Hunter had a soft heart for Christmas. He loved to receive and give gifts, and his were lots of fun. I still have a kitchen clock he gave me that announces each hour with a different bird call. “Have you learned which birds are at each hour yet?” he often inquired. But, I never have figured out the sequence, even though they keep calling from the kitchen more than a decade later, reminding me of my mischievous friend.
Every December there was a Christmas tree decorated in the living room at Owl Farm, and in January, Deborah Fuller – Hunter’s dedicated secretary for two decades – would take down the tree, but leave it either on the porch or by the wood pile out front in case Hunter wanted to burn it.
On January 9, 1990, Hunter had a visitor from Time Magazine, a reporter who Deborah remembers by a first name of Allen, but his surname has been lost unless he happens to read this and corrects the record.
“Let’s give the journalist a memorable experience to write about,” declared Hunter. “He needs to learn how to burn the creosote out of a chimney. We can’t run the risk of a chimney fire during the year.”
Of course, there’s a fine line between burning the creosote out of a chimney and starting a creosote fire that burns at 2100 Degrees Fahrenheit and sounds like a jet airplane taking off just before it explodes through the sides of your chimney and burns down a log cabin style house like Owl Farm.
In preparation, Deborah gathered all the fire extinguishers in the living room, while Hunter set up a video camera since I wasn’t there to shoot it. (I was back East, finishing a TV special for NBC News with Tom Brokaw called “The New Hollywood.” Believe me, Hunter was a hell of a lot more interesting to hang out with than Tom Brokaw, but as they say in show business: “Theater is life. Film is art. TV is rent.”)
I used some of Hunter’s Christmas tree video in Breakfast with Hunter when Ralph Steadman reads from a 1995 Time/Life book titled “The Enigma of Personality” which so far as I know is the only printed reference to the burning of the Christmas tree other than interviews in which I have mentioned it. Allen the Time Magazine reporter seems to have produced only this anecdote for the book and nowhere else from his 1990 winter’s journey to Owl Farm.
Visitors to Owl Farm usually came in search of an experience with Hunter that would make a good story whether they were journalists or fans, and Hunter always delivered. But, the story wasn’t necessarily what they expected. In this case, Hunter got more than he bargained for as well; you can see how desperately he pokes at the burning Christmas tree, trying to contain the raging fire. The heavy wooden mantle still has the burn marks to this day.
Before he put the tree in the fireplace, there was a small fire burning already. The mass of the tree almost snuffed out the first fire when he jammed it in, so Hunter threatened to splash lighter fluid on it. In the original video, you can barely hear Deborah and Allen screaming, “NO, HUNTER DON’T DO IT” above the Cowboy Junkies playing “Misguided Angel” at maximum volume over the array of living room speakers.
Hunter gets a bit of lighter fluid onto the tree, and then throws a match after it, creating the conflagration you see in the film and then in the aftermath below. The flames were coming out of the top of the chimney in a four foot cone of fire, like the exhaust of a jet engine. Hunter, Deborah and Allen retreated to the front porch where Hunter taped the inferno with pride. No one remembered to carry out the manuscript of the latest book in progress which was lying on the living room table.
That evening Hunter played his video back over and over again, sometimes in slow motion, marveling at the scene he had dared to create. After that night, Deborah never left the used Christmas tree close at hand ever again.
Copyright 2010 by Wayne Ewing