Gary Hart Tribute
In the words of highly respected former wrestling referee and company administrator, James Beard, "Gary Hart, who passed away on March 16, 2008, was a very complex human being. There is no single adjective that can adequately and accurately describe his personality, his work, his ideals, his talents or his life."
For those wrestling fans that didn't have the opportunity to see or appreciate Gary in his performance as both a manager and a booker, it would be illuminating to locate some video and to read up on his contributions to the sport.
Gary Hart broke into the business as a wrestler in the early 1960s, working primarily in the upper Midwest. Towards the end of the decade, he hung up his boots and became manager "Playboy" Gary Hart. Through the 70s, he traveled and worked for several different promotions, concentrating his efforts mostly in the south and southwestern part of the U.S. In 1979, he became the booker for Fritz Von Erich's Dallas-based company, World Class Championship Wrestling. Under his direction the enterprise grew, gaining attention outside of the region. Even after he'd accepted the job of booker, Gary continued to appear as a manager, someone the fans would always take seriously in that role. His secret, if that's what it can be called, was in his refusal to exaggerate his persona into an absurdity, remaining completely believable in his heelish declarations.
It was Gary Hart who came up with one compelling concept after another that pushed WCCW towards a national audience before such a movement truly existed. The company gained a large worldwide following via satellite television; thanks to the intensity of the feuds that Hart created (such as the Von Erichs vs. The Freebirds), a Middle Eastern tour was planned. The country of Israel, among others, got the chance to experience World Class action live, and the houses they drew were wildly enthusiastic, perhaps bordering on the phenomenal.
All of this is well documented. However, for an inside look at the man that was Gary Hart, we turn to our good friend and knowledgeable insider James Beard,* who knew him for years as a close friend and confidant.
Richard: James, when did you first become acquainted with Gary Hart?
James: I met Gary well over two decades ago. Soon after meeting and working with him for the first time, we developed a friendship that lasted the remainder of his life. Even in death, that relationship continues through his sons, Jason and Chad. His ideals had a profound effect on me as a person and a professional.
Richard: How so?
James: Gary's brilliant and creative mind influenced my career in professional wrestling, and his counsel and example of how things should be done helped form a pattern for me to follow. He gave me several pieces of advice early on that I adhered to throughout my years in the wrestling profession. He told me, "Always remain true to your persona," ";Always demand respect for your position no matter who tries to intimidate you, even me" and "Always be believable." There were many other points of advice that came from Gary over the years, but those formed a basis for how I approached the referee position and how I carried myself within the business.
Richard: Did Gary single you out, acting in the capacity of a mentor?
James: I was but one person that Gary helped guide along the way. His ideas and ideals created or bolstered many careers, personalities and situations that are now legendary within the wrestling business. Yet, while many of us who knew him well within the wrestling profession appreciated and praised the creative side of Gary Hart, most fans only knew him as the character or manager who was a devious genius and just plain evil. But there was so much more to him than that.
Richard. Interesting. How else would you describe him?
James: Fans saw Gary Hart as a scheming, cold-blooded manipulator of men and situations. To the fans, Gary had few redeeming personal qualities, and so he was a much-hated figure. He came across as someone who thought only of his own well-being and would be willing to do practically anything to see to it that his wrestlers had every advantage, regardless of how he had to twist things to gain his successes. His threats were not so much physical as they were psychological. The mere presence of Gary Hart made fans uneasy, and often he only had to be there to incite angry responses.
Richard: Can you describe his style, the way he appeared to the fans?
James: Gary, as a manager, hardly ever raised his voice and would often praise his opponents and point out their strengths. Yet, in the same breath, he would create a feeling of foreboding and danger as he would, very calmly, state that he would find a way to prevail. Every fan knew that meant their hero was in serious trouble and had best be very careful.
Richard: A very old school approach, that. To paraphrase, he was a real person, not a caricature.
