All Original Written and Photographic content is Copyright MEL BIRNKRANT
Sometime, in the middle of the last decade, our dear friend, John Kurten passed away. And, thus, ended a Golden Era, an enchanted span of precious time, in which Fate had generously permitted John to grace our lives. Allelu, his loving wife and perfect soul mate, who is every bit as magical as he, and maybe even more so, in her own right, decreed that there would be a special day to memorialize Johnís life. Therefore, on a glorious afternoon, a few months after he passed away, Allelu and her beautiful family of handsome children and gorgeous grandchildren orchestrated a memorial event that the crowds of friends and family who attended will never forget.
The occasion was not meant to be a sad one, but rather a joyous celebration. I felt compelled to say something, but I was far too shy. Nonetheless, the day before, I sat at the computer and pecked out the following Eulogy, one finger at a time. I realized, the moment that I began to type, that, like everything I write, it was going to be too long and rambling to recite, so I decided that it would be a silent eulogy, and I proceeded to take my time, and say whatever came to mind. The following morning, when our friends Kathleen and David Cullen arrived to pick us up, I was still correcting the last lines.
Allelu had rented an enormous tent, and there was food, enough to feed an army. And an army of friends and family did indeed arrive. Johnís most recent career was that of a professor at Vassar, teaching theatre and theatrical design. Therefore, much of academia arrived. Allelu, on the other hand, is an accomplished puppeteer, and was active in the Puppeteers of America, all her life. She knew everybody in the puppet community, from Burr Tillstrom of ďKukla Fran and OllieĒ fame, to Bil Baird and Jim Henson. Thus, all the leading lights of puppetry, still living, were there as well.
And, there were many speakers. The best of them was David, who stood before the crowd, gathered under the tent, and delivered an oration that moved himself, and all of us, to tears. The festivities that had begun well before noon continued, late into the afternoon. It was an Amazing day!
As we were leaving, I handed the envelope containing my little Eulogy to Allelu. She later told me that the family read it together, and were greatly moved. And that it would be among the few souvenirs that she would include in the book she was creating, as a reminder of that day.
Now, Allelu has moved away. She lives in a retirement community in Boston, near her daughter. And she is doing fine. Like everything she undertakes, she is embracing her new life, enthusiastically.
Meanwhile, around here, little has changed, even though, much time has passed. My energy and memories are fading fast. I feel them slipping away, diminishing dramatically, day by day. One memory that has remained, because it so deeply tucked away in my computer that it survived a recent crash, was Johnís Eulogy. From time to time, Iíve wondered if I should preserve it by including it among the recollections that I have posted here, on line. It has taken me a long time to make up my mind. If I am ever going to share this, now is the time. Why would anyone care to read it, especially if they didnít know John? The answer is: because it is not just a Eulogy, it is a Story, and a true one, the kind of stuff you canít make up.
There is secret, hiding between the lines, that implies there really may be a thing called, destiny, and friendships that are great might possibly be preordained by Fate. It also is an opportunity to meet John Kurten, a very special person, who had a gift that was extraordinary. John had a way of finding beauty in simple things, and, like a wizard, he could create true magic out of the commonplace. The same is true of Allelu. Therefore I offer this Eulogy, in the hope that you can get to know them too, and in the end, participate in a unique ceremony that involves a magic Christmas tree.
Dearest Allelu and all of John's Friends and Family gathered here today,
I wish I were able to stand before you and speak these words. But I feel that John would want this to be a happy occasion, and if I were to give voice to my feelings, I would surely, dissolve before your eyes, like the Wicked Witch of the West, in a pool of my own tears.
There are not adjectives or accolades, enough, to praise and honor this gentle, noble man, John Kurten. And those there are will, surely, fill the air, and our hearts, on this special day that celebrates his life. So I will not attempt to catalogue his virtues. The very fact that you are here is proof enough that you knew them well.
But, rather, I would share with you the memory of a few occasions that seemed, at the time, and now, to embody a special significance, touched, perhaps, and guided by the hand of Fate. John could detect special significance, in the simplest things, and make the seemingly insignificant, seem special. He could read between the lines of life, and intuitively know things about people, of which they, themselves, were not aware. And he had a way of making those around him seem special and significant, too.
Eunice and I first met John, forty years, or so, ago. Not in person, but in the person of a mysterious Christmas card. "Merry Christmas from the Kurtens," it said, or words to that effect. And mysterious, because we had no idea who the Kurtens were, or why they had sent us a Christmas card.
