Dave Danforth is on assignment this week, but Mr. Mead Metcalf was back in town for a “Crystal Palace Review” show at the Wheeler. So, we are running one of Danforth’s past columns. This one originally ran April 13, 2008.
Mead Metcalf ends each Crystal Palace show by singing, “It’s time to hit the bricks... it’s over.”
By the time you read this, it will be all over. Metcalf will have ended a 52-year run in Aspen, the Crystal Palace building will be readied for its reported $13 million sale in June, and his cast, some of whom have been with him for a quarter-century, will move on.
Metcalf learned to play piano by ear and parlayed an affinity for Broadway show tunes and, later, off-color musical sketches, into a revolving ensemble that caught the edginess of Washington’s Capitol steps as it kept old favorites like “Neighborhood Porno Lady.” It would replace about half its repertoire each season, in recent years with material from gifted New York writer Rick Crom.
The Crystal Palace business will likely go silent. Metcalf is a complete artist-entrepreneur. It would be difficult even for his talented cast to tend to all the quirky details that propelled the Palace to institutional status. His building, purchased for $28,000 in 1960 — well, let’s not ponder its future.
Metcalf pitched all nine innings in a rare life performance. At 25, he began by playing piano at the Jerome in 1957, quickly moving to what was the Motherlode and then into his current digs. Now 76, he leaves for a home on a Crested Butte golf course with his health and wife Diane. He was close enough to his cast that, had they been able to carry on, it would have been difficult for him to leave.
The Crystal Palace once ran two shows nightly in season. It was in slow decline, both because tastes have changed and Aspen’s second-home movement has restricted potential audience numbers.
The business was not just one, but three — part restaurant and part theatre — and then the music. When first wife Joan emerged from washing the Palace dishes to take the stage with Metcalf for duets in the 60’s, that cemented another hallmark: the cast did everything.
The departure of the Crystal Palace leaves a larger question for Aspen: is its current climate enough to nourish future Metcalf-style artist-entrepreneurs?
Metcalf is one of a band of artists who pushed their chosen fields into businesses, were able to secure their futures by buying their buildings, and finally rode into near-retirement by selling the buildings because the businesses were usually too unique.
We mourn lost enterprises like the Red Onion, Motherlode and La Cocina — and the last two were run by artist-entrepreneurs who managed to purchase their buildings as tickets to enduring businesses. It would be difficult to imagine either restaurant continuing without a Howard or a Nick. Had they done so, they would have put off the right to sell buildings that had become more valuable than the businesses within. They have been caught up in Penthouse Purgatory and the rush to sell glitz with a view.
Artist-entrepreneurs are not always limited to businesses, but that’s often how they set for long runs. Owners driven by near-obsession typically run them. They often involve long-term staffs and touch many thousands of customers. (One Rocky Mountain News writer estimated Metcalf spent almost one complete month of his life performing his trademark “Peanut Butter Affair” eight thousand times).
They often start more for the love of a chosen craft, and ski bumming, than for money. Then they are just good enough to keep heads above water and accumulate profit for the long run.
In Aspen, to last at least a quarter-century (Metcalf doubled that) such an operator will collide with real estate reality. The valley can be unforgiving and even ruthless to renters under uncertain leases and moody landlords. It favors obsessed one-time ski bum types who do well enough to buy in.
Yet no entrepreneur to date has had to plan some penthouse construction in order to afford to buy his or her digs. It’s difficult to see how zoning might help. Such entrepreneurs can’t be grown like gardens. They just happen, like a Metcalf.
Some “artistic” businesses can become institutions and survive their leading lights. Explore Booksellers survived Katharine Thalberg, though it required a real estate benefactor. Is Belly Up the kind of one-of-a-kind establishment that, having secured its space, could survive founder Michael Goldberg?
Artist-entrepreneurs are often busy enough that they rarely think about the long term. There’s always another show or two to put on, new material to write, more meals to serve, more goods to sell. And they rarely have the disposition to stop long enough to accept help from the outside. They don’t need it — besides, there’s always another show to put on.
The future of a town without a Metcalf is for us to consider — as are the conditions that let artists do what they do.
The Crystal Palace is over. But whether the next artist-entrepreneur to emerge finds the conditions hospitable enough to buy in and stay — assuming he or she can carry on a business — is work for the rest of us. It will take more stretched, outside-the-box thinking than what can and can’t work in the S/C/I zone.
When Mead Metcalf shows up in Crested Butte, he will have no peanut butter on his chin. And he will hope nobody there notices.