Once upon a midnight dreary, the two of us went to see Edgar Allan Poe impersonator David Keltz perform a dramatic reading of “The Raven” at The Elk Room on Fleet Street. We initially had trouble finding The Elk Room, a speakeasy hidden behind an unmarked, locked black door behind the Italian restaurant, Tagliata.
After knocking twice and kicking the door (still not sure if we were tricked into doing this), it opened to reveal a cozy and dim-lit bar and restaurant with 1920s-themed decor perfectly fitted with festive Halloween overlays.
Both rooms of the bar were packed, with people sitting around couches and large velvet egg-shaped chairs in the room where Keltz was to be performing his reading.
In an interview with The News-Letter, he explained why he fell in love with Poe’s poetry.
“I love all of his works, for the beauty of the language. I found him to have a kind of atmosphere that I don’t find in many other stories,” he said.
He further detailed how Poe revolutionized the genre of horror to include more human fears.
“He was the one who first invented the genre of the modern horror story. Before that there were stories mostly about werewolves, vampires, zombies, ghosts. And he wrote about very real and human phenomena and that’s much more frightening to me,” Keltz said.
Keltz also revealed how he became interested in the idea of being a Poe impersonator, saying that he wanted to combine his love for acting with Poe’s work.
“I was interested in acting from when I was a child, and I read my first story of his, ‘The Tell-Tale Heart,’ at the age of 13,” he said. “I thought, ‘I’m going to play this guy in plays, movies, or if I can’t do it any other way, just a one-person show.’”
This is exactly what Keltz did. After performing for the first time at Poe’s gravesite in 1991, he has acted in various TV shows, commercials and has performed at the International Poe Festival in Prague, Czech Republic.
We were lucky enough to catch his performance in Baltimore, the city where Poe started his writing career.
Keltz explained Baltimore’s significance in Poe’s life, adding that other cities also like to claim the author as their own.
“I find that in every city where he lived, those people all claim Poe as their own. They claim him [in Baltimore] because he actually launched his literary career here. And that’s one thing that [Baltimoreans] take a great deal of pride in,” he said.
After being introduced by a hostess as Edgar Allan Poe, Keltz entered the bar dressed in an 1830s-style suit and bowtie, with full stage makeup. He was instantly recognizable as the late poet. Even though the people we were sitting with weren’t aware that Keltz was scheduled to perform that night and looked visibly surprised, most other patrons of the bar seemed to be expecting him and stopped chatting to listen.
For the entirety of his performance, Keltz never broke character. He introduced himself as Edgar Allan Poe and explained the historical significance of Poe’s dramatic readings by pulling out a letter from writer Elizabeth Barrett Browning out of his coat pocket. The letter — which had been yellowed and burnt around the edges — detailed Browning’s reaction to reading Poe’s poetry.
“Thank you for this vivid writing, this power which is felt!” Keltz recited from the letter. “Your ‘Raven’ has produced a sensation, a ‘fit horror,’ here in England. Some of my friends are taken by the fear of it and some by the music. I hear of persons haunted by the ‘Nevermore.’”
After this brief introduction, Keltz launched into his performance of “The Raven.” The poem follows a narrator mourning the death of his lover, Lenore. One night, a raven appears in his bedroom. The speaker demands to know who the bird is — and half-believes that it is Lenore, haunting him — but all the bird can say is “nevermore.”
Keltz’s performance was engaging and convincing. As he recited the poem, he walked among the patrons of the bar, speaking to people directly. His voice rose as the speaker of the poem got more and more flustered, and whenever he addressed the raven directly, his gaze focused on some faraway spot.
The most touching part of the performance was when Keltz recited a section of the poem describing his grief at Lenore’s passing — Keltz sank into a chair at the front of the room, and his voice broke as he continued speaking.
The audience also found the dramatic reading captivating. After the applause ended, we spoke to Baltimore community members Taylor Albertini and Bradford Ritzel, who explained that they were new to the city.
Albertini said she enjoyed being able to witness a reenactment of an important part of Baltimore’s history.
“He’s such an integral part of American history in itself, and then also Baltimore history,” she said.
“We’re all transplants, we’re new here, so it’s cool to experience a reincarnation of something so famous from Baltimore.”
She added that to her, listening to the reading brought back memories of reading Poe as a child.
“We all have read Poe poetry in middle school,” she said. “So it was somewhat nostalgic, that we were all able to go back to that place in our minds.”
Ritzel also said that the performance resonated with him on a personal level.
“At one point he said ‘Bumble nevermore,’ and that spoke to me, it did, because I have to get off of it,” he said. “Hinge nevermore? Eh, you never know.”
Before the performance began, audience members were advised to silence and put away their phones. Ritzel explained that he appreciated being able to take a moment to disconnect and watch the performance.
“It’s cool to detox from the fast-paced world and watch a live performance,” he said. “Just going, ‘I don’t need my phone for this, I can just be in the moment versus having to capture.’”
Keltz said that he was happy with the show’s outcome and added that he enjoyed performing for the patrons at The Elk Room.
“This was an especially good audience here,” he said. “Looking out at everyone’s faces, people were really quite rapt and spellbound.”