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[whitespace] Heart Song

Christmas king Christopher Radko weighs in on tolerance, the Devil, and 'It's a Wonderful Life'

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Writer David Templeton takes interesting people to interesting movies in his ongoing quest for the ultimate post-film conversation. This column is not a review; rather, it's a freewheeling, tangential discussion of life, alternative ideas, and popular culture.

Christopher Radko is surprised. He's just learned that his favorite Christmas movie--Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life--has been the subject of some derision over the last several years.

For a while there, it was actually impossible to channel-surf at Christmastime without running across the tortured face of George Bailey (played by Jimmy Stewart, of course) running frantically through the streets of Bedford Falls, or standing on that windy bridge preparing to end what he thinks is his worthless life--just before Clarence the angel arrives to show George just how much he's really worth. For whatever reason, it's hard to find more than a small handful of folks who'll now admit, in public, that IAWL is a film they like.

But Radko is one of them.

"Not only is It's a Wonderful Life my favorite Christmas movie," he says, boldly, clearly taken aback that anyone might cast a cynical eye toward what many people believe to be a rich and dark and philosophically satisfying a film. "It's one of my favorite movies, period."

Radko is a former New York mailroom clerk turned high-profile designer of mouth-blown, European-made glass Christmas ornaments, so he spends a lot of time thinking about Christmas. Christmas is Radko's holiday in the same way Halloween is Elvira's holiday. Since 1986, he's designed over 500 gorgeously detailed ornaments, selling several million of them throughout the world. His work--averaging about $38 per ornament--is sought after by Hollywood players and the Washington elite. He's been asked to personally decorate the White House. His new book, Christopher Radko's Ornaments (Clarkson Potter), is a certified bestseller.

Yet the suddenly wealthy Radko, 39, remains remarkably boyish, shy, and guileless. In person, he seems less like a "Czar of Christmas Present"--as the New York Times has proclaimed him--and more like a New Age philosopher/poet.

One whose expertise is Christmas.

"I like the message of It's a Wonderful Life," he says. "First of all, I always like movies with Christmas trees in them." Laughing, he mentions that the film ends with a shot of an ornament on a Christmas tree. "I like that, of course.

"But gosh . . . I think that the movie helps us see that you don't have to be a millionaire, or do something world-reaching, in order to make a difference," he continues. "You can change the world from your own backyard, in your own hometown.

"I also think the movie shows us that it's not just the things you do on Christmas Day--you know, the gifts you give people, the shopping, the decorating--but it's the heart-centered things you do all year long that really make difference. That for me is the spirit of Christmas."

He cites the film's ending, when the townspeople fill the house to return the favors George has been reluctantly, but freely, distributing his entire life, and his brother raises the toast, "To George. The richest man in town."

"They don't mean rich in dollars," Radko says. "They mean that he has all those friends, he's got their love. Because of his inherent kindness, he's captured the hearts of all the people of Bedford Falls."

It's a scene that has been known to make grown men cry.

"Being recognized for your heart-connection to people is a very moving experience," offers Radko, "but it's something that our society does not promote. We measure people by their looks, by their bank accounts, by their power; we judge them by their religion, or their political affiliation--but we don't often measure people by their hearts. And that's a shame.

"I spend a lot of time in Europe, where I see a lot of religious art," Radko says. "And I've always been interested in archangels, and the way they're depicted in art. Traditionally, in Europe, the archangel Michael is seen holding his fiery sword, dressed in some kind of Roman soldier's outfit, standing on the head of a dragon." The dragon, of course, being the Devil. In fact, Michael--according to scripture--is the angel who led the battle against Satan and the rebel angels, and who forced the devil into the pit of Hell. "So these paintings are supposed to symbolize the triumph of good over evil," Radko continues, "of throwing the Devil into submission. I always thought those images were curious."

Back home, he commissioned an Arizona artist to create a new painting of Michael.

"What she did was, she had the archangel Michael, with his sword sheathed in his scabbard, actually leaning over and helping Satan up out of the depths of Hell--and back into the light," Radko says. "I am really touched by the symbolism of that image. I think that's a strong, important image for us to hold, because as long as we exist in the realm of separateness and division, of good and bad, 'you're on that side of the line and I'm on this side of the line,' we humans are never going to become united as one. We have to stop labeling each other, constantly pushing people away, saying, out of elitism--or because your religion says that's the way it has to be--'You are different. You are wrong.'

"Because that idea is in need of a little evolution. So you say, 'You know what? Maybe we need to try and extend and open hand, and open heart to that which we've shut away from us.' I think that's when the healing will be in our future as human beings. That's when the true spirit of Christmas will exist on Earth, every day of the year."

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From the December 23-29, 1999 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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