Retelling boyhood legend keeps Mt. Prospect man young
What goes around, comes around for Ken Kitzing.
The Mount Prospect man has turned a story of Indian summer that reminds him of his days growing up in the 1930s into a delight for his entire neighborhood and all who pass by.
The story, written and illustrated by J.T. McCutcheon in 1907 and syndicated in newspapers across the country starting in 1912, tells of a boy listening as his grandfather tells of Native Americans coming out at night, dancing in corn fields to the light of the moon.
Today Kitzing, 85, is the grandfather — make that a great-grandfather — and he shares the story on the front lawn of his home with characters re-created from the legend.
"I've always been fascinated by it, since the time I was a little boy," Kitzing says. "Putting this out every year is nostalgic for me."
He got the idea after seeing a diorama of the story displayed at the Olson Rug factory, near Pulaski Road and Devon Avenue in Chicago. When Olson Rug stopped displaying it, Kitzing pledged to make one of his own.
Back in the early 1970s, Kitzing worked with some of his eight children to create the figures. His daughter Suzanne Arias of Streamwood drew them on Masonite board before Kitzing cut them out and his younger daughter, Kathy Bretl of Roselle, painted them with acrylics.
They started with the figures of four Native Americans and their teepees, before later adding two electronically controlled dancers. Kitzing, a retired electrical engineer, also added a row of cutout pumpkins illuminated by yellow floodlights to give the yard an Indian summer kind of glow.
He even started growing sweet corn in his backyard so he has authentic corn shocks to use in his display. In the story, the corn shocks trigger the legend, leading the grandfather to see them as teepees in the haze of the night and draw their occupants to come out and dance.
A recording of Kitzing reading the legend plays from 6:30-8:30 p.m. every night across his yard, and his delivery sounds every bit the wise old grandfather handing down a story from one generation to the next.
For Kitzing, it is a labor of love.
Setting up the display each year, with all of its pieces, and wiring its figures takes Kitzing a couple of days. He always takes it down just before Halloween to protect it from vandals. But it is a tradition that brings him back to his boyhood, and by extension, keeps him young.
Remarkably, the figures have withstood the test of time. Despite coming out each autumn for nearly 40 years, they show very little wear and tear. They also have developed quite a following in Mount Prospect.
Lorraine Young, who lives across the street, says the display is well-known in the community and draws plenty of onlookers each fall.
"People stop and get out of their cars to hear the narration," she says. "I don't think they realize that the man behind it is 85 years old and that he made each of the pieces by hand."
Kitzing may not realize it, but he's creating a legend all his own, right there in Mount Prospect.
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