Loving Harry| 07/13/2008
Harry Guetzlaff–the puckish Managing Editor of The Wittenburg Door, who died Sunday morning–spent his whole life searching for unconditional love. He was a romantic in the old-fashioned sense. He was a master of the elaborate gift, the perfect birthday card, the ultimate dance-mix party tape to make someone’s wedding as wonderful as he thought all weddings should be. He was capable of both sudden and lasting friendships, even of intense loyalties to people he had only known for half an hour. He was dangerously capable of human affection. He loved women, sometimes to the point of suffocating them. He was constantly going to bat for someone else’s quirky crusade. He could take your tackiest dream and believe in it more than you did. He loved the Door so much that he thought all six billion people on the planet should read it, including the illiterates and the atheists. If he could read this obituary, he would tell me that I just made a great joke, even though I didn’t. When he laughed, his eyes crinkled like Santa Claus. As he got older and paunchier, he looked more and more like a teddy bear.
Harry and I were roommates on three different occasions, always after one of us had crashed and burned from some personal life trauma. First I took up residence in his swanky Preston Tower apartment, then, when he went bankrupt, he took up residence in mine. This was in the 1980s, when Harry had become a sort of Hollywood Christian, hoping to make millions through a video production company that featured a fish logo on his business card. When God told Harry and his partners that He had other plans, and the business started to fail, Harry made the last-ditch gesture of giving evangelist Robert Tilton $5,000 as a “faith vow.” Perhaps this is why he was later the most zealous member of the Trinity Foundation investigative team, as they brought down Tilton and launched dozens more investigations of preachers who prey on the poor and the desperate.
Harry and his '77 Vette
Harry had done okay for himself in the corporate world. He was a marketing executive at Coca-Cola and Dr. Pepper, a commercial film director, and one of the best film and video editors I’ve ever worked with. He was an archivist of pop culture, which is a nice way of saying he was a packrat. He grew up on the Jersey Shore in the fifties and was the archetypal American Graffiti kid on the boardwalk, with a Brylcreem haircut and white bucks and a convertible with fins on the back. He could tell you every doo-wop artist who ever charted, plus the name, make and body style of every hot car from 1946 forward. He had photo albums that ran into the tens of thousands of pictures. He had vast record collections, oceans of video, DVDs sorted by title, artist and subject, and material on his computer stored in ways that only the techno cognoscenti could ever figure out. He never lost his childlike zeal for new music, new television, new trends in food, cars or comedy. He thought The Honeymooners was the greatest sitcom ever made. He thought there will never be another Sinatra. He was never happier than when he was in his home editing studio, splicing together disparate pieces of film for the Door DVDs. But his highest praises were reserved for feature films.
At Home, New Jersey, 1978
I’ve known a lot of film buffs who feast on trivia, and a lot of would-be filmmakers who survive on dreams, but Harry was that rarest of film fans–the perfect audience member. Harry was the guy Martin Scorsese has in mind when he makes the movie–the guy who doesn’t want to critique the film, or make the film, or own the film, but simply wants to be drenched in the aura of the film experience. Harry was so passionate about the talents of this or that new filmmaker that he started a weekly film night in his apartment that ran on and off for the last 30 years of his life. When he started he used actual 16-millimeter projectors, but that eventually gave way to video and, as soon as the first one was pressed by the factory, DVDs. Film Night was based on the passion of Harry and nothing else. If it was an obscure film, he might screen for an audience of one. If it was something a little better known, he could draw 20 people from the neighborhood. But even when he was slouched on his favorite sofa, watching the brilliant Lebanese documentary by himself, he had a concentration that was remarkable. He could see the whole frame and describe it later, remember entire scenes of dialogue, tell you exactly which shots were new and innovative and which ones were derivative of filmmakers from the past.
But if you looked for a common denominator in Harry’s film tastes, it would be the love story. Harry didn’t think it was a great movie unless it made you cry. One of the last things I worked on with Harry was an article about the failed NBC show Studio 60, and as part of that project, Harry captured every episode on tape. One day he came to tell me about a love scene between two of the principals. He told me a good 60 seconds of dialogue (and they talked fast on that show). He had to have watched it at least ten times to know it that well. And there were tears in his eyes. It was a scene about what it means to love and pursue someone even when the person is not that great looking and not having their best day.
