If someone asked, “Hey, remember the time John Cleese visited the Museum and blew glass?” you could be excused for doing a double-take and thinking “What, when?!” Well, strap in, because we’ve got a story for you, and the person who tells it best is William Gudenrath, Resident Advisor at The Studio of The Corning Museum of Glass.
Over the 26 years that Gudenrath has worked at The Studio, many famous faces have come and gone, but one has always stood out. You might know him as the brave but foolish Black Knight from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, or the incompetent hotelier Basil Fawlty, or simply as the legendary English actor and comedian, John Cleese.
In the spring of 2004, Cleese was the latest in a series of guests invited by Cornell University for their visiting scholar program, an initiative that sought to bring notable captains of industry to the Cornell campus to educate and share experiences. Cleese will forever be known for his iconic comedies with the Monty Python troupe in the 1970s, but American audiences might remember more recent cameos in the ‘Harry Potter’ and ‘James Bond’ movies. More importantly for Cornell, Cleese had begun to make a name for himself as a motivational speaker. He lectured on communication skills and team building, delivering expertise with his trademark brand of humor.
To showcase the best of the Finger Lakes region, it’s not surprising that Cornell brought its guests to experience The Corning Museum of Glass. So it was that Cleese, accompanied by his wife (a native Texan much like Gudenrath) and an entourage of Cornelians met with Gudenrath, who always found himself on the VIP committee at times like this.
Gudenrath remembers the trip very clearly. After introductions, they went straight to The Studio. Gudenrath observed that Cleese, even with his head down and eyes lowered, as if calmly watching his own long strides glide across the brick, was still recognized by every curious bystander they passed. Without seeking any attention, he was undoubtedly the center of it none-the-less.
At the furnace, Gudenrath led Cleese through some simple hands-on experiences. They made glass flowers together, a fat little glass caterpillar, and one of Gudenrath’s specialties, a Roman bottle. Here Cleese was able to blow the glass himself and roll the blowpipe back and forth to keep the glass from drooping. He was focused and always concentrating fully on the task at hand.
“Cleese had a genuine curiosity for the process,” Gudenrath recalls. “Although at times, whenever I got into the finer points of glassmaking, there might have been a look in John’s eyes that said, ‘Why the bloody hell are you telling me all this?’ Still, his quiet and focused manner never waned.”
Taking a break from the Hotshop, the group took a tour through the Museum and ended up in The Shops. For some time, they browsed spines in the bookshop. Cleese was attentive and asked succinct questions. After that, they withdrew for lunch to a corner of the café where a privacy screen had been erected to separate them from the bustling crowds coming in to eat. Instead of the normal fare on offer, the lunch was catered to impress.
Cleese was clearly not in town to talk about Monty Python. Notorious for having stated that he didn’t believe himself to be a naturally gifted comedian, but with good enough material would become funny, Cleese remained tight-lipped on his illustrious career. He was not the sort to perform on command, to respond to the demands “make us laugh” or “tell a joke.” At one point over lunch, as someone quipped “Oh, that’s a very Monty Python thing to happen!” Cleese quietly turned away to start a new conversation with somebody else. Not rude, but more self-protective, was how Gudenrath saw it, a combination of his stoic Englishness and a seasoned celebrity nonchalance.
It’s not known what John Cleese took away from his experience at The Corning Museum of Glass, or even if he remembers it, but for William Gudenrath, the opportunity to spend a few hours in the company of a matured Basil Fawlty is something he’ll never forget. But even Gudenrath couldn’t help thinking to himself… “Don’t mention the war!”