James. That's right. He was real. I found that working as a referee with Gary was a different experience than working with any other wrestling manager. His approach was much more cerebral and psychological than the typical manager. Oh, he would take advantage and get physically involved on occasion, but that was only an extreme measure for him. Mostly, he would banter back and forth and point out things that he believed should be addressed. Of course, he only brought up those things that appeared to benefit his wrestlers.
Richard: Naturally. Fans wouldn’t expect anything less from a heel manager.
James: At ringside, fans could hear Gary and me going back and forth with a commentary that might be reminiscent of a pro football coach's interaction with one of the officials. It would sometimes be a bit confrontational, but just as often it was somewhat humorous. But no matter what, it was always very, very realistic. He was particular about the way we would converse and deal with each other during a match. Gary would tell me that a fan in the front row had friends sitting in the cheap seats. Everything those guys up front, the ones in their ringside seats, would hear and see between us would be passed along to those who might not be able to see or hear it so clearly. He believed that doing the little things, the subtle things, is what made the wrestling product so real to those that followed it. He was right.
Richard: Damned clever of him. How close to the reality was his "bad guy" persona?
James: Well, the fans knew Gary Hart as frighteningly realistic, a street-wise gangster-type who had the funds and connections to carry out hard acts. He was the evil, seemingly heartless purveyor of deeds that infuriated those that watched while he calmly carried out the threats he had promised.
Richard: And the reality was…?
James: In truth, Gary was from the streets of Chicago, and he had a belief that when threatened you do whatever is necessary to protect yourself. His idea of warfare was to always have the more impressive weapon. He would say, "If somebody picks up a stick to hit me with, I simply pick up a bigger stick." That was his way, and he carried that into his wrestling persona as well.
In reality, Gary was a gentle soul who did not look for trouble. Nor did he initiate it in his real life. He was a great debater and preferred to discuss things when there were opposing views or ideas. He was slow to anger, and while he was never one to shy away from standing his ground, he was not confrontational by nature. Gary could calm things with a soft-spoken, yet firm and logical way of seeing all sides. But let it be known, if whomever he was dealing with insisted upon carrying things too far, Gary would simply "pick up the bigger stick," and he was not afraid to use it.
Richard: In your opinion, what made Gary Hart so outstanding as a booker?
James: While Gary was someone who did what he needed to do to protect his position and that of his wrestlers, he was capable of seeing a broader picture. The same guy who would often debate and stubbornly refuse to do something he believed was not in his best interests or might compromise his image was uniquely adept at running a promotion and managing its talent. He's the same guy who would spit in the eye of management if he disagreed with a decision, and he would rebel against anything that was not advantageous to him or his wrestlers. But he could easily slip into the role of "company booker." He had a creative mind that made tough decisions for the good of the promotion.
Richard: Did you ever get a sense of which role, manager or booker, he preferred?
James: Gary once said that being a manager was easier than being a booker because as a manager, you could be somewhat selfish. You'd just refuse if you believed what you were asked to do did not benefit you. But, as a booker, you had to make money and think first of what benefited the overall product. And yet, in either role, Gary prevailed and succeeded. He was responsible, as manager, for furthering the careers of many great names, such as The Spoiler, Kabuki, One Man Gang, Abdullah the Butcher and many others. As a creative mind and in charge of a promotion, Gary came up with ideas and situations that are legendary within the business and with fans. Things such as the Von Erichs vs. The Freebirds feud, the idea of turning a very popular Chris Adams against his former friends and any number of other ingenious situations that created stars or furthered careers. I think of names, such as Dusty Rhodes, Bruiser Brody, Roddy Piper and a host of other famous wrestlers.
Richard: But to get back to the question, how close did the Gary Hart the fans saw approximate the Gary Hart not seen?
James: The Gary Hart that the fans knew as a self centered, rich playboy who manipulated his way to success by thinking only of his own interests was in direct contrast to Gary Hart in private. In truth, he led a very quiet life and held to very strong spiritual beliefs that we are all here to help each other and nurture those we love and care for. Gary's typical days, particularly after retiring and traveling less, was centered around his sons. He was so unselfish when it came to seeing to their needs. He was a father who was always available for anything -- be it to counsel them or a simply show a sign of affection. Gary's easy-going, calming and logical way of looking at things and dealing with situations was a daily lesson to Jason and Chad. They depended on his guidance regularly. His love and concern for them was returned in the way they respected their father and kept close contact with him constantly. They are a reflection of Gary's real persona in that they have grown to be sensitive and thoughtful young men themselves.
