Eulogized on November 12, 2018
As you know, my mother Helen Kirschner was born in 1936. The second of three children, she worked in her youth as a telephone operator for AT & T. She got married and gave birth to five children. She later found work at a local elementary school and played the organ at her church. Eventually she retired, enjoyed spending time with her family and friends, and then ultimately, she died.
But what you probably don’t know, was what seemed like just an ordinary life was, in fact, an extraordinary story of love, laughter and music. It’s a story that could rival any show on Broadway. Also, what many of you probably didn’t know was that each of us here today played an important role, an unforgettable character in one of the greatest shows ever. That show was titled “Helen Kirschner: The Musical”.
Upon meeting my mother, you could certainly say she was a truly unique character. She was the ultimate leading lady, displaying the quirky charm of Sweet Charity’s namesake ingenue, presenting the fierce tenacity of Gypsy’s Mama Rose, and possessing the artistic passion of The Phantom of the Opera’s Angel of Music, Christine. She was a triple threat to be sure. Or more succinctly, she was “one singular sensation”.
“Helen Kirschner: The Musical” told the story of a woman who touched the lives of everyone she met. In the beginning of the show, like a scene right out of Rogers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma, Helen left the comfort of her rural homestead to make her way in the world, armed with an infectious smile, twinkling blue eyes, a kind heart, and a deep love for music.
The young fetching catholic school girl soon crossed paths with a rough and ready guy from over the river. With his hair greased back, and his cigarette pack rolled up in the t-shirt sleeve, they appeared to be total opposites. And just like Danny and Sandy from Grease, Helen and my father, John, spent those summer nights at the shore, proclaiming to one another “You’re the One That I Want.”
Soon after the marriage, the children arrived. My mother gathered us around her piano, and much like Julie Andrews’ Maria from The Sound of Music, she too taught my siblings and I to love music, as well as “Do-Re-Me”. Time went on, and each of us five children developed our own musical gifts. Channeling Shirley Jones, Mom was the leader of our rag-tag, South Jersey-based Partridge Family-like band. Oldest son Johnny banged the drums, sister Pasty blew trumpet, middle son Danny headbanged on both the drums, younger brother Ray wailed on the clarinet, and yours truly, little Leo tickled the ivories of the piano. Father would tap his toes, and bounce the tooth pick dangling from his teeth to the music created by us, the music inspired by our mother.
When we were old enough, Helen returned to work, this time as a cafeteria staff member at the local elementary school. And as sure as she served pizza every Friday, she proudly became a caring and comforting presence for literally thousands of local school children for over 25 years. Sadly, to the best of my knowledge, none of her students ever broke out into a splashy chorus of “Food, Glorious Food” in the cafeteria like those dancing orphans in Oliver. She played organ at her local church, as well as providing piano accompaniment for the student choruses and ensembles preforming in annual Spring and Winter school concerts for many years. She was scoring the soundtrack for other as well as for us.
Like in Fiddler on The Roof's "Sunrise, Sunset", swiftly flowed the days and years in our home. The five of us moved out, but we returned with significant others, and more importantly, grandkids. Each took their turn climbing up onto the wooden bench with Mom at her piano in the parlor, each waiting for their own solo.
Every Christmas became another opportunity for Helen to put on a showstopping production number worthy of Jerry Herman’s Mame. Mom had candles in the windows, and carols at the spinet.
But in every musical, Act I ends with an unexpected plot twist. The untimely passing of our father threw Mom’s life in turmoil and uncertainty. She left the family home she built with our Dad and resolved herself to journey on. The Unsinkable Molly Brown had nothing on my mother.
Act 2 of “Helen Kirschner: The Musical” found our leading lady gaining strength and support from not only her family, but from her long-time close friends as well. A cast of crazy, comical supporting characters, many of them part of a Red Hat Society or the local Community Choir stood by her, all of them as wacky and endearing as any character found in Meredith Wilson’s “The Music Man”.
In her retirement, Helen travelled across country to visit with her brother and sister. She sailed to Alaska and hosted many excursions to the bright lights of Broadway… possibly to check up on the competition. Holiday dinners with her children, school concerts and events with the grandkids, high energy fun with the great-grand toddlers continued. And there were those trips to the casinos, where she tried her hand at beat ol’ Lady Luck like so many of the Guys and Dolls did in Frank Loesser’s tuneful classic.
But in her second act, there was still heartbreak and sorrow for Helen to endure. The tragic and unexpected loss of a son and later, a grandson. Soon, she experienced further loss as her dear friends and companions departed from her story and her life.
Content with the joy and music she had brought to each and every one of us, Mom felt it was time to bring the curtain down. Like all the great theatre divas, she was in total command of her performance. As the final months and weeks, days and hours passed, her family and friends came by and waited by her stage door expecting to witness her curtain call. But she kept us all waiting. She wasn’t quite ready yet. She had one more joke to deliver, one more tale to tell. She had one more song to sing.
