Gartner Replaces Wallin | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Gartner Replaces Wallin

Hana Gartner was barrelling across the vast terrazzo expanse of the CBC's Toronto headquarters, doing what she claims she does best - worrying.

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on September 18, 1995

Gartner Replaces Wallin

Hana Gartner was barrelling across the vast terrazzo expanse of the CBC's Toronto headquarters, doing what she claims she does best - worrying. Even before her debut last week as host of the magazine half of The National, the network's freshly refurbished nightly television news, she was already fretting to a reporter about losing what she calls her "overdeveloped sense of privacy." Then, suddenly, as she sped through the security turnstiles, a CBC guard unwittingly put her mind to rest. "Excuse me, ma'am," he said with no sign of recognition whatsoever. "Do you have a pass?"

For any other television star, it might have been a crushing blow to the ego. But for Gartner, 46, the incident was both oddly reassuring and a symbol of the challenge she now faces in what has been called the toughest job in Canadian TV. While she may not yet qualify as a household name, CBC brass are counting on her seasoned broadcast skills to restore class and credibility to the tarnished news hour after their ham-handed public firing of her predecessor, Pamela Wallin, last March. In the process, they are gambling that Gartner's infectious energy and authenticity can lure viewers back to a show whose ratings have been lagging behind CTV's ever since their disastrous attempt to reschedule the nation's nightly news habit to 9 p.m. three years ago. Says CBC arts host Adrienne Clarkson: "Hana has an earthy, gutsy quality which that show desperately needs."

Even The National's star anchor, Peter Mansbridge, whose relationship with Wallin became decidedly chilly, enthuses about Gartner's on-camera charisma - despite the fact that it has already provoked some critics' praise at his own expense. "I've never seen anybody who can reach out and grab you while you're watching like she can," he says. Although she is billed as his co-anchor, the pair rarely appear together on-screen. Instead, bracketed by his introductions and sign-offs, Gartner's National Magazine exists as a self-contained half-hour, which she hosts from a small kidney-shaped table on the far side of the glass-walled set.

Still, insiders make clear that she would never have been appointed without a nod from Mansbridge, whose former wife, Wendy Mesley, was among the contenders for the job. Indeed, as Mesley and others took turns at what were patently on-air auditions last spring, the CBC appeared determined to prove that Wallin had not been done in by misogyny. As one producer put it, requesting anonymity on the subject: "Basically, they were very, very anxious to show they had not victimized Pam as a woman."

Mesley went on to win a weekly public affairs series called Undercurrents. And former Newsworld anchor Alison Smith - reported to be Gartner's chief runner-up - has also been rewarded with her own show called The Lead. But in the most startling turn-about, Wallin herself returns to CBC airwaves this week. Fresh from settling her legal standoff with the corporation, she has sold Newsworld a nightly hour-long talk show produced by her own independent company and called Pamela Wallin Live.

But it is not only the spectre of Wallin's ouster that haunts Gartner's new star turn. With the restoration of The National to its old name and 10 p.m. time slot, some TV critics see a conscious attempt to evoke the network's bygone glories and the woman with whom Gartner is most frequently compared - the late Barbara Frum. In fact, at a time when CBC newsrooms across the country are braced for thousands of staff cuts and two separate studies are now being completed for Ottawa on the Crown corporation's prospects, a few analysts have gone so far as to suggest that the CBC's future could turn on the success of its revamped flagship news.

Gartner herself waves off such a notion. "My job is not to save Canada or the CBC," she says. Still, she is not unaware of the issues at stake when, as The National's executive producer Tony Burman puts it, "a black cloud of uncertainty is hanging over the CBC." Still, leaping into the unknown has never discouraged a broadcaster who once turned a trembling first-person account of parachuting into a hobby. "I like being nervous," Gartner grins. "I like standing on the ledge."

The cramped, windowless white office on the CBC's fourth floor betrays almost nothing about its current occupant - exactly as she intended. And the few personal mementos chart only random professional coups - including one of her three Gemini Awards. On the walls hang two watercolors, one each by her seven-year-old son, Gartner, known as Gar, and her daughter, five-year-old Samm. But she purposely avoids displaying their photos or that of her husband, Bruce Griffin, a former film editor whom she met while working for the 5th estate. "I know what they look like," she says.

In fact, while other celebrities routinely profess to guarding their privacy, Gartner has turned that exercise into high art. Despite 20 years on TV, she has seldom been interviewed and avoids the social circuit so assiduously that she once worried she was sabotaging her own career. "She doesn't schmooze," says her longtime friend Andy Barrie, the new host of the CBC morning radio show in Toronto. "For years, she worried that she was not doing the right thing. But in fact what she wound up doing was not making enemies." And, as Barrie points out, in the light of the recent intrigue surrounding Wallin's firing, that may have ultimately helped win her the co-anchor slot. "She was not part of any cabal," he says. "This was a person nothing stuck to."

Nor, as he notes, is Gartner's reluctance to work the cocktail circuit due to social ineptitude. With the wisecracking wit and faultless timing of a vaudevillian, she is as engagingly natural offscreen as on. Says Barrie, "She just can't bear b.s." In fact, to all but a handful of colleagues and friends, Gartner remains so little known that one former 5th estate host - despite having never worked directly with her - pronounced her "an announcer, not a journalist. Basically, she's your average North York Jewish housewife who reads the scripts they hand her and then goes home to the suburbs." That accusation enrages the show's former executive producer, Kelly Crichton, who dubs Gartner "a maniacal workaholic," notorious for researching every story to the point of exhaustion and staying up to write her own scripts in longhand overnight. "Your heart would be in your mouth," Crichton says, "that she'd burn herself out."

