Chris Hart wears many hats. And he’s also a man of many shirts, pants, coats, shoes and, well, many faces as well.
Chris Hart is a living historian, which means that he basically portrays, or becomes, as he would like to suggest, figures that have appeared throughout history, telling some famous, infamous and sometimes not so famous stories about people in the past.
His wife, Susie Hart, sometimes starts the conversation with her husband, "And who are you today?’
But on the days he is not performing, Hart is employed as a college professor at seven universities and a guest lecturer at two others, but as he stresses, "but not all at once."
"I have been blessed to be married to my beautiful high school sweetheart Susie for over 40 years and we have one wonderful son, Adam, who is engaged to a lovely young lady, Manon, from Paris, France."
Hart said his interest in historical characters has spanned decades. He recalls a visit to a Civil War site that helped spark what has become a long-time hobby.
"I have dragged her to a lot of Civil War battlefields over the years, sorry Dear," Hart said.
"Susie and I had been married about a year when we visited Appomattox Court House, Virginia where the Civil War ended. There was a park employee who was portraying a Rebel soldier who had surrendered but ‘had just never got around to going home.’ He proceeded to tell us all about the surrender in first person. I thought at the time, ‘Wouldn't that be fun to do someday?’ Well about a dozen years ago I got the chance to portray the village doctor at Historic Roscoe Village and nearly 50 characters later....it is everything I hoped it would be!"
Hart said the challenges in developing a character is sometimes just finding the time to write.
"Many people have asked, ‘How do you keep all the stories straight’? Well, I write almost all my own portrayals so that certainly helps. I always try to brush up a few days before a portrayal."
Hart said that as a rule, he doesn’t portray "famous people" with Neil Armstrong, the first person to set foot on the moon, as an exception.
"I like ordinary people's stories," he says. "Usually the idea comes from a book I happen to see. ‘There just might be a story in there.’ Then I read the book and write the portrayal. Sometimes I take a literary character and tell his story from a different point of view. (Icabod Crane in Sleepy Hollow Revisited" comes to mind.) A new character usually takes at least a couple of months to complete."
For example, some of the people from history that he has portrayed includes:
• Percy Jones, a World War I veteran who was present at the impromptu Christmas 1914 Eve Truce between the British and the Germans
* Dr. Ron Jones, an emergency room physician at Parkland Hospital in Dallas, Texas, in 1963 who tried to save President John F Kennedy and then 48 hours later had to try to save Lee Harvey Oswald.
• Isaac, a shepherd who was present at the Nativity, becomes a follower of Jesus, but is never convinced He is the true Messiah until Easter morning.
• Icabod Crane, the school master from Sleepy Hollow who returns to tell us the real story as it appears Mr. Washington Irving didn't get the tale exactly right.
• Captain John B. Reynolds, Captain of the canal boat The Hard Cider on the Ohio-Erie Canal who always has an opinion on everything ( and is not afraid to share it) plus lively tales of life on "the big ditch."
• Michael Benfante, an actual 911 survivor who tells of rescuing people from the World Trade Center and yet considers himself not to be a hero.
• Cy Young, with more major league baseball wins than any other pitcher, this Newcomerstown native recalls his professional career on the occasion of his 80th birthday.
Hart said he doesn’t like picking favorites, thinking, "They are all like children."
But, if he pauses, he would select:
"Henry" is the name I gave the person who kills the old man in the Tell Tale Heart and then slowly goes mad on stage. Asa Brown is a fisherman who had more bad luck than you can imagine in ‘Don't Sing at the Table’ which is all about superstitions. In ‘Paws for the Cause’, Thomas Steward is a Civil War veteran who is grieving the loss of his best comrade-in-arms, his dog named Curly. An actual survivor, Peter Daley, shares what happened that fateful April night in ‘How I Survived the Sinking of the Titanic.’"
Hart said he is still thinking about other characters to portray.
"Next up is one called ‘Step Father.’ It will be a portrayal of Joseph, husband of Mary and step-father of Jesus. ‘1969’ will introduce an aging hippie trying to recall that turbulent year. And there is an entire ‘all grown up’ series that re-connects with such fictional characters as Tom Sawyer, Christopher Robin and Peter Cratchit as adults."
Hart said he has been fortunate to perform at the National Storytellers Conference in Jonesborough Tennessee and as well as for the National Park Service. And this March, he said he was very excited to be doing two Civil War portrayals in Gettysburg, "which for a Civil War living historian such as myself is the holy grail."
And with more than 40 other characters to choose from, it’s no wonder that his wife sometimes wonders who Chris Hart is today.