But today, our mother and leading lady Helen Kirschner has at last decided to take her final bow. And in every great musical, the cast and company gather on stage for the last song of the night. That’s what we are all here to do.
You didn’t know was that you were a part of the cast of the long running, highly entertainment, emotionally moving show called “Helen Kirschner: The Musical”. But Mom knew. While most all of us here missed opening night, we should all celebrate the fact that we were all present for closing night. And just like all the other great musicals on the Great White Way, we will always have the cast album. My mother’s soundtrack was filled with the melodies of kindness, of family, of loss and of good times. We can listen to it anytime we want, for her soundtrack is forever stored in our memory and in our hearts.
We should be thankful that we were able to experience her music and her love. For those were her greatest gifts. And as Les Misérables reminds us of the truth that once was spoken: To love another person is to see the face of God.
It was an extraordinary privilege to part of her story, to sing her songs, to bask in her gentle light. For my family and I, “Helen Kirschner: The Musical” was indeed the greatest show on Earth.
Wednesday, November 1st
I ain’t lying! Mom said it was my fault, but I told her I did not leave a Milky Way candy bar in my pants pocket! Now Mom said all the clothes in the washer are stained with chocolate. I don’t understand how that could happen. I mean, it’s a washer machine. All it does is washes clothes to get them clean. So, how can clothes become dirty in a washer machine? She thought I did it because I went out trick-or-treatin' yesterday as my favorite superhero Spiderman on Halloween, and I got lots of candy. But I didn’t put the chocolate in the washer. I got Hershey’s and Butterfingers. Full size bars, too! Not those little fun size ones. Nobody likes them. One bite and you’re done. What fun is that? I also got Twizzler licorice and Tootsie Rolls. The Tootsie Rolls usually stick to my teeth, so I gotta be careful. Last year, a Tootsie Roll pulled out one of my teeth that was wiggly. Didn’t hurt, but Mom told me to watch out that it didn’t pull out my other teeth. Sometimes, my Mom is nice to me and looks out for me. But other times, she hates me. Like right now with the chocolate and the washer!
Everybody knows that I don’t like Milky Ways. Something about them just ain’t right. I like the chocolate on the outside, but that tan mushy stuff in the middle is just disguising! So, whenever I get Milky Way candy during trick-or-treatin', I take them out of my basket. Sometimes, I put them in my coat pocket or in my costume, then I trade them later with my friends. Dad likes eating my candy. Mom says she don’t, but I bet she sneaks a few pieces when I go asleep because there’s less candy the next day. Like this morning before school. I knew I had 5 fun size Snickers bars when I went to bed, and this morning before I left for school, there were only 3. But Dad likes eating my candy, too. He likes eating my Milky Ways. So, I bet anything he was the one who put the candy in the washer, and Mom blamed me! She likes Dad better than she likes me. Been that way for my whole life! All 7 years of it! I’m gonna keep this secret journal hidden from them until I find out more, then I can bust their crime wave of stealing my candy and blaming me for their chocolate clothes.
Friday, November 3rd
I got yelled at again! I came home from school and Mom was cleaning up the mess my dog made in my bedroom. My dog Dusty likes to lay on my bed when I’m at school. But today, Mom said the dog was making little whimpering noises. Then all of a sudden, YAK! He threw up a big gross pile right there in the middle of my room. I’m just happy he didn’t throw up in my bed. Sure don’t want to feel something wet and squishy when I sleep! Mom said that Dusty found candy in my clothes pile on the floor and was eating it. She said it was in my pocket again! I told her that I took the Milky Ways and that candy corn junk to school to trade with Mike Lex and Scotty Ryan at lunch yesterday. I traded the stuff I don’t like for the stuff they don’t like, which was Sweet Tarts and Dum Dum taffies. I don’t mind them nearly as much as the gross Milky Ways and those other candies that are just like them, Three Musketeers. Anyway, I told her I didn’t leave the chocolate in my pocket!
But that was not the worst of it. When Dad came home, Mom said that Dusty was still whimpering and was laying down all day, not moving much. Dad said dogs aren’t supposed to eat chocolate, so he took Dusty to the vet. He came back after Mom and I ate dinner, and Dad was mad. He said, “Sammy, if you can’t be responsible for your candy and if you keep leaving them in your pockets to be washed or for the dog to find them, then I’m going to take your candy away!” He said he would take my basket to Mom-Mom's this weekend, so my cousins would eat them. NO! I got the candy fair and square! I dressed up as Spiderman, I went door to door in my town with Mike and Scotty and filled my basket. It’s not my fault the dog can’t read a candy label. Isn’t he supposed to know he can’t have chocolate?! You know, I thought of something. Mom says Dusty is a Chocolate Labrador. But he can’t eat chocolate. And the stuff he poops out or throws up doesn’t really smell like chocolate either. That's weird...
