OLD SAYBROOK — What to do when there are just too, too many candles to fit on top of a birthday cake without starting a blaze?
Probably just throw on a symbolic few. But not Knight Merritt of Old Saybrook.
He thinks each and every year counts.
So when a friend turned 80, he attempted to crowd all 80 candles onto one cake, but the end result was not what he had in mind. Let’s just say the cake was too close to a smoke detector and candles are now banned at the North Cove Yacht Club.
Undaunted, Merritt crafted a stand alone semi-circular, multi-tiered candleholder made out of wood to surround the cake for yet another 80th birthday party and the celebration went off without a hitch.
In fact, the idea was so successful that others started asking for the same type of candleholder.
Seeing an opportunity, Merritt’s son and daughter, Wil Merritt of Seattle and Carey Ide of Wisconsin, spent a year doing research on materials and manufacturing, filed a patent application and are now in business.
Thus was born, the Celebration Stadium, LLC, currently offering two models made out of aluminum and parts that can be disassembled for flat storage, a large and small version, $79.95 and $69.95, respectively, and can hold up to 100 candles.
The company is pairing up with independent bakeries across the country and posting pictures online of the candleholder with the bakery’s prized cakes each month.
In February, Dagmar Ratensperger, owner of Dagmar’s Desserts, 75 Main St., Old Saybrook, chose her Black Forest Cake to pair with the candleholder and is selling Celebration Stadium at her shop.
Merritt’s own birthday is Feb. 24 and he celebrated his 85th in Old Saybrook last month with his four children who are scattered across the country, including Ide who turned 60 on Feb. 12.
“To have my children here for my birthday and all that,” he said. “Very special.”
And, of course, the Celebration Stadium was included, but not just one. There were four. “It was just a colorful thing,” said Merritt.
Merritt explained that inspiration for the candleholder began in an inauspicious way. “I belong to the North Cove Yacht Club and I’m forever dredging up some funny thing to do for people.”
A friend was having an 80th birthday party at the club and he thought, “What can I do for her birthday?” He decided to put all 80 candles on the cake.
Unfortunately, when she blew out the candles smoke triggered the smoke alarm, which meant a visit with club officials and fire department.
“And we all got yelled at and told, ‘They’ll be no more candles at the yacht club.’”
Merritt also plays tennis three times a week at the Old Saybrook Racquet Club. Again, he had more birthday surprises up his sleeve. Big birthdays. But this time, he came up with a new idea, a candleholder for 100 candles made out of wood that could stand separately from the cake.
“It went over so big, everyone thought it was terrific,” he said.
In fact, during the party a woman came over and asked, “Where did you get that?” Merritt let her use it for her dad’s birthday. Unfortunately, he said her father had to excuse himself as nature was calling just as the candles were readied.
Since the candleholder was such a big hit, Merritt continued to use it for his buddies’ birthdays.
“We’ve done that quite a few times at the tennis club,” he said.
When you are sitting in front of all those candles, “all of a sudden you’re king of the hill,” he said.
The fact that Merritt crafted something out of wood doesn’t come as much of a surprise when you consider that he and his wife, Lee, moved into the 1790 Bushnell-Dickinson house on the Old Post Road in Old Saybrook, subsequently listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Is he a master woodworker? “You know, it’s a hobby. I live in a house that’s 250 years old,“ he said. “I had a lot to do.”
What does his wife think about the new business? “I love it. It’s really exciting having an adventure in the family,“ she said.
The couple have four grown children, three daughters and one son, and Lee noted that besides Wil and Carey, another daughter, Amanda, Carey’s daughter, Annika, a college student, helped with graphic design.
Her role? “My job is to encourage everybody,” she said.
She explained the invention’s success this way: “Knight is in a tennis group, the elder tennis group, 80 and 90 years old. At that age, birthdays are really special.”
But she noted that the candleholder doesn’t only have to be used for birthdays. One of her children used it in a gingerbread house display, she said, and suggested it could be used for a pizza party and all kinds of celebrations.
Ide said that when she turned 50, her dad sent her the invention, complete with 12 flags put into the candleholder, highlighting special turning points in her life, “things that represented me that were really special (college, marriage, etc.).”
“I was so blown away sitting in front of it,” she said.
She noted that many people are celebrating with beautiful cakes, but no one is putting candles on them.
But her father thinks it’s important to observe birthdays with candles for every year of one’s life, said Ide, and there was nothing on the market to solve the no-room-on-the-cake for all the candles or spoiling-the-decoration problems.
That is, until now.
Celebration Stadium can be purchased at selected retail stores and online at celebrationstadium.com, which also shows creative ways to use it and asks that you contribute your own ideas.
It also offers a bit of history on the use of candles at birthdays. Among them is one that could have come from ancient Greece, where people honored Artemis, the goddess of the moon, by baking a round cake with lighted candles representing moonlight.