THE MAGIC FOUNTAIN
All Original Written and Photographic content is Copyright MEL BIRNKRANT
I recently found a group of photos, 3-D slides my father took in his final years. To see them always required a special viewer that was misplaced, long ago. Yesterday, it dawned on me that I could view them on my scanner. So, after overlookeing them, for over half a century, I finally looked them over.
Among them, I found photos of the house on Seven mile Road, small faded images, no more than one inch square. To my delight, I discovered that I could, not only, see them on the scanner, but there is also a magic button, there, labeled “Restore Color”. And when I pressed it, that is exactly what it did, bringing both the images and the memories of what, I now realize, was a glorious childhood, back to life again… memories of the house that I grew up in, memories of my father.
If you have ever seen the movie, “Being There”, then, you have met my dad. He was like Chauncey Gardiner. And I could never definitively decide if he was a genius or a moron, a saint or a simpleton, for he displayed traits of all of the above. Unlike Chauncey, he never offered me the answer, by casually walking on water. But that might only be, because we didn’t have a pool.
On the other hand, we did have a Magic Fountain. It was my father Sam’s creation, and ongoing obsession. It began as a humble birdbath in the far corner of the backyard. Over the years, it grew and grew, sort of like me, until it became, to my young eyes, a full-fledged monstrosity. Looking back, now, across the healing haze of half a century, I realize that it was actually a Monument … to Pop’s creativity.
I remember how it all began. The basic birdbath was already standing there, when we moved in. Then, one day, Sam came home with a cement statue of a girl, holding a fish. He placed this in the middle of the bowl, and attached it to the garden hose. I watched in admiration as a thin stream of water shot out of the fish’s mouth, and rose into the air, sending a spectacular spray of water, cascading everywhere. It only took 30 seconds for the birdbath to be full, and then the water overflowed the rim, and dribbled downward to form a circular waterfall. Ten minutes later, the surrounding area was soaked. And by the time the hose was reluctantly turned off, the entire yard was waterlogged.
A few days later, Pop acquired a large galvanized tin laundry tub. Dragging the birdbath to one side, he dug a hole, just big enough, to hide the tub. Then in the center of that container, he stacked a pile of cinder blocks and placed the birdbath on the top. Now the fountain could flow for half an hour, until the laundry tub was full, at which point, the water had no place to go. This problem was soon corrected by the addition of an electric pump, the first of many, hidden in the nearby bushes. Now, the same water could recycle endlessly, and my father was set free to express his creativity.
Eventually, he discovered that even a galvanized wash tub can rust; and besides, it wasn’t quite wide enough. So, before the summer was over, he replaced it with an in-ground pool, made out of concrete, twice the diameter of the tub. The top was capped with a circle of white ceramic tiles. He upgraded the birdbath too, replacing it with a more elaborate one, held aloft by four sea horses, adorned with dramatic scrolls and shells. And the pedestal it rested on was no longer a stack of cinder blocks, but something circular, made of concrete, as well. This was a major excavation, and Pop did all the work himself.
The following year, a pair of large ceramic frogs appeared, accompanied by a giant turtle. These creatures gathered around the perimeter, where, aided by another pump, they hurled vast quantities of recycled water into the pool. Soon they were joined by a life-sized lion and an equally big bear. Both animals were made of concrete, and they just stood there, watching, while a flock of pink flamingos foraged in the nearby shrubbery. Keep in mind that this was 1949, and the term, “Kitsch” had not yet been defined. My dad was a pioneer.
This photo shows the fountain in mid-summer. His Masterpiece was just beginning, here. It continued to grow larger and more elaborate, with each passing year.
In autumn, when the days grew colder, the lush foliage that embraced my father’s fountain, in warm weather, withered, and was raked away. The fountain was emptied and prepared, to sleep, beneath a blanket of snow, throughout the long Michigan winter. When spring returned, the surrounding area, at first, appeared desolate and bare. But soon, the barren ground burst into bloom again, and the flowerbeds exploded in a rainbow of brightly colored tulips. To celebrate this annual awakening, Sam always added something new to his Enchanted Fountain. And so it was, with each spring’s new beginning, the Magic grew!