Sunday, November 5th
Mom made me empty out all of my pockets before she washed my clothes. She doesn’t make Dad do it. This isn’t fair! Just because somebody in our house – not me – left a candy bar in a pocket that got washed and it stained everything, and just because somebody let the dog eat candy in my room – again, not me – and later he got all sick, now I’m the one being punished. I dumped all my clothes in the laundry room, then I stayed in my room all night. This was a lousy Halloween! I only got to have candy 1, maybe 2 days max. I had to give all my candy away. No more Snickers, no Reese Peanut Butter cups. No Hershey’s or Butterfingers, the full-size bars! Just a few Tootsie Rolls and the Sweet Tarts and Dum Dums I kept from school.
But Dad came in my room and said he was sorry my Halloween turned out to be a bust. So, he gave me some money. He said I could buy an ice cream sandwich tomorrow during lunch. I told him that would make me feel better. He told me to be responsible and don’t lose the change because I could buy another treat on Tuesday if there was anything left over. I know that Mom likes Dad better than me, but sometimes I think Dad likes me better than Mom! Can’t wait to buy Ice Cream at school tomorrow!
Monday, November 6th
I told Mom I ain’t lying! Mom said it was my fault, but I told her I did not leave loose coins in my pants pocket! Now Mom said there’s a metal sounding rattle in the washer, and she may have to call somebody to fix it. I hope Mom and Dad buy a new washer machine, because that old one keeps gettin' me in trouble!
Radio is a part of us. It's interwoven with our history and culture of the past 100 years. Every minute of every hour of every day, radio strives to cut through the daily clatter to capture our attention. Its purpose is to engage and enlighten us of the various ideas, opinions, and attitudes of others. Radio gives us the power of knowledge and seeks to expand our worldview. It is a medium that also aims to entertain us with the beauty of music and the excitement of interaction. It ultimately satisfies our need for human contact. As such, radio is everywhere.
Radio was certainly there for me at the age of 12. You remember being 12 - that period when we are no longer a child, but not quite an adult. It was then that I discovered radio’s power, and it was a transformative experience for me. My first radio was a small, pocket-sized battery-operated transistor unit my parents bought for me as a present from a retailer with an apt name: Radio Shack. It was the summer of 1983 and growing up (for me anyway) was a childhood filled with riding bikes, building forts, playing video games, swimming in pools, Wiffle Ball tournaments, flashlight tag, and so much more. And my little Radio Shack branded battery-powered radio provided the soundtrack to my adventures.
While growing up in the suburbs of Philadelphia during the ’80s, the music station of choice for my friends and I was Hot Hits 98 WCAU-FM. It was a time when Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” first thrilled the unsuspecting public. Irene Cara was making a splash with “Flashdance”, and the haunting synthesized drone of the Eurythmics' “Sweet Dreams are Made of These” echoed in the corners of every place you went. It was also a time when radio disc jockeys were just as memorable as the jams they played. Hot Hits air personalities like Glenn Kalina, Christy Springfield, and morning man Terry Young (aka “the Motormouth”) encouraged me to tune in - multiple times a day - to catch their coolness, their lunacy, and of course, their “hottest hits”. Occasionally, they even promised me the opportunity of possibly winning the latest vinyl records, video game cartridges, or even up to “$1,000 dollars in hot cash!” Sadly, I never won any of that stuff.
Hot Hits 98 WCAU-FM even influenced my actions. Every Saturday morning, my friends and I pedaled our BMX bikes all the way down to the local shopping mall to pick up free printed flyers of their “Weekly Hot Hit Survey” (see below). It turns out that the weekly countdown flyers were “exclusively available only at Wall to Wall Sound and Video stores throughout the Delaware Valley”. Not only did we learn what songs Glenn, Christy, and Terry were going to be play on the countdown that week (so we could record them on our tape recorder-equipped “boom boxes” at home), but every week, the store also seemed to have some item or trinket that I so desperately needed to buy. One week, I got a Star Wars t-shirt. Another week saw me bring home a refrigerator magnet of the Police’s album Synchronicity. I continued to make near-weekly buys of various stickers, patches, and posters. It was only when I purposely saved my allowance or got a fistful of birthday cash that I purchased an actual album.
Of course, I bought all of it and more at Wall to Wall Sound and Video because Glenn, Christy, and Terry on Hot Hits 98 WCAU-FM told me to do so. They were everywhere I was. They were in my house, in the stores, in the shopping mall arcade, and in my small, pocket-sized battery-operated transistor radio my parents bought for me as a present from Radio Shack. It was not a case of trickery or deceit. WCAU did not emit some kind of evil brainwashing signal making me act a certain way. At the tender age of 12, I experienced the power of radio. It was this power that allowed the music of Michael Jackson, The Police and The Eurythmics to help shape my view of the world and introduce me to its popular culture. It was this power that allowed me to feel as if the disc jockeys were my friends, who went with me everywhere. Glenn Kalina’s smoothness, Christy Springfield’s enthusiasm and Terry “The Motormouth” Young’s zaniness inspired me to seek out their influence and made me feel I was part of the culture they represented. I aspired to be just like them. It was this power that convinced me to journey every week to the local sound and video shop and buy the things that, even today, I still hold dear.