TELLURIDE – It would have made his mother happy, I kept thinking, of Saturday’s tearful, knowing, loving and reluctant memorial service for Eliot Muckerman hosted by his extended family and far-flung community of friends from around the world.
Eliot died Tuesday, March 18, at age 25, in his Telluride home.
“I’ve always measured how long I’ve been in Telluride by how old Eliot is,” his onetime nanny – and subsequent elementary schoolteacher, Amy Van Der Bosch – told the crowd that gathered in the conference room at the Sheridan Opera House to remember the 25-year-old wunderkind, the walls lined with hundreds of photos of a life well-lived from start to early finish.
Van Der Bosch drew chuckles when she described “the first time his mom let him taste sugar, when he was one year old.” His face lit up with a grin – and then, with the exuberance grew as fast as he did, “he did a face plant” into his first-ever dessert.
Muckerman’s mother, former San Miguel County judge Sharon Shuteran, died in May 2012 of a heart attack.
Jesse James McTigue, who taught Eliot at the Telluride Mountain School, described the prescient Immersion Project he assembled for parents’ night as an eighth grader. Amidst other students’ relatively predictable dance solos, oil paintings and videos, Eliot’s subject was bioterrorism, McTigue told the crowd, and honed in on Bacillus anthracis, the bacteria that causes anthrax, relatively unknown back then, but now universally known as the likeliest agent in biological terrorism attacks. McTigue spent four hours reading up on anthrax , she recalled, to get up to speed before calling Eliot’s mother to make sure she was OK with his unusual presentation.
A picture of an irreplaceable fixture in the Telluride community emerged, as one close friend after another took the microphone.
“I first met Eliot in this room 15 years ago,” said Sheridan Opera House Young People’s Theater Director Jen Nyman-Julia; he played Captain Hook in Peter Pan, her first YPT production. On opening night, she recalled, “I was really nervous, and Eliot had this uncanny sense that I needed support.
“He took me aside, and said, ‘Jen, this play is really good. Don’t worry. Everything is going to be fine.’
“I trusted him – he was so intuitive and so smart – I trusted his sense of what good theater was.”
“It was just so unusual that an 11-year-old boy could be so thoughtful.
“He had skills that could not be taught, that were part of him,” Nyman-Julia said later, after the service, about Eliot’s thespian gifts, at an early age, recalling his ability with improv. “Essentially, improv is being able to think, to create things quickly, on your feet, out of nothing,” she explained, and Eliot excelled at it. “His verbal skills and his brain power were just unmatched; he was unlike any child that age I’ve ever worked with. He knew how to be witty, he knew how to keep a scene moving, he knew how to be a team player,” giving the spotlight to other actors when it was called for.
“He was really happy when he was onstage,” Nyman-Julia remembered.
Telluride actor, impresario and longtime Shakespeare in the Park director Jeb Berrier, reached at his home in Portland, Ore., described Eliot as “one of the best actors I ever had in shows. Ever since he was a little kid, he’s always been one of the best. He grew up into a real actor; as a grownup, he was the real deal.
“I always felt when we were working on something, like, ‘Wow, we’re really doing something exciting, we’re really sinking our teeth into something.’”
Offstage, Eliot’s tastes ran the gamut – from Moby-Dick, which he devoured at age 6, to edgy pop songs like “Pretty Fly for a White Guy” and “California-cation” in middle school to reading everything he could get his hands on, always. Fellow thespian Bubba Lee Schill gave a sense of Eliot’s eclectic reading in a song he wrote and performed, as the eulogies wrapped up, titled “Blood for the Blood God.”
He walked the talk with Shakespeare
Shook his fist with Dostoyevsky
Could brouhaha with Kafka
Tear the panties off Cervantes
Or quote some Winston Churchill
He taught me to find solace
Readin’ David Foster Wallace
Solvin’ all those mysteries
By Agatha Christie
He could tell you about the Greeks
From Euripides to Socrates
Iliad or Simpson
He knew both Homer varieties
Blood for the blood god
That’s what he told me
You can find his picture
In the Oxford dictionary
Underneath the heading:
Lovely loving human being
Versed in Isaac Asimov
And Mikhail Kalashnikov
Hanging out with Eliot
The fun would never stop
Eliot’s burgeoning literary skills were highlighted in a profile he wrote for a 2006 Literary Journalism class at Hampshire College of his mother.
“We arrive at La Cocina and sit down,” he wrote in the profile. “Sharon orders some steamed vegetable platter, which to me looks about as appealing as eating a shoe, but which she seems to greatly enjoy. This seems like a good time to drop some of my bigger, more philosophical questions on her. ‘How has being a judge influenced your view of humanity?’
“‘It’s given me more empathy for other people,’” she responds. ‘I’m sure there are some really bad guys out there, some total psychos, but most of the folks that I see are just normal people who’ve made mistakes.’”
“He’d get so excited,” recalled Tim Territo, when the end of summer came around and Eliot started revving up for the Telluride Film Festival “Schlep Crew” Territo helms every year, of 14 TFF stalwarts to spend more than a month setting up, managing and striking down the multiple state-of-the-art movie theater venues that pop up in Telluride every year to accommodate 5,000-plus attendees at the world-famous Labor Day Weekend film festival. “He always had us in stitches.
“The Eliot that I knew was always smiling and laughing,” Territo recalled of Eliot’s decade with Schlep Crew.
“I really loved his mom, too,” Territo said, of Eliot’s mother, Shuteran.
Recently, Territo said, “Eliot started volunteering, taking on a little bit more of his mom’s role” in the merry-go-round of Telluride festivals and nonprofit fundraisers. “I think he was coming out of it,” Territo said, of the profound grief Eliot experienced with his mother’s unexpected death at age 58, while the two were visiting friends in Mexico. “I think he was doing OK.”
“He really enjoyed the camaraderie” of schlep crew,” Territo recalled, “and the simplicity of moving stuff and just using your strength and getting away” from the cerebral world he inhabited so readily.
“He was so happy – that’s what we’ll remember,” said Territo. “The other guys just loved him so much – I’m getting Facebook messages from everyone he worked with,” yearly Schlep returnees who travel from as far as Chicago, Los Angeles, even Australia to work the festival, “all saying how much they loved Eliot.
“We always had fun; he always had a great time with us; he was always smiling,” Territo said. “Every time I saw him, he’d say, ‘When are we working?’”
Shuteran’s dear friend – and Eliot’s de facto fairy godmother Marshall Whiting – perhaps put it most succinctly, when asked to remember what it was we all loved about Eliot.
“He had an empathy for other human beings beyond his age,” said Whiting. “He had that for many years – and certainly his mother demonstrated that, as well. He had an exquisite sensitivity to others.”
A bright light, dimmed but not forgotten.