The card was charming, a loving portrait of a loving family, beautiful people, beautifully drawn. I, also, found it irritating! Who were these perfect people, surrounded by their perfect children, obviously leading perfect lives? I could tell from the honesty of the drawing, John's drawing, that all the wonderful things that I attributed to this unknown family were true, and I felt a tiny pang of envy!
Our own life, at the time, was far from perfect. We were living in a somewhat dreary and illegal loft in midtown Manhattan, working our humble little fingers to the bone, making reproductions of antique toys that never really existed, in the first place. Yet, I had no right to complain. All this was my own doing, a misguided attempt to fulfill my foolishly romantic childhood fantasy of being a starving artist. The "starving" part was succeeding far too well, and the "artist" part, not at all.
We kept the card, long after that Christmas had passed, and mused, from time to time, upon the Kurtens, and who they might be. Until, with time, the subject, like most things, was forgotten.
Then, half a lifetime passed, and Christmas was approaching. Once again, the time had come for Eunice to rifle around in the hall closet for her boxes of "stuff" to begin the arduous annual task of sending out the Christmas cards. As she lifted a box, in search of her address list and cards, new or recyclable, one card fell to the floor. Yes, you guessed it! Thirty years later, the Mystery Card had reappeared, and, once again, we discussed the mystery of the Kurtens, still unsolved, little guessing that Fate had secretly decreed that we were, now, nearly neighbors, and that our paths would soon cross, this time in person. In the course of those thirty years, the dingy loft in Manhattan had been replaced by a lofty schoolhouse in upstate New York. And my attempts to emulate old toys had transformed itself into a passion for collecting them. This rather expensive hobby drove me to make a living, after all. And Not a moment too soon, for now in 1992, a most wonderful thing was coming up for auction, "Gus White's Punch and Comic Family," created in 1878 by a young man of 17 in nearby Goshen, New York. It was the Ultimate American Punch and Judy Show, complete with stage, puppets, scenery, everything! And Beautiful, to me, beyond anything I had ever seen, before, or ever hoped to own.
The night of the auction was a dark and rainy one, in nearby Pine Bush, New York. But the pre-auction publicity had been extensive, and the crowd, in spite of the weather, was huge. I had worked myself up into a fever pitch in the weeks preceding the auction. And Eunice and I had often discussed how much money we had in the bank, and how much I dared to spend. With each discussion the sum inched up, a little bit higher.
Now, sitting in the auction hall, we scoped out the crowd, paying little attention to the non-threatening looking group of gentle people sitting to one side near the front. We later came to learn that they were Harold White, who had inherited the puppet theater from his Great Uncle Gus, when he was 9 years old, and loved it. He was selling it, now, with great sadness, solely, because he was terminally ill. And sitting with him and his wife and children, were Allelu and John!
But, our eyes were not on them, or others, who appeared to be there not to buy, but rather, to witness the event. We focused solely on those, who in our feverish imagination, looked like serious buyers. Self-important Folk Art dealers strutted, back and forth, from the puppets to the phone. We imagined a group of them pooling their resources to capture and divide the spoils. There was a young man in cowboy boots. Eunice said she thought he might be a movie star. But when he bid, early on, on some junky furniture, I knew, with relief that he was not.
Finally, the auctioneer announced the Main Event, introducing it as "the finest 'lot' that he had ever had the honor of selling, and most likely, ever would." He was right, of course.
I have little memory of what happened next. But, I do recall Eunice leaning over, as the bidding was about to begin, and whispering, "Bid it all, Everything we have!" And I remember my heart pounding, as I raised my hand and left it up, while the sound of ever increasing numbers filled the air. I also remember the auctioneer telling me, in the end, that I was bidding against myself. And the applause, when the hammer fell, still rings in my ears. But, in the dreamlike blur of euphoria and embarrassment that followed, one image stands out clearly, then and now.
Suddenly, there before me, was Allelu's radiant smiling face, beaming and glowing with golden rays of light radiating, all around it, like the face of Mickey Mouse in the beginning of my favorite cartoons. She had summed us up, and found us worthy, and rushed over to meet and congratulate us, and bring us over to meet Harold White, who with Allelu's reassurance, was happily relieved that his beloved "Little People" were going to a good home, after all.
I have no memory of meeting John, at that moment. And I was surprised to later learn that he was there. How like him, not to put himself forward, like the masterful stage manager, that he was, he sensed that this play was not about him, for the moment, and remained inconspicuously, in the wings.