In the year, pictured above, you might notice that the modest figure in the middle has been replaced with one that is much bigger, and is, herself, a birdbath. And so, Sam boldly balanced one birdbath atop another. And, because this larger little girl had no internal plumbing, he arranged for a single stream of water to rise into the air above her, and come splashing down into the open shell she held in outstretched arms, before her. She was joined, that same year, by two chubby cherubs, perched on pedestals that were shaped like giant lily pads. They emptied upturned urns of never-ending water into the pool beside her. This was a dramatic step forward.
Some backward steps were taken too, for the fountain was forever changing. As new elements were added, some old favorites were removed. I returned from camp, one summer, to discover that the lion and the bear had disappeared. They were never seen again. I missed them. But the flock of flaming pink flamingos remained, perched on their slender wire legs, and swaying gently in the wind.
Because the Enchanted Fountain, was located in the far corner of our backyard, half hidden by the narrow space, between the house and nearby trees, and quite a distance from the street, this conspicuous evidence of Sam’s unconventional creativity, often, went unseen. Multitudes could pass by, and it never caught their eye. But that which was easily overlooked by day, was impossible to miss at night.
The true Magic began, when Sam turned on the lights. There were floodlights hidden in the bushes, spotlights mounted on the house, lights of every kind and color, and even lights under the water. From sunset until sunrise, the fountain shone like a beacon in the darkness, an oasis of enchantment that could be glimpsed, but for a few seconds, by passengers, in the fast moving cars that sped along Seven Mile Road, at night. But, once seen, the fountain was not, soon, forgotten. And cars were known to pass our house, more slowly, in anticipation of glimpsing the backyard spectacle that was lit up like a Christmas tree, on a midsummer night.
More than once, Pop hid in the bushes or sat on an inconspicuously placed lawn chair, to see if anybody would notice his Magic Fountain. It both amused and saddened me to see him waiting there. No one ever walked along Seven Mile Road, at night, and by day, there were few pedestrians, other than the mailman, and my dad, himself, who often walked around the yard, with his hands clasped behind his back, admiring his domain. Once or twice, a vehicle did stop, to get a better look, and Pop eagerly engaged them in a conversation. That really was a great occasion.
The pool is empty, here, and the ground is early springtime bare. It was an ugly time of year. But when summer came, the fountain would be filled with water to the brim, and a few gold fish would be tossed in, for good measure. And then, this desolate corner of my father’s garden would spring to life again. But, for now, in the early spring of 1956, the Magic Fountain was still sleeping. And Sam had just two summers remaining. He passed away, the following year, on the day after Thanksgiving.
Two years ago, my friend Brian, who I met through the Four Horsemen’s Fantastic Forum, and who still lives in the Detroit area, was kind enough to visit my old house at 1590 West Seven Mile Road, and take some photographs to show me. He also met the new owner, who was extremely gracious, and let him take a lot of photos. He was wandering in the yard admiring his property, like my father used to do. It was clear that he loved the house as much as my dad did.
Brian asked him if he could see the fountain. But the man knew nothing about it. Apparently, the house had several owners, since my mother sold it. Brian pressed the issue, mentioning that it had been in the back yard. So, the new owner graciously walked him out to the far corner, and showed him this pile of rubble. He had no idea what it might have been.
They say a picture’s worth a thousand words, so I will let this one speak for itself. There are no words to express what I am feeling.
Among the most seemingly insignificant of the slides that I was scanning, was this one that I came close to overlooking. I didn’t realize, until I saw it through the scanner’s eyes that it is, most likely, the final photo of the fountain, and the last one of me, in Detroit, as well. I was 18, and had brought my, then, girlfriend, Lois Malzman home from U of M to meet my parents. The visit did not go well.
My father took this picture, insisting that we pose beside the fountain. It is an awful photo, but it is the only one that shows the bigger, better above-ground pool he added, later. The original in-ground pool still remained, beneath the birdbath at its center. This new addition always reminded me of the turret of a White Castle Hamburger Stand, emerging from the ground, as if the rest of the establishment was buried, in its entirety, just beneath the surface.