My dinner with the Harts

The recent events involving Owen Hart have suddenly thrust the Hart family of Calgary back into the international spotlight. Aside from drawing increased attention, this light distorts perception. Collin Gallant writes about his experience with the Harts as real people.

The first time I went to the Hart House I felt a little apprehensive isn’t the word.

I was a young reporter, really a bit apprehensive about doing anything, talking to anybody, and here I was walking up to a house full of God-knows-what.

I was writing an interview piece about a famous Calgary announcer who, in spite of 25 years of being the news director at local TV and radio stations, was most famous for announcing the chicanery of the Harts at Friday night wrestling matches.

“You know where it is, right?” asked Keith Hart, when arranging a meeting to pick up some photos. Assuming that I was familiar with the location of the “Hart Mansion.”

To put this into perspective, the Harts of Calgary were like the opium dens in classic dime novels. Exotic. Rumoured. Unforgettable. But there was also something all too familiar.

A middle child of the dynasty, Keith was a well-known Calgary wrestler in his own right. He was also a substitute teacher while wrestling. Several of my childhood friends were taught by him. Another wrestler, not related to the Harts, was a tremendously mean black man who lived down my block. He had a huge dog, a gigantic Cadillac, and a beautiful daughter to whom none of my friends ever spoke.

In the mid-’80s when the Stampede Wrestling began to feel the strain of the ever-expanding WWF many of these around town characters left for greener pastures. And we revelled in the secret knowledge that we had known them before the big time. They all had different names. Bad News Allen became Bad News Brown, Bret became the Hitman, Owen became the Rocket, but they were the same.

The Harts had been local celebrities for 50 years, but not capital-C celebrities like hockey players or philanthropists.

They were not even celebrities like the local TV weatherman or sportscaster. They were famous the only way the family could be, racing across an arena to hit somebody over the head with cowboy boots or shaving a man’s head-either sideshow or heroes depending on the age group asked.

My father knew of the Harts, mainly from a long running feud between the patriarch Stu and city hall regarding some zoning laws. I knew Stu from his punching of people. The punchees were usually nasty people and I was pretty sure that punching wasn’t a 24-hour-a-day sort of activity, but I wasn’t sure whether or not the house would be full of quick tempered maniacs.

The Turn of the Century ranch house, with its thick red brick facade sits up on broadcast hill. The plot, a triangle acre of untamed grass, runs up to a barbed wire fence on one side, a drainage ditch in front. The back had a retaining wall giving support to a road running cutback style up a steep embankment.

Seven or so cars lay dormant in the driveway with sun-faded paint and flat tires. It was obvious that this family had a very peculiar, but sovereign voice in their interactions with the world.

Smith Hart answered the door wearing a blue and green mackinaw which covered a chest with roughly the depth of an oil barrel.

A year after that meeting, Wrestling with Shadows (the Bret Hart story) was released. In the documentary, Stu takes an eager young wrestler into the basement of his house (the famed “Dungeon”). He proceeds to attach a submission hold to said athlete. The young man heaves in the grip and lets out a hollow cry. After being released from the octogenarian’s grip, the 20-year-old lays impotent.

The elder Hart explains that the hold would explode the blood vessels behind the eyes of any man. His statement is a bit too matter-of-fact to leave me at ease-the hulk who opened the door when I rang the bell had dark red blotches in both eyes.

I stood there for a minute taking in all the significance. Perhaps I was a bit surprised he wasn’t already body slamming me.

I explained my situation, that I was to meet Keith. He led me to the dining room where Stu sat speaking with a suited gentleman who had a businessman feel to him.

In my previous travels, I had learned of Stampede Wrestling’s tremendous popularity overseas. It had been bootlegged and dubbed, and was being shown on TV everywhere from Singapore to Rome, from the Caribbean to Africa. The announcer was a celebrity in Bolivia! I assumed from the general tone that copyright was the topic of conversation.

Keith stood up (each one was bigger than the previous) and introduced me to Stu. I made sure that I called him sir, shook his hand and said I was a big fan. He struggled a little to comprehend (he had suffered a stroke), but he smiled genuinely.

I was told to go watch TV, which I did, immediately. Keith went upstairs to find the pictures.

There was art, which blew me away. Perhaps not what many would consider high art, mainly pewter statues of Greek figures engaged in gut-wrenches, and family portraits, but art none the less.

And books, which was really unexpected. It seems so normal, but I wasn’t expecting to see a copy of Catcher in the Rye or Of Human Bondage in that house.

In the front sitting room there were two 10’x10′ picture windows that looked down upon the city. What a tremendous view it would have been 20 years ago. Now the horizon was a sea of pink adobe tile roofs of the pastel condos surrounding the land.

I had watched an entire episode of The Wonder Years while sinking into their deep leather couch when Keith returned with several shots. I thanked him and left.

When I visited the house I was trying to figure out what to think of the Harts. Most everyone I spoke to about the visit has chosen a side: the Harts were either a sideshow, a family of 12 children, all involved in a profession that most people shun; or it was 1982 hero-worship all over again, my friends talking about matches or doing impressions.

It was neither in the end. They were a simply a family. Trying to find their way in a world that has been increasingly forgetful of tradition. Struggling to hold on to what they had made over 50 years, dealing with an aging father, and now, after the death of the youngest sibling Owen, heartbreak. All my expectations and preconceived notions were quite embarrassingly, for me, erroneous.

It turned out that they were simply nice people who, at no gain, took time to help out a university newspaper.

Which is to say they are heroes, I suppose.

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