ARCHIVE: Mr. Poe, Mr. D, and the Tell-Tale Art


In advance of his Edgar Allan Poe bicentennial observance, Stephen Crane House owner/host Frank D’Alessandro displays “the closest thing you’ll ever see to Poe smiling.” (Photo by Diana Moore)

By TOM CHESEK (First published on Red Bank oRBit January 13, 2009)

If you’re heading over to the Count Basie Theatre on Friday night, you’ll be there to celebrate the birthday of an American icon — Elvis Presley, who would have been 74 years old this month had he not gotten mixed up with some shady characters.

The following evening, just a few miles away in Asbury Park, a quieter, slightly more funereal, but no less significant birthday party will be taking place at a location that stands as one of the best kept secrets of Shore life — with the guest of honor another American icon in his own right, Mr. Edgar Allan Poe.

The Master of the Macabre would have been marking the 200th anniversary of his birth on January 19, had he (a) made considerably wiser lifestyle choices than the pattern of alcoholic squalor that led to his early demise at age 40; or (b) realized one of those methods of grisly resurrection that he so vividly described in his eldritch texts.

But master Poe lives on regardless — and in many surprising ways, as we’ve learned within the relatively brief time we’ve been bringing you these missives on the local arts scene. Last summer we posted an interview with favorite character actor and educator John Astin, who’s appeared locally several times with his one-man Poe tribute Once Upon a Midnight. And, just last October, we hyped an event in which actor Greg Oliver Bodine brought his own solo performance of classic Poe stories to the novel setting of Paranormal Books and Curiosities in Asbury Park.

Passionate as these performers are, it was, curiously enough, our former high school math teacher Frank D’Alessandro who would instill in us a newfound appreciation of such works as “The Raven” and “The Tell-Tale Heart,” via his annual in-classroom readings — a Halloween tradition about which he’s since observed “I don’t know how I got away with it.”

Now retired from the Middletown school system, “Mr. D” brings his storytelling skills to Poe fans of all ages, in his role as owner, curator and host at Asbury’s historicStephen Crane House.

Although Asbury Park Press columnist Maureen Nevin rightly describes him as a “revered” educator in Middletown (where he occasionally carries on the storytelling tradition at Thorne Middle School), D’Alessandro’s a true son of Asbury Park; a longtime community activist, advocate for the arts, civic-minded gadfly and veteran of the city’s Board of Education.

D’Alessandro bought the old house at 508 Fourth Avenue in 2001 from Tom and Regina Hayes (who themselves had picked it up at a rock-bottom price in an effort to save it from being razed) with an eye toward turning the 19-room cottage into a museum dedicated to Crane, the 19th century novelist and journalist best known for the American classic The Red Badge of Courage.

With the help of numerous volunteers and donors — including a chap by name of Springsteen — the place has been a restoration project in progress. Somewhere along the way, the intimate dining room of the house where Crane lived with his mother (head of the local Women’s Christian Temperance Union) for about ten years became an informal sort of jewelbox performance space, for arts events of a literary and otherwise eccentric bent.

We’ve looked in on several of these offerings, which have included a one-woman version of Jane Eyre, a multimedia presentation by hip-hop artist Wilk, a “tea party” with Lizzie Borden (as channeled by the amazing Marjorie Conn) and a movie-nite series hosted by actor Bill Timoney (where we met up with Timoney pal and Emmy winner Bryan Cranston). Seldom predictable and far from slick, the place is a genuine treasure; a quirky “literary salon” where new friends are always welcomed.

Under D’Alessandro’s direction, the words of Poe have been as much in evidence as those of Crane, with several past programs having been devoted to Mr. D’s compellingly un-hammy reading of Poe’s delightfully nitre-webbed prose. This Saturday at 5pm, D’Alessandro will present his takes on “The Raven,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Cask of Amontillado” and “Annabel Lee,” in a program for which donations will be accepted for the benefit of Asbury Park Little League.

“I feel the need to do this now, because it’s Poe’s 200th,” says D’Alessandro in reference to the program’s seemingly oddball timing. “I try to do it in chronological order, after opening with the New York Tribune’s scurrilous obituary.”

As delivered by D’Alessandro, the poems and prose of Poe are offered without props, costumes, atmospheric lighting or any other theatrical flourishes — relying exclusively upon “the power of the words, some of which are quite gruesome.”

“In fact, I’m leaving the Christmas tree up at the house, so it’s not so gruesome an atmosphere.”

Following the readings and a break for the host’s own custom-baked refreshments (a birthday cake for Poe is promised), guests are invited to stay for a 7pm screening of the 1962 film Tales of Terror, one of several Poe adaptations produced and directed by Roger Corman for the legendary American-International B-movie factory — most of which starred Vincent Price, and some of which tended a bit toward the campy side.

Written by the formidable Richard Matheson and featuring screen ghouls Peter Lorre and Basil RathboneTales presents what D’Alessandro characterizes as an “expansive” view of such Poe-rennials as “The Black Cat” (combined with “Amontillado” into a pretty funny Price-Lorre sketch), “Morella” and “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar.”

For the record, D’Alessandro regards as his favorite Poe film a rarely-seen short of “Tell-Tale Heart” from 1941, directed by the recently passed Jules Dassin and starring Oscar winner Joseph Schildkraut. The oRBit desk is partial also to the 1968 Euro-anthology Histoires Extraordinaires (aka Spirits of the Dead), featuringFederico Fellini’s mindblowing riff on the Poe obscurity Toby Dammit, or, Never Bet the Devil Your Head.”

Although he’s been known to throw his audiences off balance by appearing at his events as, among other things, the Bette Davis character in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, the irrepressible fan of American literature and cinema insists that he’s nobody’s idea of a performer.

“Despite my years teaching, I’m not really one for standing up in front of people,” D’Alessandro says. “But reading at the Crane House is different — I feel very much at home there.”

Next Saturday will find the Crane House hosting an event in celebration of one of New Jersey’s most venerable theatrical stages — the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn — and its new production of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, starring Lynn Redgrave. Paper Mill’s Michael T. Mooney will make a presentation on the playhouse’s long history, followed by a screening of the fine 1952 film version of Importance — an adaptation that starred Ms. Redgrave’s father Michael Redgrave.

Seating for all Crane House offerings is on the limited side, so it makes sense to call (732)775-5682 for reservations.