If Harry had been able to form his own church, instead of finding the one that Christ brought him into, it would have been some version of goddess worship. He loved women so passionately that, long after they had dumped him, he cherished their memories. He was always looking for that perfect woman in the future, or fearing that he’d let the one in the past get away. One time, after pining for weeks over a girl who was long gone, he came into my room in the middle of the night to announce that he had seen the error of his ways and was now “over her.” I congratulated him. And then he announced that he was leaving immediately. He would be driving to Atlanta in order to tell her that he was over her.
Harry and Friend, 1986
The only way you could get him to stop this obsessive behavior was to kick his ass. And the guy who ended up lovingly kicking his ass, over and over again, was Ole Anthony, the president of Trinity Foundation, who became his pastor, his protector, his lifelong friend and the man who, among other things, went to the Internal Revenue Service at Harry’s lowest point and told them that Harry would not be paying the $500,000 he owed. In a miracle more stunning than anything ever claimed by Benny Hinn, the IRS agreed.
Harry spent the rest of his life working as a “Levite” at the Trinity Foundation, which was so puzzling to the Social Security Administration that they called last week to suggest that a digit was missing from Harry’s Medicaid records. The woman explained that they showed a salary of only $94 a week–only to be told that yes, indeed, that was Harry’s salary. He had finally worked his way up to $94 a week after more than two decades as a Trinity employee.
Taking the vow of poverty is what unleashed Harry’s true genius. Besides being the maitre d’ at the Door–the only guy who knew where all the layouts were, what the printing schedule was, and when to send out the renewals–he was a one-man video production house, turning out all the Door videos, working with me three seasons on The Daily Show (I put in about three hours a month on those segments, Harry put in about sixty), and being the go-to guy whenever the Trinity Foundation needed theatrics, music, or simply style. Harry couldn’t stand cheap wine, sloppy jump cuts, or people who didn’t know how to properly crease the napkins at Passover. Given the fact that Trinity often had homeless people hanging around, including recovering drug addicts and more than the average quota of rednecks, he was always fighting losing battles in defense of the beautiful and the classy. He had a temper. He was a master of the hissy fit. He was especially perturbed when no one took the hissy fits seriously. On the night before Passover, it became traditional to award the “Huffies,” fake awards named in honor of Harry’s tantrums. One of his favorite sayings was, “I don’t know how people can live that way.” And still the napkins would remain uncreased.
Graduation, Trinity Foundation, May, 2008
During the last year of his life, and especially when he was battling aggressive cancers, Harry’s two closest companions were Ole Anthony, publisher emeritus of the Door, and John Bojo, current publisher of the Door. Of the three classic types of faith, Harry had the faith of Jacob. He wrestled with God daily. He always had a love/hate thing with Ole, not sure whether to trust him or not, never thinking he was “loving” enough, going to him only as a last resort. But over time Ole became the calm paternalistic authority figure who would point him back to God. He looked to John, on the other hand, as the brother who was not too embarrassed to hold his hand tightly when he was terrified of death. Whenever he was well enough to sit at his computer for a few hours, he would go straight to the Door homepage and send me his latest critique. The last email I have from him tells me how hard he laughed at an entire page and suggesting that we enter that day’s writing in a contest. So many people called during his sickness that he eventually did a group email that sort of resembled a blog about his medical team and his various treatments. He did it more to reassure others than for himself, because one of the few things we seem to carry off well at Trinity Foundation is dying. During his last three months, he told Ole, many of the things that he had doubted about God suddenly kicked in, and he could hear the promise and the hope and the rest of the Shema prayer. A few hours before he died, long after he had ceased speaking, he looked wildly around the room and he caught the eye of John Bojo and he smiled and John felt that gaze as a gift. And then at around 2 a.m. on the 13th of July, 2008, he found, at last, unconditional love.