The Rise Of The House Of Poe

January 18, 2009|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,tim.smith@baltsun.com

Although not a victim of premature burial, the fate he so chillingly conceived for several of his fictional characters, Edgar Allan Poe still shows remarkable signs of life from beyond his own grave in Westminster Burial Ground, where his remains have rested since 1849.

You could almost say he has been resurrected, in the form of veteran actor John Astin, who spent nearly a decade impersonating the writer in a well-traveled, well-received one-man show, and is currently developing another such project. He's also front-and-center for Baltimore's yearlong commemorations of the Poe bicentennial, including a tribute with poetry and short-story recitations in Westminster Hall, next to the burial spot, today and at the end of the month.

Astin's fascination with Poe began at a tender age.

"Before I was 12," says Astin, now 78, "my mother gave me 'The Purloined Letter' to read - I still remember the room I was in. She helped me with the words I didn't understand. I was so stunned by the story. Then I read 'The Murders in the Rue Morgue,' and that knocked me out. When I got older, I got into the poetry."

After a long, eventful career in movies and television - he is still most widely and affectionately known for his role as the patriarch of The Addams Family in the 1960s TV show (the sort of family Poe might have invented, if he had had a more satiric streak) - the Baltimore-born, raised-in-Washington Astin found new inspiration in the author his mother had introduced him to all those years before.

In the mid-1990s, he launched a one-man show about Poe, Once Upon a Midnight by Paul Day Clemens and Ron Magid, which toured more than 100 cities until 2004. "In the beginning, I had to finance and support it, but it turned into a lucrative thing," Astin says.

The actor, onstage in a mustache, black wig and frock coat, even looked remarkably like the Poe whose solemn face is preserved in photographs. This resemblance "never occurred to me until I started making up," Astin says. "I didn't have to do all that much."

Although the costume has spent the past five years in a closet of his residence near Johns Hopkins University, where he is director of the Theatre Arts and Studies Program, the bald-pated, gray-haired Astin doesn't really need a wig or makeup to get back into the spirit. Poe continues to engage his senses strongly.

"He lived a life of tragedy," says Astin, sitting in a snack bar on the Hopkins campus. "But what impresses me was that he always kept writing. His output is not that of a drunken lout."

That image of Poe drinking himself to death has been hard to shake. "He was slandered by his first obituary," says Astin, referring to what is now viewed as an infamous article in the New York Daily Tribune of Oct. 9, 1849, two day's after Poe's death.

"If one does the research, it is difficult to call him a drunkard. He wasn't a habitual drinker," Astin says. "While he had an alcohol problem, that could have been an allergy. I've also investigated claims of drug use and found them wanting."

Astin, whose eyes retain the engaging flicker that helped Gomez Addams light up black-and-white TV screens, talks about Poe with the assurance and substance of a seasoned scholar.

"I think Poe was after a way to express life itself at its deepest levels," Astin says. "Because there was so much darkness in his life, the stories tended to focus on those areas."

In November, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra took advantage of Astin's strong association with Poe; he had a speaking part in The Raven, a work by Leonard Slatkin based on the "nevermore" poem.

"Poe has his hands on John," says Jeff Jerome, for 30 years the spirited curator of the Poe House and Museum on Amity Street and the prime mover and shaker for the bicentennial activities in Baltimore.

Jerome counts himself a fan of Once Upon a Midnight, which he attended at least half a dozen times. "It was like a roller coaster ride," he says. "The first thing I knew, it was over, and I wanted more."

His first encounter with Astin's Poe gave Jerome pause, though. "I thought to myself, he doesn't sound like Poe. Then I realized, duh, no one knows what Poe sounded like," Jerome says. "The downfall of most Poe imitators ... is that they usually sound silly; they go from one extreme to another. After about five minutes, I forgot I was watching John Astin onstage."

Last week, on his way to Philadelphia to take part in a half-serious debate on which city should take pride of place in Poe-dom, Jerome chatted at length by cell phone with Astin about a Poe project the actor is developing - another one-man show, this one focusing on the importance of the women in Poe's life.

"John loves talking about Poe," Jerome says. "After I hung up, I realized I just learned some things about Poe. John has keen insights into him, which I think are pretty much on the mark."

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