Master of macabre lives on to tell the tale

With cape and cane, actor embodies Edgar A. Poe


David Keltz was first exposed to Edgar Allan Poe in the seventh grade, when he read "The Tell-Tale Heart." He was so enthralled, he read it twice.

That night, he paid the price for devouring Poe's macabre prose.

The 13-year-old lay wide-eyed in his bed, dead certain that his bedroom door was edging open inch by inch. His heart raced as he lay still, sensing that he wasn't alone. Maybe, he thought, it was a heart beating beneath the floorboards, just as in the story.

Although sleep eluded him that night, Keltz was hooked.

"I was scared to death, but the next morning I went out and got `The Black Cat' and `The Cask of Amontillado,' "said Keltz, who began to read Poe voraciously.

In the intervening years, Keltz's passion for Poe progressed unabated, and led to a one-man show bringing to life many of the author's characters.

The 61-year-old actor performs at various locations throughout Maryland, including an annual show at the Hampton National Historic Site, which is scheduled for 2 p.m. Sunday. The performance is free, sponsored by a grant from the National Park Service.

"Poe's characters felt so alive and real to me," Keltz said. "His stories were frightening because they didn't involve the supernatural. His characters were monsters of psychotic personalities. That intrigued me."

The show, which he debuted 15 years ago and performs around the region, has left a mark on many who have seen it.

"He recites Poe in a manner that is terrifying," said Bob Schurk, facilities manager at the Lyceum, the museum of historic Alexandria, Va., where Keltz performs each Halloween. "But it's all in his voice. Kids think he is this sinister character."

Keltz spent part of his early life in Baltimore but lived in many different places, growing up as part of a military family. After earning a bachelor's degree in theater from Florida Atlantic University, Keltz returned to Baltimore in 1973.

He found acting work, mostly in theater productions, about seven months of the year. In the meantime, he met the curator of the Poe House and Museum on Amity Street in Baltimore, where he volunteered.

He heard about Hal Holbrook's success doing a one-man Mark Twain show and decided to try his hand at one. Although he first pondered the idea as a teenager, there was a common belief in theater that one actor couldn't hold the audience's attention for a full-length show.

Regardless, Keltz created a show based on the writer D.H. Lawrence. But he received few requests for the show. He made his debut Poe performance in 1991 on Halloween night at Poe's gravesite (where Keltz was married in 2000). He gave a dramatic recitation of "The Tell-Tale Heart" and "Annabel Lee." The show was a hit.

Since then he has performed in venues that include Poe museums in Baltimore, Philadelphia and Richmond, Va.; the College of Notre Dame of Maryland; Loyola College; Goucher College; Cornell University; and Baltimore County public schools. He has appeared in three Baltimore Ravens commercials as well as in several TV documentaries, including Haunted Baltimore for the History Channel.

Keltz's Halloween appearances at the Lyceum are particularly striking, said Jim Mackay, director of the museum.

"I've heard of other Poe performers, but the quantity of information David knows off the top of his head is very memorable," he said.

Keltz distinguishes his performance by doing the entire show in the first person. From the moment he walks in the door to the time he walks out, he's Poe.

Keltz certainly looks the part, possessing an uncanny resemblance to the king of grotesque horror. Keltz is about 5-foot-8 and he wears a dark brown wig styled like Poe's hair.

He dons period costumes that include a vest, cape, pants, vagabond shirt, cane and a top hat when he performs. On the street, the getup is sure to get attention.

"People will see me in my period costume and call out, `Nevermore!'" Keltz said. "One time, someone told me I looked like Jack the Ripper. Or they ask me if I'm a magician."

On a recent afternoon on a street in downtown Baltimore, two city employees stopped in their tracks.

"They asked me if I knew I looked like Edgar Allan Poe, and I told them that I was Poe," Keltz said. "I told them that I had lived in Baltimore a long time and now I'm back."

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