THE RISE OF THE HOUSE OF POE

The Baltimore Sun

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."

The two Poe fans don't see eye to eye on everything related to the writer. Consider the splashy film treatments of Poe works in the early 1960s starring Vincent Price and directed by Roger Corman, products that practically defined Poe at the time.

"They affected a lot of people," says Jerome, a Baltimore native. "I was 10 years old when they came out and I still remember the theaters - the Belnord and the State - and who I was with each time I saw one of those films." Jerome sounds approving, even a tad wistful, at the recollection.

Astin's response to those movies: "I despised them all. They had absolutely nothing to do with Poe. Hollywood does that to all kinds of good writing."

The actor has championed respect for Poe since his college days - originally a math student, he transferred to Hopkins to study drama.

"I felt there was a tendency to trivialize Poe," Astin says. "I was disappointed that he was not really held in high esteem. I remember when [Hopkins professor] N. Bryllion Fagin's The Histrionic Mr. Poe came out [in 1949], I had the feeling he was looked down on because he had written a book on Poe."

Nearly 50 years after graduating, Astin returned to Hopkins in 2001 to help rejuvenate the university's theater program. Some of his students have already gone on to start professional careers in New York. Creating stars is not Astin's primary goal, though.

"I'm here because a lot of leaders come out of this school, and leaders must be exposed to the arts and humanities," he says. "The arts teach us things we can't learn otherwise. That is not to say everybody in the arts is bursting with wisdom, but it is hard to achieve wisdom without the arts."

Astin, who made appearances in the films West Side Story and That Touch of Mink before fashioning his Addams Family character, wants to give his acting students perspective. "I find if I ask them who this actor or that actor [from the past] is, almost none of them know," he says. "And at one class, where half were film majors, none had heard of Federico Fellini."

Count on Astin to help fill in gaps of knowledge as he continues teaching such subjects as the history of acting, along with preparing them for plays on campus. As for stepping onto the stage or in front of a camera himself these days, expect him to be discriminating.

"About 20 years ago, I decided I wasn't going to do anything for money alone, but because I thought it was worthwhile," Astin says. "There were times when I did stuff to make a buck. With two divorces and five kids, there was a little drain on the pocketbook." Astin, whose second wife was actress Patty Duke, has been married to Valerie Ann Sandobal since 1989.

Although Astin did not enjoy bountiful residuals from innumerable Addams Family reruns (TV actors decades ago routinely lost out on that kind of income), he did enjoy a kind of reward.

"I'm grateful for the show. The fact that I was hardly paid for it is not all that important," the actor says. "It kept my face in front of the audience. A fairly high percentage of young people today know who I am. I've kept a kind of cachet for all these years. It comes in handy when I want to draw an audience."

That draw was demonstrated when Astin undertook his first Poe show. "I realized that perhaps my notoriety for all those reruns could be marketed and I could bring good literature to people," he says.

Paying tribute to Poe's life and indelible art looks to remain a regular part of Astin's creative life. If his schedule is free, he'll be a part of Poe's funeral here in October - a re-imagined one, organized by Jerome, complete with horse-drawn hearse and period coffin.

Astin's role in that commemoration will be as a kind of master of ceremonies for a program of eulogies, the kind that weren't delivered at Poe's actual, hurried funeral, attended by only a handful of people. "All of our bicentennial events will be fun and educational," Jerome says. "If you want a lecture on Poe's dramatic use of the semicolon, go to another city."

This month's fun and education includes a tribute to Poe by Astin, reciting select poems, stories and letters at Westminster Hall. "He's going to have the audience right in the palm of his hand," Jerome says.

Poe's spirit is likely to get a kick out of it, too.

birthday parties for poe

Tomorrow's 200th anniversary of Poe's birth has sparked any number of commemorations, especially in the cities where he lived at various times during his 40 years - Baltimore, Richmond, Va., Philadelphia, New York.

Baltimore's own energetic, century-plus promotion of the Poe legacy includes a curious tradition, the appearance of a well-concealed figure who leaves a half-filled bottle of cognac and three roses on the writer's grave each birthday. The "Poe Toaster" will presumably make his delivery sometime before dawn tomorrow. (It is believed that two sons now carry out the practice started by their father in 1949.)

Meanwhile, several other Poe folks will pay their respects, less obliquely, during a variety of activities presented by the Edgar Allan Poe House and Museum. Today's presentation with John Astin is sold out, but tickets remain for two more events:

John Astin will repeat his Tribute to Poe on a program that includes a realization of Poe's "Some Words with a Mummy," directed by John Spitzer at 7 p.m. Jan. 31. Astin's tribute will also share a program with Poe's "Hop Frog," produced and directed by Mark Redfield, and "The Tell-Tale Heart," performed by Tony Tsendeas, at 4:30 p.m. Feb. 1.

Both events are at Westminster Hall, Fayette and Greene streets. Tickets are $35. Call 410-396-7932 or go to poebicentennial.com.

Additional bicentennial events are being planned, including a new "funeral" for Poe on Oct. 10 with two services and assorted eulogies.

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