A Class Act King of the Crystal Palace
He’s submersed comfortably into a blue velvet couch in the lobby of the Crested Butte Center for the Arts, a distinguished looking gentleman with a tan and a smile that says he’s enjoyed everything he’s created in his long life.
Mead Metcalf largely ignores the incessant tink-tink-tink of the piano tuning going on in the auditorium as the notes slowly, and painfully for the uninitiated ear, descend from teeth-grinding highs to the deep vibrational lows over the course of an hour. The piano itself once belonged to Mead and was one of four grands he owned, two of which were part of the nightly shows at the opulent Crystal Palace in Aspen. He donated the grand piano that now graces the Crested Butte Arts Center stage.
“Around here people call me Mead, but in Gunnison they call me Frank,” he laughs and explains, “Mead is my middle name, and my grandfather’s surname.” Hailing from St. Louis, he says, “My parents were tone deaf. They had no musical ability whatsoever,” which seems quite remarkable since Mead’s talent is famed throughout the mountains and stage.
“I went to church at four and a half years old, came home, sat down at my grandmother’s upright piano and played all the hymns I had just heard, by ear,” he says, claiming he was divinely inspired. As a child showing promise, he learned the classics for 15 years—Chopin, Rachmaninoff, Bach, Scarlatti.
During his college days at Dartmouth he utilized his musical talent by playing college gigs and frat houses and graduated in 1954 with a B.A. in English literature and a music minor.
Enlisting in the army after graduation, he went to Germany as a clerk typist for two years beginning in 1955 but continued to play his music. “I happened to do a show for the Special Service ladies in Frankfurt, and they thought I had talent,” he mused. “I played piano and sang everything that was popular on Broadway at the time—Oklahoma, Music Man, Carousel, My Fair Lady. They got me transferred to Hotel General Walker in Berchtesgaden, in southern Germany on the Austrian border,” he says of his successful service career in showbiz.
He was there for two very enjoyable years and remembers, “It’s one of the most beautiful cities you’ve ever seen, with incomparable mountain scenery, just gorgeous.”
Getting more work doing arrangements for other bands and having a fan following as well, Mead was “having a marvelous time” and was offered a non-military job to stay and play at the hotel, but he decided to come home.
“I came home to St. Louis in 1957 and right after New Year’s I got in a car and drove to Aspen and I stayed,” he smiles. “I had been there in the summer of 1953, driving through with a friend. We sat outside the music tent listening to classical music. I didn’t have enough money for a ticket.”
But after moving to Aspen, while he played piano at the Hotel Jerome, the musical gears were starting to grind out a business idea in the key of dinner theater possibilities. “Property was a lot cheaper then. I bought my first house for $10,000,” he says of the real estate market in pre-swank Aspen.
He initially rented the small wooden Mother Lode building and opened the original Crystal Palace in 1957, without its trademark stained glass or chandeliers. Three years later he brought his dream more into focus when he purchased the adjacent 1888 brick building that housed the Aspen Dry Cleaners. He completely renovated it to create the splendidly rich, balconied Crystal Palace with all its dazzle and glitter.
“I started out on a shoestring in 1959 and bought the brick building for $28,000,” he tells of his investment that eventually took the Palace from 40 seats to a 200-person seating venue.
“The stained glass came from mansions in the Midwest that were being demolished. We’d take a truck to Illinois and pick up the windows. The palace had a whole wall of stained glass that was backlit as the room’s lighting,” he says of the more than 50 antique windows in the dinner theater. “The balcony railing is made from antique bed frames from Leadville, Buena Vista, Salida, and Denver. The front of the under-bar was made from fireplace mantles with stained glass inserts. I used to go to all those junk shops and buy stuff.”
He had traveled to New Orleans and over the course of three years bought three enormous, eight-foot-wide, tiered crystal chandeliers from an antique shop in the French Quarter. The curtain opened for the posh theater in 1960, and he didn’t even have a liquor license that first year.
Mead is slowly turning pages of a 50-year commemorative booklet he has brought about the Crystal Palace. There are photos of young smiling actors, all of them also working in the bar and kitchen as waitresses, servers, and dishwashers since everyone hired had to audition for both stage and restaurant. All in all, there were about 40 workers making the shows and dinners happen every night. Dancers and singers in the limelight with outstretched arms and spritely feet, faces upturned in glorious song and Mead at the piano with his vibrantly genuine smile that goes beyond acting.
He points to people in the photos, remembering each one of the faces, recalling their names with a fondness and a sparkle. There among the youthful faces is his first wife, Joanie Higbie, who came to work for him after answering an ad for “an intelligent dishwasher,” wound up singing Porgy and Bess and then marrying the owner. Mead recalls, they “sang a lot of good stuff, played together, and traveled a lot every off-season.” The show biz couple went their separate ways after 23 years.
The Palace had reunions of its staff and actors at milestone years starting from 1962. At the 2003 mini-reunion, a former waitress walked through the front doors of the Palace and into Mead’s life. He and Diane have been together ever since. “Diane had worked for me from 1968 through 1975,” he says, pointing out his wife in a cluster of a dozen waitresses in a photo of that reunion, where Mead is in the middle of them, all grinning from ear to ear.
His dinner theater gained national recognition not only for its amazing dinners and atmosphere but for the talent who served up exquisite dishes and song, the satirically sophisticated and often politicized numbers about current events and people.
The performers of the Palace recorded 14 records and CDs of witty and clever creations throughout its history under Mead’s direction. He sold the Crystal Palace in May 2008, and his timing couldn’t have been any better as the stock market crashed to its knees that September.
In the early 1960s as the Palace was starting to take off, Mead discovered the new slopes of Crested Butte and was here for the christening. “The first year I came to Crested Butte I had been president of the Aspen Chamber of Commerce. We were invited to bring our group for the opening of the ski resort in 1962,” he recalls.
“We landed in Gunnison in a DC3 and Fred Rice and Dick Eflin greeted us. That was my first experience here.” He and Diane decided to buy a home in Crested Butte in 2007 when they knew they had the Crystal Palace sold. Mead felt, “Crested Butte is a lot like Aspen used to be. People ask, ‘Why did you buy a second home in Crested Butte where it’s 1,000 feet higher than Aspen?’ Because my sister and my nieces live here and because there are no traffic lights or parking meters! Once the music fest opens in late June we go back to Aspen every Friday and return to Crested Butte every Monday.”
Asked about why he decided to sell his beloved Crystal Palace, he smiles suavely and in a cool smooth voice tempered by decades of singing, says, “After 51 years isn’t it time to retire and take your wife on a trip?” Besides, he continues, “I’m busy as hell,” and he rattles off a list of shows starting from last Sunday’s performance at the Crested Butte Arts Center with divas Elizabeth and Emily Bond, two nights in Naples, Florida, and two more in Palm Beach.
“And we just returned from three weeks of sightseeing in Dubai, sailing all over the Persian Gulf,” to which he says he’d return in a heartbeat.
Nevertheless, his heart is still noticeably in that old brick building with all its fandangle in which he famously brought Broadway to Aspen for half a century. “I keep talking about buying the building back,” he confesses like a parent wanting to rescue an errant child.
The Crystal Palace recently went into foreclosure through its current owner and it’s not hard to imagine the abandoned theater calling out for Mead’s intervention.
In the meantime, Mead’s off on another well-earned adventure with his wife, this time in Spain, but one thing is certain—no matter what direction he takes, the stage will doubtlessly call out for an encore.