Person of the Week
Christopher Owens: The Star of the Show
Serial restaurateur and jack-of-all-trades Christopher Owens is the man behind the Chester Historical Society’s Light Up the Night fundraiser. (Photo by Rita Christopher/The Courier | Buy This Photo)
Seeing stars? It’s not because of dizziness or feeling faint. Not at all. It’s Light Up the Night, a fundraiser for the Chester Historical Society with the assistance of local resident Christopher Owens. He makes the stars and provides them to the historical society at a modest cost for resale.
So far, some 40 stars in two different sizes have been sold. Most hang outside on doors, fences, barns, and house walls. The small stars measure 3 ½ feet across; the large ones 7 feet. All the stars are wrapped with plug-in strings of white lights
“Stars are happiness. They are a winter thing. People look at the same stars and they connect us all,” Christopher says.
Both Christopher and Cary Hull, president of the Chester Historical Society, emphasize that the stars are not intended as religious symbols but rather as decorative illumination to bring brightness and joy to the days with the least sunlight.
The profits from the fundraiser will be used for renovations on The Mill, the Chester Historical Society headquarters. Projects include re-siding parts of the building, replacing the roof, and lighting the parking lot.
The project began when historical society trustee Dawn Parker was volunteering at the information desk at the society’s Museum at the Mill. Christopher, who was visiting, told her about a project he had done several years earlier, Stars Across Stowe, making large lighted stars that were put up all over that Vermont town. By the time he had finished, there were some 240 of stars on display.
“I loved the idea and asked if he would like to partner with us on a project for the Mill. From that point, the vision of Lighting up the Night was born,” Parker recalls.
Christopher’s varied career has included repairing and renovating lighthouses from Maine to the Bahamas, starting restaurants, and converting a 30-foot fire truck from Noank into traveling pizza restaurant, first in Connecticut and then serving slices to Hollywood celebrities.
“I never really had a job,” Christopher explains. “I always had to create one.”
Christopher grew up in West Hartford, the youngest of five brothers. His pizza-making career started there at Harry’s Pizza, but he wanted to run his own restaurants. Since he made that decision, he has started five, four of which are still going but under different ownership. He had a restaurant and catering business in Mystic when he drove by the Noank Fire House and saw the for-sale sign on an engine outside.
“Who would resist that?” he asks. “Life was too short not to have it.”
And he did.
He converted the truck to a traveling pizzeria restaurant, the first in Connecticut, he says. Then he realized that an outdoor pizza truck is seasonally limited in New England. He shipped the truck to California, with the idea of setting up in Laguna Beach.
“People there spend $1,000 on a kid’s birthday party,” he reasons.
Things turned out to be far more exciting. A producer for the television series American Horror Story discovered the pizza fire engine and invited Christopher to bring the rig and feed the cast. That led to the pizza truck providing food during production for such well-known series as Glee, Mad Men, How I Met Your Mother, and Modern Family.
From there, Christopher and the pizza truck did birthday parties for the children of celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow and Brad Pitt. It all ended, according to Christopher, when the air quality regulations in California made it impossible to continue to use the truck because of its diesel engine emissions.
Christopher, who has never married, says the pizza truck had some very personal consequences as well.
“It cost me two girlfriends and a fiancée,” he admits.
The truck was not Christopher’s only brush with celebrity. His love of sailing and skill at renovation led to the refurbishment of several lighthouses, most notably one in the Bahamas. Jimmy Buffet, the novelist and singer, was a regular at a nearby resort. The two met and Christopher showed Buffet his journals, which chronicled his work on the lighthouse.
According to Christopher, those journals became an inspiration for Buffet’s best-selling 2004 novel, A Salty Piece of Land, about a lighthouse restorer called Tully Mars. Buffet credited Christopher in the after forward of the book, writing: “I was introduced to a fellow who was down restoring the light. His name was Chris Owens…The locals had anointed him Lighthouse Mon.”
Making friends is something for which Christopher appears to have a real aptitude. When he was running a restaurant in Sandwich, Massachusetts, he read about a local vacation house that was vandalized. He sent a note to the owner, saying if he decided to repair the house and return, Christopher wanted to invite his family to his restaurant for complimentary pizza.
The owner was Gene Theroux, brother of well-known writer Paul Theroux. A friendship developed. According to Christopher, Theroux was sent to India to open an office for his law firm. When he found out Christopher had never been there, he invited him to come.
Christopher traveled through the Indian subcontinent, ending up in Pakistan where he hired a guide to take him on a camel safari. He can’t remember if the camel had one hump or two, but he does remember something else: “Camels spit,” he says.
When Christopher’s mother, Patricia, became ill, he returned to Connecticut. He planned to take care of her in the house in Chester where he now lives, but she ultimately needed to be in a nursing facility
After the glitz and glamour of the West Coast, Christopher says he is happy to be in Chester.
“All that stuff in Los Angeles is fake. Chester is real, a real place. I love being here,” he says.
And once again he says he is reinventing himself, explaining he feels like Peter Pan growing up.
One of the things that interests Christopher at the moment is making furniture. He shows a visitor a piece he made that he calls a Connecticut River Valley hutch table, a model of a table his mother had. The table is the start of a new craft business he is calling Chester Cottage Furniture.
Right now, the hutch table is sharing space in his barn workshop with the wooden stars he is making to light up Chester winter nights.
“I’ll even install them if anybody needs that,” he says.
For information or to purchase stars, call Dawn Parker at 860-575-9293 or email ChesterCTHistoricalSociety@gmail.com.