My mind works in mysterious ways, and sometimes annoying ones. That it began recalling the decades old epic fail of Geraldo Rivera opening Al Capone’s vault live on television to find only dust and a few bottles is just the way those gears began to turn as I anticipated last Thursday morning. But the smile on my face as I rushed from home was because I knew real treasures were in my future.
Being allowed to observe all involved with the Morse Museum’s Christmas in the Park event coming together, I couldn’t help but think Christmas had come early. As I stood inside their warehouse upon signing in and seeing the large neon signs of one time local businesses above me, that seemed to understate it. I asked to take a few pictures and Walter, the security guard, hit the lights. My morning was off to a most excellent start with lights different than those that motivated this visit.
As I told others what I’d be doing that morning, most wanted to know how the windows are moved. What I found was that these amazing old-school works of art are handled and transported in a very old-school manner, albeit, an extraordinarily careful one. The windows remain in their display boxes all year long waiting for their next performance. They stood there in a corner, rather ominously, looking like large dominoes, ones that will never be allowed to topple.
Those handles on the sides get used, and are not there by accident. They’re pulled and leaned and then rolled oh-so-carefully, slowly, six men constantly aware of the treasures they have been charged with transporting, and protecting in the process. Loaded into a flatbed truck, tied and secured, it’s off to Central Park to conduct the same dance, somewhat in reverse.
I watch with Catherine Hinman, the Morse Museum’s director of public affairs and publications. She notes that this is fun for her, too, as she never just stands and watches. Her narration of what I see, both in moving the windows and other sights within the warehouse, was a treat in and of itself. Details spew forth easily. She endures my requests to repeat something, as I reach for my recorder, making my own tape backup sounds in encouragement. She describes the day’s events as “more than a sum of its parts,” refers often to community, the museum’s desires in that regard and Hugh and Jeannette McKean’s.
As we watch the loading, I ask about the bulbs that light the windows from behind. She notes they are now LED, which were not adequate for the job until the last few years. She speaks of fuses that would sometimes blow in the old setup, a concern now removed from her list. “The technology has evolved. It used to be that we had a person at every window and when Larry said ‘May I have the lights, please,’ each individual tried to synchronize. Now, with technology, we have a wireless system which allows them all to come on exactly at once, so it’s wonderful.”
I ask about a nearby blanket with chairs on it. The enthusiasts are already arriving — at about 8:30 that morning. I jokingly refer to them as squatters. Catherine responds: “I call them fans.” I go over to a young mother now setting up two chairs on a blanket. “What deals are you here for, the flat screen televisions or an iPod, or another great deal?” She laughs, gets my reference to another recent day and says, “We’re here to enjoy the Christmas concert tonight.” Her name is Catherine Stella and she and her family are here for the sixth straight year. I ask about the placement strategy, as this is obviously not all about being close to the stage. “It’s close to the sidewalk so that we can get to the bathroom, because we have children. And it’s close to the sound booth so that we can locate one another.” Catherine Hinman has told me about taking copious notes every year, “So that we fix any little issues which come up. It should be seamless, everything should be invisible; it’s just an art installation and a great musical performance,” she says. I laugh now, thinking it’s obvious attendees plan from one event to the next as well.
Soon off it’s to the warehouse again, Catherine riding with me. She’s been fretting over a 40 percent chance of rain. I reassure her that a 40 percent chance from people who are right 60 percent or less of the time is pretty good.
The event was only nearly rained out once. She says it rained all day during set up, but stopped about 10 minutes before the show. Then, just before the show’s scheduled end, it started lightning. “That was the year that John Sinclair literally had to announce that it was time to leave, and he sang everybody off.”
We discuss caring for the windows, and their conservation. “Not even the descendants could maintain these places,” she says of the historic homes such as Tiffany’s Laurelton Hall. “Conservation,” she said, includes actually taking the windows apart, piece-by-piece to reconstruct, dealing with buckling which occurs over time. “You are committed for life. They’re like your children. You have to maintain them and watch their condition, and protect them and steward them.”
Back in the park I see Nancy Miles setting up a large group of chairs. “When Jack (her husband) walked at 8 he said they’re already reserving spots and we’d better get there, so that’s what we’re doing.” I ask about their specific location, and she says they want to be close enough to see, adding, “But there’s really not a bad seat.”
I walk about taking pictures, notice an elaborate table that stands out. I ask Steve Vaughan, who put it all together, if I can take a photo and he agrees. “I always sit behind this light because no one else wants to sit here,” he says. “I don’t need to see the stage because I can hear it.” I remark on his setup and he says his wife Kirsten has trained him well. It includes miniature fruitcake cookies his mother shipped in from Kentucky just for the event. He invites me back for a glass of wine, and I assure him he will see me again.
Just before the windows are lit, I see a very dry Catherine, no longer fretting the weather. “It’s wonderful. It’s really wonderful. The only thing we were worried about was the weather, and the weathermen, thankfully, were wrong.”
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