When Yakov Smirnoff walked into the offices of the Branson Star Theatre on September 11, 2001, he had no idea his life and the world was about to change.
“I didn’t know anything was happening,” Yakov told Branson Tri-Lakes News. “I looked at the eyes of my people and I could tell something was wrong. I said ‘what, did someone die?’ They responded ‘yes, lots of people.’ When I asked what was going on, they told me to turn on the TV. I went to a cabinet where I had a TV, turned it on, and I couldn’t believe my eyes. I just couldn’t believe it.”
The coverage of the attack on the World Trade Center had a unique impact on Yakov because of where many of the networks were placing their cameras.
“I was sworn in as an American on July 4, 1986 at the Statue of Liberty [on Ellis Island],” Yakov said. “It was the best moment of my life. I looked and saw those towers, and it’s like a landscape of America I fell in love with. The angle from where the cameras were filming was where I was sworn in, so you could see the Statue of Liberty, you could see the towers, it was the same landscape. Now, it was crumbling in front of me and the rest of the world.”
Yakov sat transfixed by the images on the screen and said when the towers fell he went into a “shock mode.” He turned away from the TV and saw an empty canvas and knew he had to paint.
“It was likely 8 o’clock in the evening and I didn’t stop until morning,” Yahov said. “I literally couldn’t stop. I was watching the TV and they were counting how many people they found and I said I was going to do one stroke for each person. I don’t know if that ended up accurate but it’s what my intention was for the painting.”
Yakov said as dawn was breaking over the Ozarks hills, he had a vision which led him on a quest much bigger than just a singular painting.
“I had this vision, the painting had to be a mural at Ground Zero,” Yakov said. “How, why, I don’t know. And there was a message which came to me. ‘The human spirit is not measured by the size of the act, but by the size of the heart.’ And I thought I had to put it up there.”
This is when Yakov’s quest began with his first trip to New York City where he discovered the city leaders wanted nothing to do with a mural about 9/11.
“At the time, as you can imagine, security everywhere had tripled,” Yakov said. “I had this vision, I had the money, I just needed a building which would allow me to put this up. They didn’t want to talk to you. They didn’t want to talk to you in city hall, they didn’t want to talk to you in Mayor Giuliani’s office, nobody.
“And I kept asking why if I was willing to put up my own money they wouldn’t do it and they said nobody was going to let me do it because then other people will want to hang something, so the answer was no.”
Yakov said the opposition to the idea was so intense that politicians refused to take campaign donations just so they wouldn’t have to broach the subject.
“I found a politician who was running for statewide office and I said ‘let me donate some money to your campaign and maybe you can help me’,” Yakov said. “And the guy said he couldn’t do it. So that’s when I realized I don’t have a shot. If politicians won’t take your money, you have a problem.”
Yakov came back to Branson discouraged but began to write letters to building owners in New York. The ones who responded refused to consider Yakov’s idea. Finally, in June 2002, Yakov received a rejection letter from a building manager he really wanted to use for the mural. Undaunted by all the rejections, he traveled to New York for a third time to try and meet the decision maker for the building.
“I go to the building and the guard says ‘you’re on TV, right?’” Yakov said. “So I said yes I am, and he let me through. So I go to the 60th floor to meet the guy who’s name I don’t remember and his secretary asks if I have an appointment. So I told her no, I said I’m a comedian from Branson, Missouri, and she recognized me and said ‘oh yeah, I know you.’ She told me to wait and she would go get her boss.”
The man was not very happy to see Yakov, especially after sending the letter to Yakov saying he wouldn’t consider the mural.
“He’s walking down the hall yelling things like ‘I told this son of a gun no, I’m not going to let stuff on the side of my building. Then he sees me, and he says ‘didn’t I tell you no?’ I said he did and the guy said ‘so why are you here?’ So I told him I wanted to look into his eyes and see why he would say no to something like this.”
Yakov held the mock-up of the mural in front of the man, and saw the man’s face change from anger to calm.
“He goes ‘that’s not my building’,” Yakov said. “So I asked whose building it is and suddenly the guy’s my buddy. He gave me the phone number of the building and even called the guy. He said ‘I have this crazy Russian guy in my office and he wants to do something with your building, will you see him?’ And the other guy is a typical New Yorker and says ‘what do you want from me?’ but he agreed to see me.”
So Yakov goes to meet the man who he was told owned the building only to find out he didn’t own the building, he just managed it, and the real owners lived in Iowa. The manager gave Yakov the owner’s address. Yakov returned to Branson and sent a letter to the building owners outlining what he wanted to do and included a copy of the mock-up.
“They responded pretty quickly,” Yakov said. “They said ‘if you get the permits and the insurance and all the things which would keep us totally out of the loop, we will let you put it up for ten days.’ Now that was something. I had to figure out how to get a permit, get insurance, and figure out who was going to do this because the (New York) city people wanted nothing to do with this thing.”
Yakov decided to go directly to the people in New York City he knew could get things done: union workers.
