Chris Hart dons a frock coat and sports a fancy walking stick as he prepares to portray John George Nicolay for the residents of StoryPoint Grove City, a senior living complex in suburban Columbus.
“I’m playing a refined character today,” says Hart, “so I brought a silver-handled stick.”
Today’s performance is “Mr. Lincoln’s White House,” a vignette set in 1900 that Hart scripted, featuring himself as Nicolay, Abraham Lincoln’s personal secretary. Nicolay pays a visit to President McKinley and relates what 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue was like years before, during Lincoln’s tenure. As Hart enters the room where he’ll perform, StoryPoint residents greet him like groupies with smiles, handshakes, and fond words about his monthly presentations. “I started coming here a few years ago when StoryPoint had a Titanic celebration and asked me to do one of the survivors, Peter Daly,” says Hart.
Hart is a professional living historian whose “Tales from the Hart” repertoire includes more than 50 characters inspired by history and literature. Raised in Tuscarawas County, he still resides there in the village of Port Washington, where he’s a member of The Frontier Power Company.
Hart has been interested in history since grade school, and he even took his wife, Susie, to the Gettysburg battlefield during their honeymoon. While touring Appomattox Court House two years later, they saw a park employee acting the part of a Confederate soldier who described Lee’s surrender to Grant. “Watching him perform for visitors, I started thinking how wonderful it would be to do that,” says Hart. “To me, it was an ideal job.”
Hart, however, did not pursue first-person playacting until after he retired from his career as a retail pharmacist. His first opportunity came when Historic Roscoe Village in Coshocton approached him about playing the canal-era town’s doctor. He subsequently developed the character of canal boat captain John B. Reynolds, and when a local library requested his help with its Titanic event, he launched Daly.
“Daly is still one of my most popular characters because his story is true and his rescue was miraculous,” says Hart. “I know I’m doing my job when Peter Daly describes how cold the water was, and people in the audience start pulling coats and sweaters tightly around themselves.”
Hart researches and writes his own material and prefers history’s footnote people to major figures. “Most of the folks I interpret are rather ordinary,” he says. “With a few exceptions, like Neil Armstrong and Cy Young, I don’t do anybody famous.”
Although he never had any theatrical training, Hart has a knack for lacing his performances with telling details that captivate audiences and dispatch the dust of history. As Nicolay, for example, he reveals that Lincoln’s impish son Tad once burst into a cabinet meeting beating a drum, and that after Lincoln’s assassination, soldiers carried his casket in their stocking feet lest they disturb his grief-stricken widow.
Besides teaching pharmacy courses at several Ohio universities, Hart performs in community theaters and murder mystery troupes. He does about 75 first-person shows annually; his busiest seasons are Halloween and Christmas, when he takes on personas such as a middle-aged Ichabod Crane returning to Sleepy Hollow or a grown-up Peter Cratchit divulging the fates of Dickens’ immortal characters in A Christmas Carol.