Die Young, and Leave a Good-Looking Christmas Tree
I've been exposed to many transgressive subculture moments while writing this column. I've hung out with circus geeks, Satanists, and prostitutes; appeared in a porn movie; been attacked by an unmarked government helicopter; snuck into a sex commune; run with Rodney King rioters; attended Angela Alioto's birthday party; and watched a QuickTime computer video of a guy fucking a chicken. But today I'm on the floor of my apartment, damp cloth to my forehead, my body racked with involuntary shudders. This afternoon I have witnessed an American subculture that absolutely terrifies me: the handmade Christmas ornament industry.
Specifically, the work of Christopher Radko, the world's most famous Christmas ornament designer. The Oak Room restaurant of the St. Francis Hotel is packed to capacity for lunch today, and with good reason. Celebrating the release of his "spectacular" 10th-anniversary collectors' edition album, Christopher Radko: The First Decade, the New York-based artist is making a "rare" in-person appearance in San Francisco for a slide presentation, book signing, and general ornament collector feeding frenzy. The 35-year-old Radko is extremely polite and friendly, handsomely dressed in a muted green suit, his perfect flipped hair reminiscent of a post-Cher Sonny Bono, with a dash of Kenny Loggins. While his ardent fans -- primarily middle-aged women -- shovel in the chow at tables decorated with 2-foot-high centerpieces, he quickly chats about his life in a manner one might call "professional soundbite spew." As he's talking, I'm remembering the words of a Radko press lackey who, when I asked for an interview with the man, briskly answered:
"I don't think that's possible. He's going to be deluged with thousands of people."
Yeah, well, Union Square seems pretty quiet today. Perhaps they're just held up at the airport.
The tale of Radko ornaments is a classic fable of passion, disaster, grief, and, finally, triumph of the will. While working at a talent agency in New York City in the early '80s, Radko spent one Christmas with his family, as he usually did. Sadly, the holiday met with tragedy when their Christmas tree fell over, breaking many treasured glass ornaments. Ironically, the finger of blame points to Radko himself:
"We had an old cast-iron tree stand made in Germany, but I didn't want to clean it out, so I bought this flimsy new one because it was, like, shiny red and green, and I thought, 'Well, this will work,' but of course it didn't. One of the legs cracked."
Fortunately, a cousin knew of a glass blower in Europe, who agreed to help replace the ornaments and calm a panicked Radko -- provided he design them. He began sketching designs, importing more ornaments, and selling them to local stores. Ten years later, he has 3,000 customers who buy from him in showrooms across the country.
Today, the Oak Room is draped with banners and sashes that all say "Christopher Radko" in luxurious script. A Christmas tree completely crammed with glass ornaments sits on a table. Radko's designs are handblown eyeball assaults of multiple blinding colors, the sequin-soaked shapes dizzying in their variety: kitties, ducks, doggies, dolphins, bears, clowns, unicorns, pigs, sea horses, skiers, angels, alligators, elephants, wise men, King Tuts, genies coming out of bottles, gnomes in front of tree stumps, astronauts standing on satellites, Santas under giant mushrooms, Santas in tennis outfits or football uniforms, and my favorite, a double-amputee Capt. Hook, where one hand is obviously a hook but in place of the other hand shoots out a silver-sequined, canelike -- almost vaguely penile -- appendage that drops to the floor between his buckled shoes.
Each ornament sells for between 15 and 45 bucks, and takes a week to make in Radko's shops in Poland, Germany, Italy, and the Czech Republic. Over 600 people are employed in the Radko European theater of operations, using glass-blowing techniques of their great-grandfathers, with a few hundred more helping with distribution throughout the U.S.
"I have an Eyelash Lady, all she does is paint eyelashes on all the ornaments," bubbles Radko proudly of his Eastern European sweatshop crew. "I have another lady, I call her the Seed Lady. Because I do fruits and strawberries, things like that. She paints every single seed on every single strawberry. The strawberries have, like, 150 seeds per ornament. She has good eyes."
Unlike the old days, his ornaments are made out of break-resistant Pyrex glass. I ask if that means you can put them in the microwave, and he grabs my arm excitedly.
"You can put them in your dishwasher, too, but I wouldn't recommend that, because then the paint would come off!"
People continually interrupt us, saying Radko should hurry up and eat lunch. I offer to end our chat, but he keeps waving me off, saying "Oh, that's OK, I'm a fast eater," and resumes his lightning-speed rap.
"I really put my heart into what I do," he gushes. "My ornaments are about joy and magic and wonder and light. And that transcends any religion. I think that's why a lot of people like my ornaments."