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On the house

The Baltimore Sun

If you hit it off with Mark Kresel - and chances are you will - he'll eventually want to know one thing: "Can I give you a birdhouse?"

He'll ask in a voice husky with sincerity: "Can I?"

The 58-year-old textile salesman has bestowed his handmade creations on the woman who sold him his daily Dunkin' Donut, his barber, his doctor and dozens of clients in exotic locations throughout Russia, South America, Africa, Europe and the Middle East.

Everyone in his Fork neighborhood - all up and down Catalpa Road, which is not a short street - boasts an original Kresel.

But that's nothing compared with what's going on with celebrities - Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Judge Judy Sheindlin, Mariah Carey and Shirley Temple have all found Kresel specials on their doorstep. Bruce Springsteen, Hulk Hogan, Bon Jovi, Julie Andrews and Neil Sedaka, too.

And that's a mere sampling.

Building birdhouses is Kresel's hobby, but giving them away is his passion. A little obsessive, a little evangelistic, he won't rest until he's birdhoused the planet.

And the "why" behind this avian-oriented habitat for humanity? Let's just say Kresel, burly, balding and almost always smiling, is more action than analysis.

"I meet nice people, and I send 'em something," he says. "It's very satisfying to take a piece of wood and turn it into something people appreciate."

Kresel chooses celebrities almost randomly and then delves into their resumes to design a birdhouse that reflects the artist's oeuvre. He logs hours of online research and even more time shopping to find the right accessories. With everything ready, he heads into his garage to craft not one but two houses, nearly identical. He sends them to Celine Dion or Tiger Woods or Robin Williams with a request that the star keep one but sign the other and mail it back.

He's gotten about 40 back so far, all of which, to his wife's dismay, he hangs in his home with pride.

These include the bunny birdhouse for Hugh Hefner. The Boss' guitar. A desktop computer for Bill Gates - the bird entrance is through the monitor. A cowboy hat for Willie Nelson. A Wheel of Fortune for Pat Sajak. A replica of the Barone family's Queens, N.Y., cottage that went to the cast of Everybody Loves Raymond.

Kresel, waiting for inspiration to strike, usually keeps about 50 "blank" birdhouses in his garage. For instance, he embarked on a William Shatner after chatting about Boston Legal with friends at dinner. With a star in mind, he'll painstakingly download images of movie posters and album covers, which he'll shrink down and glue onto the house. He'll sift through the plastic junk that gluts eBay and craft and party supply shops, looking for just the right shark to tack onto Steven Spielberg's house, a little bus to make into the Partridge family's ride for Shirley Jones, jungle plants to simulate the foliage in Harrison Ford's latest Indiana Jones movie.

To exact this kind of detail, Kresel has spent well over $1,000 in doodads, paint and postage. The scrap wood he uses is often recycled - a nuance he doesn't hesitate to point out to the competitively green Hollywood set.

"PS," he tacked onto the end of the letter he recently sent to Harrison Ford, "All birdhouses are made of recycled wood."

Kresel, who has two adult daughters, stepped tentatively into the craft world after a rotator cuff injury forced him away from fishing, his first love. He experimented with building remote-controlled model airplanes but gave that up as well after it proved too hard on his shoulder.

His wife suggested birdhouses, and he dove into them with gusto.

When he worked in Manhattan in the 1990s, in an office near the Empire State Building, he stole into the city in the middle of the night to string four birdhouses from a street light at Fifth Avenue and 29th Street. While balancing on a ladder, he hung a little yellow taxi birdhouse, a helicopter, a goose and one of his now-standard alpine-roofed chateaus.

The New York Times wrote a story about the mysterious decorations, and when Kresel eventually revealed himself, the newspaper dubbed him, to his delight, "The Birdman of Fifth Avenue." City officials, apparently finding the houses a nuisance, a safety hazard or both, had them removed.

Or, as the ever-sunny Kresel likes to believe, "I think someone just wanted them."

It's possible.

Consider the handwritten card Dick Van Patten sent after receiving a birdhouse:

"I can not tell you how delighted my family and myself are over the wonderful Bird House," Van Patten wrote in a somewhat shaky cursive script. "It is just great. The nicest we have ever seen. Also, we can't believe how you got all the jobs I have done in TV and Film. It sure brings back memories."

Gen. Peter Pace, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and, like Kresel, a former Marine, said he was "honored" to get a birdhouse, replete with patriotic memorabilia. "Semper Fidelis!" Pace signed the note.

Closer to home, Kresel runs over to greet all new neighbors with his signature housewarming gift. Steve and Anita Shrader, who live next door to Kresel, have theirs hanging from their back deck. Across the street, the Gracek family has one in the garage - but only, swears Michele Gracek, because she needs help installing it. (When Kresel heard this, he immediately volunteered.)

Loss and disappointment factor into the birdhouse game.

There are those stars, "the deadbeats," as Kresel calls them, who get one of his creations only to be never heard from. (Tiger Woods, Mark Burnett ... Hello?) Did they not appreciate the tribute? Do they not care for birds? Did they not carefully read Kresel's request to sign and return?

Kresel peeks out his window, looking for the mailman, many times a day. Sometimes, he'll just open his front door and look around - maybe someone dropped off a package, and he somehow missed it.

Ted Turner, the gazillionaire, demanded Kresel pay for postage before he'd return the signed house. He missed out on Oprah Winfrey because her people thought Kresel would hawk the signed object on eBay. And Emeril Lagasse - don't get Kresel started on him. The Food Network chef refused to sign the house Kresel made for him even after Kresel hauled it all the way to New York to present it after a taping of Lagasse's show.

"We used to watch him," Kresel sniffs. "Now we don't."

Dozens of birds fill Kresel's home - a chirping cacophony of parakeets, parrots, lovebirds and cockatiels that his wife, Karen, collects. Though she allows them to roam free, ironically one place they never go is into Kresel's birdhouses.

When she's not grousing over the ever-spreading display, Kresel's wife is quite supportive of his hobby. She even helps him paint the houses.

The marriage counselor who helped the couple through a rough patch? Birdhoused, of course.

jill.rosen@baltsun.com

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