Allelu had known Harold White, for some time, and had tried, without success, to help him find a caring buyer for the puppets, rather than placing them in the unknown peril of an auction. And in gratitude for her efforts, Harold had given her an oversized "clothes pin," that had been among the assorted props his great Uncle Gus had crafted.
Allelu knew, of course, that it was actually Punch's slapstick, and belonged with him, and so, she insisted on giving it back to Punch, and us.
Thus, a week or so later Allelu phoned and left a message, for me to call her back. I did, and I was, at first, quite upset and disappointed, when she proved not to be there, and John answered the phone, instead. He was a new person, and unexpected, and I was generally considered, by myself and others, to be something of a recluse, more than mildly, uncomfortable with even a new voice on the phone.
The ensuing conversation, which I began reluctantly, hoping to make a quick exit, ended up, lasting two hours or more. And it became a landmark event, full of significance. Among the miracles that unfolded, the Mystery of the Christmas card was solved. Yes, John and Allelu were the fabled Kurtens! Then and there, it became clear that, at that very moment, the plan that Destiny had set in motion, some thirty years before, was revealing and fulfilling itself. There was an instant resonance, between John and me. And we talked about everything, that mattered, and everything we had in common, and discovered that we had everything, that mattered, in common. We discussed it all, from our mutual hermithood, to our similar "art history", and of course, our favorite films! No conversation with John would be complete, without discussing Favorite Films.
His Favorite Movie was a strangely beautiful and modest, yet magical, little Italian film by Vittiorio De Sica, called "Miracle in Milan." I had seen and loved it too, in the only crummy little art film cinema in Detroit, when I was still in my teens. And I had never forgotten it. The film is about an abandoned baby, who is discovered by an eccentric old lady, in the cabbage patch of her humble home. She raises the boy in an aura of magic and fantasy.
I recall an early scene, in which the youngster accidentally spills a pitcher of milk. The old lady does not chide him, but laughs, instead, and joyfully brings out a box of miniature houses, trees, and tiny wooden people. She arranges them around the stream of milk, which becomes a river, running through an enchanted village, with which the boy and the old lady play together on the floor.
The beautiful boy grows up to become a beautiful young man. And everywhere he goes, in the bleak black and white world of ugly postwar Milan, he works his magic, making the best of every situation, and turning the simplest of objects into things of beauty. He joins a community of downtrodden homeless people, living in a garbage dump, and he transforms it, and their lives, into a kind of Paradise. Yes, this was, indeed, John's film!
Like the beautiful man in the movie, John could create great beauty with the simplest of means. Everything he touched was transformed. He had a flair and talent for theatrical illusion that transformed the ordinary into the extraordinary. If anyone could weave straw into gold, John could! And he, not only, set the scene and made the world around him look like Paradise, but he and Allelu together infused it with love and joy. So, it truly became Paradise on Earth.
The film has a strange mysterious and poetic ending, one that, like the end of life, itself, offers only mystery and a sense of the unknown, and yet, a ray of hope and promise. When things look bleakest for our hero and those, whose, formerly, unhappy lives he has transformed, and the shanty Paradise they live in is bulldozed to the ground by the city's cruel bureaucracy, the young man and his friends, each, pick up a broom, and Harry Potter like, take flight. And they happily ride their brooms, off into the sky. We can only imagine and wonder where they are going, but it is clear that this, for them, is seemingly a happy ending, although it leaves us sitting in the darkened theater, alone and mystified.
Here are the last three minutes of the movie, just because they are available on line. Filmed in 1951, sixty years of special effects advancements, have not been kind. But its well intentioned poetry still shines.
Writing this now, it suddenly occurs to me, how similar this, the ending of John's favorite film is to the ending of my own favorite movie, "The Thief of Baghdad," in which Sabu flies off upon a magic carpet, beyond the rainbow, in search of Adventure. John would have savored that sudden observation. He took great pleasure in discovering the seemingly endless things we had in common, in our curiously parallel lives.
And so it was, that phone call marked the beginning of a new era, one, in which John agreed to set aside his cardinal rule of reclusiveness, and venture out to visit our home. And we, in turn, were invited to visit his. Both are Magic Kingdoms, mine "collected", and John's "created,Ē by his Midas touch of taste and talent.