Richard: I can only imagine the shock and distress the news of Gary's sudden passing must have caused for everyone that knew him.
James: Losing a friend and colleague like Gary Hart is never easy to accept. There is no doubt his legacy is intact, and it's obvious his contributions to the world of professional wrestling had great meaning by the outpouring of comments and tributes that have come since his passing. Even WWE, who generally does not acknowledge many beyond those that were directly connected to them in some way, has honored Gary's memory on their website with testimonials from various wrestling figures that knew or worked with him in the past.
The sort of praises that are typically seen or heard about Gary and his career are well earned. However, I have to say that I am personally very glad that before he died Gary got to see, at least to some degree, how much he meant to fans and those of us who worked with him and knew him. That may not have been the case, had Gary not opened himself up to allow that to happen.
Richard: Can you explain how he did that?
James: Gary was very protective of the wrestling business during his career and for many years after he stopped working. When he retired, he lived a sort of hermit-like existence and had little contact outside of a few close friends and making the occasional appearance with his son, Chad, who was breaking into the business as a wrestler.
Like most of us who had worked for a long time, keeping"kayfabe" or not speaking openly about the wrestling business was Gary's way. However, even the most traditional of us, including some very hardcore veterans who might have been jaded, they discover after awhile that they miss the business and the camaraderie of the folks they worked with. And, like most of us, Gary came to accept the fact that the proverbial cat was out of the bag. There is no longer any reason not to open up and talk about things, if only because it provides a way to remain somewhat connected to the wrestling business. It gives you an outlet for your feelings and experiences.
Richard: So, Gary became a little more public in the past few years?
James: Yes, Gary began to participate in some wrestling related forums. He did some interviews, got together with some old buddies at reunions and special events and had even, with the help of a writer named Phillip Varriel, started writing a book about his career and life. In short, Gary allowed himself to open up about things he had been very private about. In return, he began to understand how much he had meant to the wrestling profession and to those of us who worked with him and knew him well.
Gary, in fact, had spent the last weekend of his life at such an event with two of his old foes and co-workers, Skandar Akbar and Bill Irwin. Both of those old friends expressed to me how much Gary seemed to enjoy that experience and how openly he had talked during that trip, of his life, his feelings about the wrestling business and those he had known throughout his career. I spoke to Jason, his son, shortly after Gary had passed away and we both agreed that it was a true blessing that Gary had started to see how his legacy had grown, and how positively he had affected the business, the fans and co-workers.
Richard: It's wonderful to realize that Gary got the type of payback he so richly deserved. Do you have any final thoughts you'd like to share with our readers?
James: Gary's wishes were that he be cremated and his ashes thrown to the wind so that he could be a part of all things. In truth, Gary was already a part of all things. His influence, his creativity and his strong beliefs in doing the little things, the subtle things that made the wrestling product as he envisioned it more believable and meaningful, will live on in those of us whom he touched in his unique way.
The fans who loved to hate him, the co-workers who were awed by his brilliance and creativity, those of us who knew him as a friend, and the sons he left behind will always carry a bit of Gary's influence with them throughout their lives. His stature is assured and I, for one, am so very happy he lived to see that.
All I can add is that Gary Hart was many things, and you simply cannot wrap him up in one word or even a single phrase. All of the images of Gary are based in reality, but only a few of them are entirely real. My image of him is as a brilliantly creative artist who used professional wrestling as his canvas. I knew him to be an honest, intelligent and totally engrossing associate. He was a dedicated friend and father who lived life his way and made many of us all the better for it. I will miss him greatly.
Richard: Once again, I must thank you for being so direct and forthcoming in sharing your feelings and your wisdom with us, James. Thank you for your time.
James: I'm happy to do it, Richard.