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Friday, March 4, 2005

Freedom Lights

Dear Friends:

As the Iraqis went to the voting booths in January, I remembered what it felt like to vote for the first time. It was and still is an amazing awakening to know that my opinion and the expression of that by voting actually mattered. I remember getting all dressed up to go and vote for the first time. In Russia, we had secret ballots but they were secret from us. Here we didn't have ink on our fingers to show we voted, but I think you could see from my face that I had exercised this precious responsibility.

Here's my Mom and Dad with me and all my theater
family, cruising Table Rock Lake in July of 2004.

When I became a citizen of the United States in 1986, I took my voting very seriously. My anticipation of this great day had built up over the 9 years it took me to become a US citizen. I remember studying all of the issues and learning about these people asking for my vote. I wanted to know what they stood for because I felt responsible for the outcome of the election. What if I made the wrong decision and everything in America went haywire?

These are the patriotic lights we put on my theater.
We turned on the lights on November 1, 2004.

My journey to America started when I was a little boy in Russia. My Dad was hunched over our short-wave radio, listening to a strange voice in the dark of night. He had the volume turned down very low. There was something secretive in the intense way he listened. I asked him what he was listening to and he said, "Sit down. It is the Voice of America!" With both our ears glued to the radio, I heard through the static, "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free..."

This is my mom and me looking at the lights. I'm
Santa 'cause we started the Christmas season in Branson the
same day we dedicated the lights on the theater.

I asked my dad who that was and he said, "Son, that is Lady Liberty. She lives in America, where she waits to greet people who leave their homes, their families and friends, and everything they own, to live there. In America, the people choose their own rulers, and never worry about the KGB coming in the middle of the night causing whole families to disappear." That night a dream was born, that my parents and I could go to this land of liberty. I even began to draw picture after picture of this beautiful green lady -- Lady Liberty. My mom was frightened and said, "Don't let anyone see these pictures! Do you know what will happen to us?" I learned that in Russia dreams like the one my dad and I shared could be dangerous. For the next twenty years, I spoke to no one about our dream of going to America, but I kept it alive in my heart.

This is the painting I did of my Dad in September of 2004.

When my parents and I applied for our visas to go to the United States, we were fired from our jobs. For the next two years, we lived on what my dad could make from his inventions. When we finally got permission to leave the Soviet Union, we knew Dad's inventions and his dreams, especially his dream of coming to America, had changed our lives forever.

At the dedication of the lights we had a party for
friends and family. And a special cake.

My Dad's dreams have always impacted my life, my love of liberty, my joy in laughter... everything that has brought me to this place in life. At my theater in Branson, my dad looked at the huge space on the wall that greets visitors as they arrive in Branson. He said, "Son you need to project something on that wall that lets people know how you feel, you need to do something BIG with that space, something amazing, something exciting that people can see from far away...if you do, you'll be successful!" I told him, "But Dad, I'm already successful." He said, "You'll be more successful!"

My mom and me with Dad's painting.

As we went through 2004, Dad kept reminding me..."Do something with that wall, don't forget." One day Kelly, our lighting designer, showed me drawings of beautiful lights. It was so elegant, unlike anything I had seen before. I showed the drawings to Dad and he loved them. We debut the lights on November 1, 2004. We made them red, white, and blue because it shows exactly how I feel. I dedicated the lights to my Dad. His vision, his love of freedom, and his optimism -- his take on life and his sense of humor are reflected in these lights. Dad never got to see the lights; he passed on in September. I know in my heart that he is lighting up Heaven with his creative mind and quirky humor. And as long as I'm down here, I'm going to do my best to light up this spot on earth like Dad wanted me to...with appreciation for my freedom, and with love and laughter!

Your friend,
Yakov Smirnoff


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