Soon after, we introduced our dear friends the Cullens, David and Kathleen, to Allelu and John, and once again, something Magic happened. And, thus a third Magic Kingdom, Rabbit Island, a veritable Garden of Eden, floating in the Hudson was added to the select group of special places, where John allowed himself to feel at home.
Out of these newfound friendships, grew an exclusive fraternity of friends that came to be known as "Cines Six." And, so it was that once a month, twelve times a year, we would meet, at each of our respective homes, in turn, for dinner and a film. We kept a book, that oft went astray, but always managed to turn up again, chronicling the films we saw together.
Of course, we all relished the opportunity to share our favorite films, or discover new ones with our friends, but we also knew that John was the guiding spirit behind Cines Six. It was John and his love of films that was the ultimate reason that our little club had come to be. His home was a veritable Palace of a Thousand Films, and he loved to show them, and to share them. Sometimes the films we saw were so wonderful that they, alone, appeared to justify the clubs existence. But we secretly knew that the films were often, little more than, an excuse to get together once a month, and bask in the glory of our friendship.
I especially loved to visit John and Allelu, and cherished every moment we were permitted to spend in their Magic World. Yes, it was even more perfect and joyful than I had imagined, thirty years before, gazing at that mysterious, but telling, Christmas Card. And just like in a fairy tale, the beautiful children had grown up, and brought forth beautiful children of their own. And angelic grandchildren blessed this Heaven on Earth. And there was also the wise and beautiful Sadie, canine collector of magic Frisbees. She stole our hearts, and, like John, himself, could intuitively see into them. And, when Allelu and John were pretending not to notice, she allowed us to help her steal an hors d' oeuvre or two, from the coffee table.
Envy was, long ago, banished from my repertoire of emotions, and replaced with awe and gratitude for every minuet we were permitted to share in the Magic World of John and Allelu. How strange are the workings of Fate. Over the years, even the Wonder of Gus White's Punch and Comic Family began to fade. Day by day, it became part of the wallpaper, and I took it for granted, and often forgot to admire it. Then, one day, a revelation revealed itself to me. And I realized that the Real Treasure that we acquired, on that rainy night in Pine Bush, years before, was not Gus White's Punch and Comic Family, but meeting and loving John and Allelu! And the radiance of that would never fade.
Before I "sit down" from this speech, unspoken, this silent eulogy, there is one more memory that I would like to share with you. I imagine that most of you, who will read this, most likely, have experienced this event, in person, and know it well. I wish I were brave enough to share it aloud, with the rest of you.
Early in January of each year, Cines Six would somehow always happen to be at Allelu and John's. And, on those occasions, we saw no film, but rather we participated in a Unique Ceremony of John and Allelu's own invention. No doubt, there were many ceremonies in the Kurten household, many times, each year. For Allelu and John found many things to celebrate, and created many wonderful ways to celebrate them.
I remember one Midsummer's Eve Ceremony, in which we ate under the stars and then, were ourselves, eaten, by mosquitoes, as we launched a regatta of candlelit boats out onto the lake. But the Ceremony that we were introduced to, one Cines Six, six or so years ago, and gratefully repeated every year, since then, was by far, the best.
You have all seen or heard of Christmas tree lighting ceremonies, I'm sure. But a unique tradition in the Kurten home was the annual Christmas Tree Un-lighting Ceremony. I suspect that John performed this, on several successive nights for assorted friends and family, in the bleak winter evenings of every early January. But for us, it was a once in a lifetime Happening, that became a much-anticipated annual event.
To begin with, you must imagine the most glorious of live Christmas trees. One can also assume that choosing it, cutting it, and decorating it, was, no doubt, cause for yet another celebration. The tree was always enormous, towering to the tallest rafters in the cathedral ceiling of the Kurten living room. It was lovingly decorated with a multitude of precious ornaments, each one, clearly, with a meaning and memory attached to it.
The tree was illuminated with a galaxy of pure white miniature lights. At the same time, a dozen or so well placed candle holders with unlit candles in them were carefully arranged on strategic branches. Like the trapeze and other paraphernalia arranged at the top of a circus tent, one could study them and anticipate the role they would eventually play in the show.
Deep within the airy space between the branches and resting upon them, at the very heart of the tree, one could detect a manger with the Christ Child and his company. And, from every branch, top to bottom of the tree, long perfect strands of tinsel were hung meticulously, turning and swaying in the slightest breeze.
