HAROLD TOWN CREATES THE CONNOISSEUR'S CHRISTMAS TREE Here’s the scene when a famous artist grapples with a grand old custom. His secrets? Next page

MARJORIE HARRIS December 17 1966

HAROLD TOWN CREATES THE CONNOISSEUR'S CHRISTMAS TREE Here’s the scene when a famous artist grapples with a grand old custom. His secrets? Next page

MARJORIE HARRIS December 17 1966

HAROLD TOWN CREATES THE CONNOISSEUR'S CHRISTMAS TREE Here’s the scene when a famous artist grapples with a grand old custom. His secrets? Next page

CONNOISSEUR9S CHRISTMAS TREE

MARJORIE HARRIS

IT’S ONE OF THOSE devastatingly crisp December mornings in Toronto’s Rosedale Ravine, and here comes this tall, lean man dressed in a military fieldjacket and a deerstalker cap, scudding along through the woods talking — that’s right talking — to the trees.

He’s Harold Town, the artist, and this is a walk he takes each day. He has a thing about trees — a real thing that comes to a head when he selects and cuts his own Christmas tree and then spends four intense days trimming it.

His aim each year, in this era when the plastic tree has begun to creep insidiously across the land, is to make his tree a thing of joy, a magical experience, and he pours as much energy and imagination into the task as he would into four days of work on a mural.

The action starts two Mondays before Christmas when he and his sculptorfriend Walter Yarwood drive into the country outside Toronto to search for the definitive spruce tree. It has to be spruce. Spruce is traditional, it’s elegant, and it has all those little branches necessary for hanging the 2,500 ornaments Town customarily uses.

Next day, Tuesday, it's dragged into the house and propped for cutting to room size in a rather cavalier manner on the antique gargoyle in the living room, while Town’s daughters, eightyear-old Heather and Shelley, four, sit quietly by, observing the sawing.

"One year I put the last ornament on the tree and the whole damn thing fell down,” Town says, “ ‘That’s it, kids,’ I said. ‘No more Christmas.' But I realized I was just angry with myself. I grabbed a tablecloth, slipped it under

the tree and got it back up without too many breaks. That’s what led to my Broken - Christmas - Tree - Ornaments collage, and wiring the tree in place.” Now the serious business begins. The children start to "unstrangle” the lights, as Heather puts it. George Kerrigan, a perambulating Irish bachelor who's become as much a part of the production as the children have, arrives. In a flash, he’s helping them.

Town begins the ritual of putting the lights on the tree. “I string random. I don’t like a formal tree. You have to have a tree that’s massively covered with stuff. All the branches must hang down — a tree in agony. They should bend with these ornaments as they bend in the forest with snow.”

When all the lights are attached, 235 of them, Town says in his W. C. Fields voice, “What this needs now is judicious realigning. This tree is a little like Claudette Colbert — it only has one good side.” Back to wires and plugs.

Wednesday is mind-boggling day. Seventeen huge cartons of ornaments are brought in and their contents spread about the living room.

Town showers the room with laughter

and stories of each ornament’s origift as it comes from its box. “Here’s one Florrie Franck found in Dressmaker’s^ Supply. Ken Dawson had these made in the old Village on Gerrard Street. This one is especially good and underrated — from Poland.” There are hundreds of bulbs from Japan, France, theStates, and Woolworth’s.

“You have to use your imagination ter have a real tree,” says Town. “Bunch' them, cluster them so that you have a galaxy in the midst of the other stuff, run them along the branches, dangle them one below another on the lighk wires to fill in spaces, use glass apartment-tree tops like lavalieres. Massf them in and forget about being a decor-‘ ator.”

Trudy, Town’s wife, sits in the background. She’s in the penalty box for breaking a special ball last year. Harold announces this at precisely the moment George drops a bulb from th& box he’s holding. “That’s the worst error you can make — a box drop.* George, you’re benched. Trudy, you’re' back in.”

