know how or why, but it just started working. I just gave up on it being a performance piece and decided I’d just entertain myself. I got so obnoxious with it, it started to work,” she said, going into the over-the-top German accent she devised for the role. “And people eventually loved it.”
Then there is the quality of the material. Dinner theater generally doesn’t have much of a reputation for challenging its audience with edgy, contemporary material. But Metcalf has never shied away from controversial subjects; instead, he welcomes them. From the ’70s, when the show included such songs as “The Neighborhood Porno Lady” and “My Garden Went to Pot,” to more recent numbers like “Fairies in the White House” and the current jabs at President Bush, the Palace has been willing to offend a certain percentage of the audience for the greater good of big laughs. (On the food side, the Palace’s menu is comparatively conservative, but pretty much guaranteed to satisfy. Dessert is where the kitchen gets to let loose.)
“I think we’ve been really fortunate,” said Gary Daniel. “There are many talented writers who have worked for the Palace. Right now, it’s Rick Crom, who’s been the best by far.”
Possibly the most advantageous thing for an actor is the variety of roles they get to slip into. Yes, Meredith has portrayed Hillary Clinton more times than she can count, but she has also been Tonya Harding, Leona Helmsley, Dr. Ruth, and a woman into all things natural, whose house burns down ” but at least it smells good when it does. Gary, meanwhile, has a shopping list of favorite characters he has created, which only begins with Eleanor Roosevelt and Linda Tripp. “I thoroughly enjoy playing women in drag,” explains the burly, balding actor, who also has managerial duties at the Palace. He also portrayed part-time Aspenite Martina Navratilova in a skit about people who women are attracted to. (“Has she been in?” I asked, referring to the lesbian tennis champion. “Not since then,” quipped Daniel.) He has also played Elvis Presley, reacting to his daughter’s marriage to Michael Jackson, and a gay man with a crush on Rush Limbaugh. His current characters include Pope Benedict XVI, and an “Old Fart on Wheels,” one of the first roles he played some 25 years ago. “And now I’m actually an old fart. I don’t need a wig or anything,” he said.
Daniel has also cycled through the occupants of the White House, playing former presidents Bush and Clinton. His latest take on Washington, D.C., is “Dubya Rides Again,” which skewers George W. Bush as an uneducated cowboy: “Africastan, Palikastan … / My weakest subject in school was geology.” Palace workers have been fielding complaints from the right wing over these past seven years, but once a Democrat gets back in the Oval Office, they can expect the protests to start coming from the other side.
“People thought we were just going after Republicans,” said Meredith, referring to “Dubya Rides Again,” and another satire of the current president, “I Wish I Was Drinking Again.” “But we did Clinton and Monica Lewinsky till it was dead. There was just so much to do.
“Everyone is fair game. As it should be. But there are going to be people who are offended.”
More guests, however, are leaving the Crystal Palace these days not angry, but saddened by the fact that it will likely be their final visit. A lot of regulars are already making plans for their one last spin through Metcalf’s follies; the Palace has scheduled a second seating for their final day, April 12.
Meredith Daniel, for her part, is trying to wait until those last performances before unleashing her emotions. There’s still three months of serving dinners ” an aspect of the job that Daniel says she enjoys completely ” and laughs. And she figures it will be best to get through them without too many tears.
“It’s definitely a presence: ‘The end is there,'” she said. “It’s the last season, and everyone is working to make it enjoyable for everyone else. It’s the last chance for everyone to get a taste of this Aspen icon.
“It’s something I’m trying very hard not to concentrate on right now. You could take something like this and be miserable about it for four months. I’m going to pack it all into the last week.”
This is the first in a series of profiles of Crystal Palace performers. The Crystal Palace is open Mondays through Saturdays through April 12.