“I reached out to the steel union workers because they’re the ones who put up billboards and big structures,” Yakov said. “So I called and they’re like ‘whaddya want?’ and I told them I was coming to New York and asked them to meet me in this building.”
The building Yakov wanted to use had been damaged in the 9/11 attacks. It was an older structure which had decorative elements on the side of the building that had faced the towers, but when the towers fell the debris damaged the building facade.
“It was an old pretty building but it was gone,” Yakov said. “They had this scaffolding covering the deformed front of the building, and it looked like a canvas. I’m thinking ‘let me paint on this canvas.’”
So Yakov went to New York a fourth time and met with four leaders of the Steelworkers union in the basement of the damaged building. The room was illuminated by a single light bulb hanging on a cord from the ceiling.
“It was like a mafia movie,” Yakov said.
The men came in wearing their tool belts and acting like they had more important things to be doing than meeting a Branson-based, Russian comedian.
“They were swearing in four different languages,” Yakov said. “Italian, Polish…these big tough guys in tool belts and they said ‘what do you want from us?’ So I said thank you for coming, I have an idea to put a mural over the scaffolding and I needed someone to help with it. I said I was willing to pay but I wanted it up before September 11, 2002.”
The men laughed at Yakov.
“They said ‘you’re kidding’ because we were meeting in August,” Yakov said. “I said I would spend the money, I didn’t mind, and they said ‘Donald Trump doesn’t have enough money to do this in the time frame’ and they started to leave.”
That’s when the leader of the four men noticed the mock-up of the mural laying on the floor. Yakov hadn’t even been given a chance to show the union men what he wanted to do with the mural.
“The leader of the group asked ‘what’s this?’ and I said it was the mock-up of the mural,” Yakov said. “They picked it up, and passed it around. The leader then looked at me and said ‘we’ll do it.’ Then I asked how much they wanted me to pay and the guy said ‘nothing.’
“I asked him why he would be doing this. And the leader looked at me and said ‘I want to be able to drive by this building with my son, and I want to tell him I helped to put this in the skies.’”
While overjoyed they agreed to help, Yakov immediately began to think of all the other things he would need to do for the project.
“I said ‘well, do I have the permits?’,” Yakov said. “I showed him what I had, and the union head said ‘you’ll never get the permits but we’ll do it anyway.’ It was such a turn around.”
It turned out Yakov’s new partners were not only knowledgeable in how to complete the project, but also how to deal with the refusal of New York City officials to cooperate in providing the permits needed for the project.
On the Friday before the one-year memorial event at Ground Zero, city officials and federal government officials were going to be on site, inspecting the grounds, and setting up for the event. Congressmen, Senators, and elected state & city officials were going to be there to make sure they would be a part of the event. The union men said they couldn’t put the mural up before all those government officials came to the site.
“So they said they could do it on the weekend when the city offices were closed and the officials weren’t there,” Yakov said. “And those guys were as good as gold. They showed up in their own vehicles on Saturday (September 7, 2002) and 50 union members worked for 12 hours making sure it was hung straight. If it was a little crooked, they went back up and they changed the whole thing.”
The mural then was seen all over the world during the 9/11 memorial event as television cameras kept putting the mural in the background of shots of those in attendance. Years later, Yakov found out why.
“In 2003 was performing in New York in a show on Broadway,” Yakov said. “By chance, I met a television producer who had been the director of the broadcast from the memorial. He had coordinated all the camera shots for CNN, NBC, CBS, everyone who was there.
“He was there on Friday with the politicians and he told them the background was going to be a problem because there was no color. Everything was grey. Everything was dark. He said it looked like there was no hope. And the local officials told him ‘it’s Friday. You want something done by Monday? We can’t do anything at this point.’ He said he showed up on Monday and saw it, and nobody knew who did it.”
Yakov said not identifying himself, and the union workers as well, was intentional, so people would focus on the message and not the messenger.
“After the memorial, when people would go to New York and go to the observation deck on the Empire State Building they would ask their tour guides where Ground Zero was,” Yakov said. “The tour guides would point at the mural and say ‘where the heart is.’”
Originally planned for the ten days, the building owners left the mural up for a year and a half following all the publicity. A severe windstorm damaged the 200 foot tall and 135 foot wide mural to where it was dangerously unstable on the building.
“It could have hurt someone really badly if it fell,” Yakov said.
An associate of Yakov’s based in Philadelphia drove to New York at night and in a storm to lower the mural. When he arrived, only the building’s security guard was on the site, so the two men strapped in harnesses at the top of the mural and rolled it down the side of the building.
“We shipped it back to Branson,” Yakov said. “Every show, I talk about it, and we sell small pieces in a frame. All the money we donate to the 9/11 Foundation which operates the museum (9/11 National Memorial & Museum).”
Yakov says the donations are a way to continue to honor the lives of those who perished.
“The mural is still alive in a way even after 20 years,” Yakov said. “It’s still providing to help the families of the people who perished.”
The original painting inspiring the mural can be seen in the lobby of Yakov’s Branson theater.