Chris Hardman: Keeping the Magic Alive

by Steefenie Wicks

“It began when I was given a Walkman,” Chris Hardman recently recalled.  “I was in Europe at the time, it was 1982. I remember the first time I put on the earphones, turned on the music, then began to walk.  It was amazing how as the music changed so did my surroundings.  Soon, I was walking into museums with the sounds of violins and drums exploding in my head.  That’s when it came to me: why not use this medium as part of the story telling technique in my productions as a way of revolutionizing theater?  Upon returning to the United States I began a production called ‘High School’ using the Walkman, having the audience become part of the production. That is how Antenna Audio was born.”

Chris Hardman has lived in Sausalito for over 30 years.  At one time, he ran for City Council with a campaign slogan developed by Steward Brand: “A Hardman is Good to Find.”  Although he did not win office, later his wife Annette Rose would be elected to the Council, become Mayor of the City, then serve as representative from the 3rd District on the Marin County Board of Supervisors.   But Chris’s involvement with waterfront politics is legendary.  He was a founding member of the group Art Zone.   Hardman’s productions, always done with a sense of pageantry, had political themes that sometimes directed their message to the City of Sausalito on not developing the waterfront, taking into consideration the community that came to exist there, that lived in fear of being displaced.

Hardman was born in Washington State but raised in Los Angeles.  His father was a writer of TV westerns.  When Chris was 13, his family took a trip to San Francisco where he was exposed to his first never-never land, as he called it.  “Los Angeles is where people write about things, but San Francisco is where you make them happen,” he says. “After my first visit, I knew I would return.”

When it was time to go to college he chose to go back east to Goddard College.  Goddard has a history of focusing on creativity, chaos, invention, experimentation with growth, decline and reemergence.  There he met his mentor, Peter Schumann, a European artist who told stories using large puppets, sometimes 13 feet tall.  His work had political overtones and his plays and pageantry were so astounding that Hardman left school and moved in with Schumann and his family.  “I wanted to learn all of his tricks,” Chris recalls. “He was fantastic and he invented ‘Bread and Puppets Theater’.”

Bread and Puppets Theater just celebrated its 50-year anniversary as an underground, radical, political, experimental puppet-mask-and-pageantry theater that has fascinated any audience lucky enough to view a performance.

Hardman studied this form of theater, then brought it back to the Sausalito waterfront where his work would make each performance equal to that of his teacher.

I asked him how he knew he had made the right decision to move to Sausalito.  He thought it over, then told me what inspired him.  “I had been living in the City when the friend whose house where I was staying decided that he wanted to move back.  He had this studio at Gate 3, offered me the space but wanted me to know that there was this fear of development, so staying there would be a little touchy,” he smiled.  “Little did I know that I would be in that space for over 10 years.”   He continued, “The first night that I spent there, a knock on the door surprised me.  When I opened the door, there stood a woman in black face with an M-16 strapped around her neck.  Her partner was wearing a washboard and playing a kazoo.  This was Laurabell [Hawbecker] and Bob [Kalloch], both gone now but they became my friends for life.”

One of the first artists hired by the National Park Service, Chris was the inspiration behind the audio tour of Alcatraz. “I was always told that audio tours were boring but I didn’t see it that way, so I went on to change that theory.” He continues, “I envisioned audio tours as stories that were being heard for the first time.  As a matter of fact, the Alcatraz tours still have elements of the originals that were done back in 1986.  Most of the individuals whose voices were used have passed on, making those recordings one of a kind, valuable. Now you can go to any museum around the world, when they hand you the audio device to describe the exhibition, it was more than likely produced by Antenna Audio.” Hardman smiles at the thought. Some time ago Antenna Audio was sold; it is now called Antenna International.

For the last 7 years Hardman has been concentrating on a project called the “Magic Bus.”   The Magic Bus has 16 mini-projectors, plus sound systems with automatic screens that tell the story of the 1960’s magic of San Francisco.  He explained, “This is a moving movie theater -- when the screens come up it turns into a tour bus, it’s like an audio tour aboard the bus.” 

Hardman no longer lives here in town, but when asked what he missed about Sausalito he was quick to answer: “Community.” He feels that in these times people don’t know their neighbors. “But on the Sausalito waterfront,” he says, “People do know their neighbors.  They come together for social events that involve the community.  It’s called coming together to build strong structures that make it possible for a community to exist.  This I miss, but I do enjoy my ride on the Magic Bus. It somehow keeps this feeling alive.”

Chris Hardman and his Magic Bus          Photo by Steefenie Wicks

Chris Hardman and his Magic Bus          Photo by Steefenie Wicks