Town drops two balls himself, someone else drops a fancy one but it

Avant-garde painter, sculptor, writer, symbol of irreverent iconoclasm: Harold Town is all of these and more. He’s busy, too—creating a huge sculpture fountain for Expo 67, arranging two one-man shows of his work for Chicago and Los Angeles. But at this time every year, Town the anti-traditionalist takes time off for an orgy of orthodoxy, putting on a super-production strictly for his family and friends—trimming a traditional but not conventional Christmas tree. It takes four days, intense energy, interference from well-meaning friends, but he ends with a tree that dominates his entire household

Town and his friend Walter Yarwood wrestle 15 feet of spruce out of the forest, then Town goes to work in his living room, pruning it down to nine feet. With the aid of Town’s daughters Heather and Shelley, the lights are untangled — or are they? The children customarily open their gifts on Christmas Eve, listening to Dylan Thomas’ “A Child’s Christmas In Wales”; and friends drop in to compare the finished tree with last year’s effort and to give it a rating.

doesn’t break. Errors are shouted and a scorecard is kept. Late in the evening Town pronounces, “This is a definitivetop tree.” Everyone’s exhausted, high on the sweet, sticky, forest smell of the tree and the wine Town serves.

By Thursday, the tree still seems incredibly bare in the middle. There are hundreds of bulbs left and more people come in during the day. Everyone becomes passionate in an attempt to grab off the best bulbs for his area. Conversation flows from baseball and hockey to music, endless stories of musicians, poets and past Christmases. Mrs. Cody from next door comes in and looks distressed. “If you have too many ornaments, you’ll ruin the effect.”

“My effect is too much,” states Town.

“Trudy’s mother found these ornaments in an incinerator room after Christmas one year. She said they were like abandoned children.” Harold holds up a bulb like an offering. “This abandoned ornament is forever saved by my tree. All it needed was a good home and each Christmas someone devotedly hanging it. I want to save all ornaments from badly decorated trees.”

The hanging goes on until finally

Town steps back and intones, “This is no longer a tree. This is history.”

It is history. It’s the story of Town’s railroader father who brought back special bulbs from Buffalo that are still on this tree. It’s the story of Heather and Shelley, who’ve helped with the tree from their first years. It’s the story of all the people who’ve given Harold ornaments. It’s the gathering of friends who come to celebrate the placing of the final ornaments — to eat Malpeque oysters and listen to the saga of this year's tree trimming. The tree, the central figure at the party, glows softly, brilliantly, like a jewel. As Shelley says, "It is a special tree.” ★

Gowns by The Unicorn, Toronto. Lighting by Noma Lites. Additional ornaments by Alderbrook Ind. Ltd.

Toys by The Canadian Toy Mfrs. Assoc. Heads by Barbara Worth & John Hass.

RULES FOR AN ANTI-DECORATOR TREE

1. “Buy spruce. Scotch pine is not a Christmas tree; it is an inverted toilet brush, just another notch in the belt of conformity that promises to squeeze all character out of the modern celebration of Christmas.”

2. “Cut the tree top and bottom for density. Cut base at an angle, strip bark, bore holes at side and base so more sugared water (a must) will flow through the tree. Always use a fire-proofing spray on the tree.”

3. “Small lights are put on first, from top to bottom, outer branches are spread with large bulbs so the eye moves into the centre of the tree when they’re on. Remember sequence of attachments so you won’t be confused when removing them. Use as many outlets as possible.”

4. “Ornaments must be commercially made. Decorations fondly and ineptly lumped together at school by progeny are an anathema to a great tree.”

5. “Nothing can replace elastic bands for tree hangers.”

6. “New for ’66: stove-pipe wire for danglers. They are stiff but malleable.”

7. “Always start at top with ornaments, the compulsion is to start at the nearest, easiest branch. Good or special ornaments must be put on last.”

8. “Wrap ornaments carefully; remove methodically. Set the bottom in the ¡id so the box will be together for re-packing.”

9. “Date boxes by year of purchase. Record each pedigree, and, if gift, name of donor, so that when you hand decorations over to your grown children there’ll be a determinable history.”

10. “Children must be allowed to decorate as soon as they can hold an ornament and must be present at all decoration ceremonies. Start them with the unbreakables, deep in and under the tree. They like to crawl under and behind the tree.”

11. “The back must be decorated; you don’t send a lady out on Fair Day with only the front of her dress on. A great tree deserves the same respect.”