Wit, wisdom and Harry: When style and substance join


By Rev. Donna Schaper 

H.M. “Harry” Koutoukas was as unlikely a person to have a pastor as they come. He was a cigarette-smoking, former serious drinker and drugger, who loved nothing more than a good A.A. meeting. He liked nudity in the many plays he wrote and he made irreverence a steady virtue. “Suck” appears to be one of his favorite words. 

To say that Harry was a homosexual is to understate the obvious. He called me “The Reverend Dr. Cupcake” and had a passion for giving everybody a nickname, some more sweet than others. The week of his death he asked me to come over and give him Communion. That was the first serious signal that he knew the time had come. His twin brother was high up in the Greek Orthodox Church and was forbade for years to even talk to Harry. When the twin died last year, Harry began to go. He loved his brother, in the same way he had of loving life; he knew how mean it was but found a way to not notice. Wit was his way.

His voice mail said, “Leave a message, especially if you can say something interesting.” Needless to say, that message was intimidating. Very few of us have the wit of Harry. Some people never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity. Harry was the opposite. He never missed a chance to quip or quarrel or change your point of view on what had just happened. In his corrections, he often had a way of shoveling your sentimentality into a cutter bucket. His closer friends love to say that he had the freedom to relax from his opportunistic quipping: “I love being here at brunch with you where I can just be and not also be entertaining.” He had a way of keeping you simultaneously intimidated and amused, inspired and appreciated, sometimes with a quip that could bite your toes off.

Speaking of toes, Harry was a diabetic. His trick was that of the clown who often shows us how happy we could be about how sad we are. Harry said, “I can’t even get a discount on a pedicure, even though I only have eight toes.” His fans ranged from the famous to the fallen, from Yoko Ono, who was his neighbor when first he came to New York, and continued as his patron, to the three kids from the pier who created the shrine for Harry that adorned Christopher St. in the days after he died. The kids reported that it was Harry who understood them, even though their parents had thrown them out and the cops were chasing them. What could they do? They put candles and flowers on the altar of his “Glittermobile.”

Which leads to the Glittermobile. Judson Church’s relationship to Harry was as parish to parishioner. He was one of those people who showed up with vigor in the offering plate and in the pew, which is a movable chair at Judson. Toward the end, our relationship to Harry was primarily through his Glittermobile. When Harry could no longer navigate standing up, we asked Yoko Ono to buy him a vehicle. She did. Judson owns the vehicle, but Harry had lifetime use. Harry nicknamed it the Glittermobile. He let its battery run down so many successive times that we had to insist that he not — by refusing to get it recharged. The lack of attention to the Glittermobile’s needs (not to mention that he had to park it next door at the neighboring church, where they should have but did not charge him for charging it) resulted in fairly nonstop groans at the Judson office, where one staff member after another said, “I am not doing it, whatever it is.” 

After a couple of years, the company from which we bought the Glittermobile went out of business. That means that only bribery gets us new parts. The Glittermobile (sort of) continues to function and is looking for a new home as we speak. I am considering the Smithsonian. Its latest role as shrine is going to make it very picky about its new place.

A purple-haired, fur-coated, bird-on-shoulder man will no longer cross the meeting room on Sunday mornings to go out for a smoke during my sermons. I will miss these “interruptions” while knowing that they were frequently the full message. It is rare we get such good examples of shortcoming in the middle of a service. 

“Smokers for Jesus” was a real organization at Judson; Harry was its president. Judson is not very big on the short, and instead worships the “loving God” whom Harry knew. Harry’s drive of the Glittermobile in front or behind the table always told us more about the loving God than the cigarette. His theology was that of love, and he had more ammunition for the punishmentalists than anyone I know. I so wish Glenn Beck could have debated him.

Wit was the ammunition. H.M. Koutoukas won an Obie in 1965 for his play “Assaulting Established Tradition.” His behavior in worship did the same, but never with scorn. That was another of Harry’s tricks: He could intimidate you by being so smart, so witty, so “on,” then he would make sure he sent you a Valentine’s Day postcard. Harry had little of the scorn the world had for him. 

As Harry said, “You can pretend to be serious but you can’t pretend to be witty.” He also had a joy that must have been difficult with emphysema. The quote most people want to give you about Harry — now that we are deep in his quoting season — is: “If you see a child go by, be sure to tell them how beautiful they are.” 

One of those “children,” Sarah Kornfeld, has posted a remarkable piece from her history of growing up at Judson. Check out www.WhatSarahSees. Her take on Harry is anti-style and pro-substance. She argues that Harry was fundamentally smart and that his style often distracted from our seeing his brilliance. She says he was the “full integration of style and substance.” We were so overwhelmed by the wit and the style that we couldn’t quite get to the ideas. 

I agree with this child of Judson and want to take her comment one step further. Harry only looked anti-religious. Religion or faith or spirituality, pick your clunky word, was at the heart of this Greek Orthodox man. It is not an accident that he wanted a full Greek Eucharist at his final service. I couldn’t get him to do a living will, or assign a surrogate, or make any end-of-life plans. He joked me along whenever I mentioned them. One day, though, he called up to ask for the full Greek Eucharist, whatever that is.

Religion was so much against Harry but he was not against it. His big ideas were love, joy, irony, paradox, sentimentality’s hook pushed all the way through your skin to the other side. My favorite song of his, which we will also sing as part of the “full” Greek Eucharist, is “The Rhinestone Crucifix.”

Harry was often described as self-destructive or at best self-limiting. He would announce plays that never happened (the Cino schedule shows several of them), refer people who wanted to publish or produce his work professionally to an unlocatable and possibly nonexistent Swiss agent, and is the subject of several legends about fantastic brawls and brannigans, one involving him throwing a famed Off-Off producer down a flight of stairs. He encouraged such stories.

His response to my pushing on his archive and his will was to say that several men in shiny suits were going to show up saying they owned the archive and that I was to throw them down a flight of stairs. He also constantly said, “Don’t give it to N.Y.U., even over my dead body.”

As Off-Off Broadway expanded, he said he was going to make a fortune with a bus that would take tourists from the 7 o’clock show at the Cino to the 8 o’clock at La Mama, the 9 o’clock at Judson Poets’ Theater, the 10 o’clock at Theatre Genesis. If you don’t believe me about the love thing, and its penetrating ironies and the paradox of Harry being its protégé, just take a look around at how many are on the bus. We had to move in chairs for his first service last Thursday night, giving yet more meaning to the movable feast that Harry was.

H.L. Mencken was another famous American humorist, who did not win his battle with scorn as well as Harry did. He had the same minimalism about his own mortality that Harry did. Apparently, he put a hand-scribbled note in an envelope in a file labeled, “UPON MY DEATH.” The note read, “Don’t overdo it.”

One of the dozens of speakers at Harry’s first service said, “Beware of nostalgia.” I think Harry would agree. The bus will make different stops in this new century. Harry won’t be on it. But his loving style and loving substance will be.

Schaper is senior pastor at Judson Memorial Church.