By Keith Michael

A LONG-EARED OWL in Central Park. Photo by Keith Michael.

“…and the clock on the wall ticked among them all louder and louder. Marie looked around, and had almost run terrified away when, instead of the owl, there sat Papa Drosselmeier on the clock, with his yellow coat-tails hanging out like wings.” Nutcracker and Mouseking, E.T.A. Hoffmann (1816).

As long as I can remember, I’ve associated owls with winter and the story of the Nutcracker. Sleuthing through why that should be evokes a labyrinth of memories more confusing than E.T.A. Hoffman’s tale within a tale The Story of the Hard Nut. Surely it must be due to more than that one quoted sentence! 

My first knowledge of the Nutcracker was from a shiny 78 rpm record (oh, how that dates me) of the Nutcracker Suite sung by Fred Waring and his Pennsylvanians with tinny, witty, fiendishly brisk lyrics to highlights from Tchaikovsky’s indestructible score. I played that record so often that the brittle disc lost its sheen and the cheerful voices became scratchier and scratchier. At some point I found out that the Nutcracker was also a ballet. Soon, I had a two-disc long-playing 33 1/3 rpm orchestral recording of the full score—which I also played into oblivion. It’s likely that the album cover notes (remember those?) introduced me to Herr Drosselmeier and a grandfather clock with a haunting owl perched on top! But I never saw a ballet performance of the holiday staple until years later.

My father collected antique clocks. More than fifty ticking wound clocks populated our house—in every room, on every wall and stair landing—including five grandfather clocks. The on-the-hour and half-hour chiming, day and night, was nothing short of cacophony. One clock also rang two minutes after the hour “in case you missed it the first time.” Perhaps it was my father’s Drosselmeier-esque eccentricity, without the cape or the spun glass wig, and all of those bells announcing the time that cast a spotlight on that one E.T.A Hoffman sentence burdened with the word “owl.” I honestly don’t recall when I first read the entire Christmas classic.

I’ll cut this part of the story short. (You can always join me for a martini for the longer versions of my tales.) Inexplicably, in elementary school I began making marionettes and putting on shows. By high school I had created an elaborate touring 35-marionette version of the Nutcracker, with me as head puppeteer and my mother as stagehand and driver. There were marching soldiers, a growing Christmas tree, waltzing flowers, and, of course, a miniature grandfather clock with an owl on top that flew off when the twelve bells of midnight rang, circling the Lilliputian stage on anatomically correct felt feather wings!
Then, after a nearly 30-year owl-free hiatus and the birding bug had stung me, the allure of a December Long-eared Owl poised high in a Central Park pine tree, nearly imperceptibly, rekindled that midnight mystery. Since then, I’ve seen many owls in New York: Barn Owls, Screech Owls, Short-eared Owls, Long-eared Owls, Saw-whet Owls, Barred Owls, Snowy Owls, and Great Horned Owls. Owling etiquette prevents me from telling you exactly where they were. The Thanksgiving holiday and my academic vacation week between Christmas and the New Year have lured me into often frigid and snowy tromps through all the boroughs and beyond in pursuit of a fleeting glimpse of these elusive denizens of the night.

In 2011, when I rechoreographed my Nutcracker ballet for New York Theatre Ballet, it seemed essential to once again expand upon the metaphor of time with a stage-sized mantel clock and a puppet owl perched on the corner of an art nouveau picture frame. This may be a “full circle” inevitability, but, truthfully, I’ve found that I just like owls.
As we leave the season of marzipan and sugar plums, here’s hoping an owl of happiness crossed your path. Happy Owl-idays to you!

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