If certain trees have been planted and grown for a purpose, to become a Christmas tree, then this tree was surely amongst the chosen. And its purpose was gloriously fulfilled. I might also mention that around the room was an awesome collection of small wooden ornaments and people, exactly like those in the tiny village in the "Miracle in Milan," only, many times more plentiful.
After the drinks and the conversation were done, and everyone, including Sadie, had opened their presents, and the dinner had been served, it was time for the Ceremony to begin. We took our places, and the candles on the Christmas tree were carefully lit.
While this was happening, somehow, the multitude of tiny white lights faded and ceased to glow, without any of us noticing that they were no longer alight. I, for one, only realized this, thinking back upon it now, for as the tree became alight with candles, the slow disappearance of electric lights was never noticed. Oh, John! How artfully you did that!
Then as the sound of music, different each year, swelled up and filled the room, we basked in the candlelight. If you have never seen a Christmas tree with candles, as I had not, you would be amazed at how beautiful it is. The heat of the tiny flames makes the air move, and all along the gently swaying strands of tinsel the tiniest of reflections twinkle, like little stars, a thousand points of light.
And then, when, the time seemed just right, the extinguishing began. One by one, we would each take a turn extinguishing the candle of our choice, with a silver candle snuffer. And with each candle we would make a wish, then pass the silver snuffer to the person we chose to be next. Each time the candle snuffer was passed, it was done gently, and felt like giving a great gift to someone who we loved dearly. We each got to extinguish, at least, two candles, sometimes three. And thus, we each had that many wishes.
The wishes were all secret, of course. But I, somehow, always felt that all the others were making the same wish I was. And I will tell you what I wished. With each candle, every year, I made, always, the same wish: That we could all be together, the following year, to do this, once again. And when, on occasion, I was feeling greedy, I wished for not just one, but many more years, year after year, for an eternity.
When the Un-lighting began, twelve candles, or so, cast just that many perfect shadows of the tree, overlapping on the walls and ceiling around it. But, as the candles went out, the shadows too disappeared, one by one, until in the end, one candle, alone, remained, and one perfect shadow of the tree. We stared at the last candle for a long time. And then, someone, usually Allelu, extinguished it. And we were plunged into deep darkness. It seemed like there was not a single light alight, anywhere on Earth. It was as if a great darkness had descended upon the entire World. We sat in the dark, listening to the music and feeling, momentarily, a great sense of loss. Then John began to work his Magic! I will never forget the wonder I felt, the first time I saw this pageant. I could swear that the tree began to glow, ever so slightly. But it was not the glow of white lights, slowly coming back to life. Each tiny bulb, with just a watt or two of electricity, began to glow with a faint purple light! Slowly, slowly, the glow intensified, until the entire tree appeared to be engulfed in an elusive purple haze. Was it real or was it just imagination?
Slowly, slowly, like watching the hour hand on a clock, without a jump or glitch, the lights grew brighter, and one could detect individual lights, as each appeared and turned from purple to white. [John was masterfully operating a hidden rheostat, of course, or was he?] As the perfectly timed and appropriate music swelled, which I remember, one year, was "A Ceremony of Carols," [Was John operating a volume control as well?] the tree began to blaze with light, again, but this time, brighter than before, until the entire room was awash in light and Music. It was a masterful performance, John doing his thing, making Great Magic, with consummate Skill, from the most modest of means.
When we learned that John was in the hospital, I thought about the Christmas tree and the candles, being extinguished one by one. And when we learned that John was gone, it was as if a great darkness and sense of loss had descended upon the entire World.
It was then that I imagined John, riding joyfully upon a broomstick, flying happily into the sunset and disappearing into a bank of fluffy white clouds.
In the days that followed, that vision would not leave my mind. It returned again and again, sometimes, late at night, sometimes when I least expected it, in bright daylight. And, although, I felt sad, alone and mystified, I knew that, for John, this was a happy ending.
I thought about the Christmas tree, again. And suddenly, I realized that the true significance of the Un-lighting Ceremony is not the extinguishing of the light, but rather, its return. And, once that truth revealed itself to me, I began to sense, in the darkness, a faint purple glow. Did you not feel it too? Day by day, it grew a little brighter, without a glitch or sudden bump. How skillfully John manipulates the rheostat! Until my memories of him became enveloped in a kind of purple haze. And then, the glimmer of tiny white lights began to be distinguishable.
And that is what this Celebration, is all about. Even as we gather here, the radience is growing stronger and bursting forth in a blaze of glorious white light! John is back, different than before, but all around us, illuminating our lives with Joy and Light, everlasting.