Now, Gartner has the same worries about her new nightly grind. "I tend to work flat out," she says. "I can't pace myself." During her 13 years as one of the 5th estate's four co-hosts, she spent most of her life on the road. "I didn't go to the office; I went to the airport," she says. "My kids thought that's where I worked." Even when she was in town and wanted some peace to prepare for an interview, she retreated not to the CBC but to a private cubicle at the North York Public Library. There, she would block out her on-air encounters, which she likens to "a kind of dance - at its best, there's a kind of energy and crackle going on." These days, she chafes at her new office-bound life in the network's headquarters, which she calls a "pile of soul-less cement." And she can be heard muttering about "fascist buildings" each time she is obliged to insert her passcard into its entrance turnstiles. But then, as Crichton observes, "Hana definitely marches to her own drum."

Ironically, she owes that quirky individuality to a reclusive childhood during which she felt like a hopeless misfit. "I've always been an outsider," she says. Born in Prague, she came to Canada when she was two - the daughter of Czech Holocaust survivors who met after their liberation from Nazi camps at the end of the war. Fleeing to Austria, they made their way to the French port of Le Havre, where they boarded a boat for Montreal as displaced persons - or DPs, as they were disparagingly known. George and Sasha Gartner settled in the suburb of Chomedy (now Laval), where the former factory owner rose from sweeping a quilting plant floor to managing the operation.

But for his excruciatingly shy daughter, Canada remained an alienating place. Obedient and polite, Hana never got over her humiliation at five when a teacher failed to respond to her urgent request for a trip to the washroom. From then on, Gartner hated school, even failing grade 11. "I thought I wasn't very smart," she concedes. Her younger brother, Gary, now an international tax lawyer in New York City, was both a brilliant student and a social butterfly. But she retreated to the shelter of her adored family, a self-styled "sedentary chubboso" who immersed herself in the fantasy world of films. "I must have seen The Philadelphia Story 800 times," she recalls. Gartner was so reclusive that her mother finally signed her up for a children's theatre workshop. And at 13, she blossomed onstage. She won the role of Meg in Little Women and had her heart set on going to Yale Drama School. But a postal strike held up her invitation to audition. Although her father drove all night through a blizzard to get her to Connecticut in time for the appointed date, she was so nervous when she climbed onstage that she broke out in hives. "Daddy was just weeping for me," she says.

Instead, she enrolled in the communications program at Montreal's Loyola College, now part of Concordia University. When one of her professors wangled her a chance to use the recording equipment at Montreal's CJAD radio station, she proved so adept that the station let her carve out her own quirky interview beat on Andy Barrie's fledgling show. When he asked her on air what she planned to do, "it sort of exploded out of her that she'd always been curious about the guy who changed the light bulbs on the cross on Mount Royal," he recalls. "And she just took off from there."

Convinced that she wasn't a real reporter because she had never had a political beat, she moved to Ottawa to cover the 1974 election for the station's parent, Standard Broadcasting - and hated it. But in the middle of the campaign, she won a regular TV spot on the CBC's local Montreal suppertime show. In an age of sleek, telegenic beauties, Gartner stood out as pleasantly plump, her pretty features obscured behind enormous horn-rims. "It made me unique," she says. "I've spent my whole television career being overweight." No producer tried to trifle with that look as she moved on to the network in Toronto, then snared the coveted host's spot on the afternoon talk show Take 30.

But 13 years ago, when she joined the 5th estate, she left both her horn-rims and extra poundage behind, gradually transforming herself into the svelte stunner who can whip through an aerobic doubleheader. Gartner says that she has never looked as good as she does now. Still, part of that late-blooming process did not come until the fourth season of the show, when she met Griffin, a redheaded film editor five years her junior. With a pilot's licence and a sideline as an amateur rock musician, he also had a serene ego.

In 1987, after a four-year on-again, off-again courtship, they married. And a year later, when she gave birth to their son, Griffin quit his job to play house husband while she pursued her career. "It's a decision we made: if we had children, we didn't want to entrust them to hired help," she says. "He gives me the peace of mind to go out and do what I do." Still, that jet-setting schedule has left her wracked with guilt. For Gartner, the turning point came last year when she was tucking in her daughter, Samm, one night. "She looks up at me and she says, 'Mommy, are you going to stick around for breakfast?' " Gartner recalls. "It was like a stake in the heart."

In fact, she claims that the chance to cut back on her travel schedule made the offer to take over the National Magazine all the more appealing. By the time it came along, she was already frustrated with the limits of the 5th estate. Three years earlier, she had launched a sporadic, hour-long interview program in an attempt to showcase her strengths. Called Contact with Hana Gartner, it promptly made headlines with its first edition - an interview with Brian and Mila Mulroney. Critics such as The Globe and Mail's Rick Salutin have castigated her for being "supine," while fans point out that her manner coaxed an extraordinary outburst from Mulroney: he declared that he had been so upset by an attack on his daughter, Caroline, by the satirical magazine Frank that he had briefly considered getting a gun and hunting down the editor.

Gartner concedes that she has never been a confrontational interviewer. "She doesn't put people in corners, she draws them out," says National Magazine senior producer Ian Cameron. "Better to let somebody else hang themselves." But so far, Gartner has had little opportunity to display those talents in her new show. After a bravura documentary debut on the future of work, she has been left introducing other people's programs and quizzing Lucien Bouchard on a studio screen. And, despite an overwhelmingly positive response and promising ratings - with 300,000 more viewers for the first show than the half a million who tuned in on the same date last year - Gartner calls it "a work in progress." And that in turn leaves her scope to indulge her anxieties. As she said, pausing on the darkened set after a taping last week, "That's what I do: I worry. And there's plenty here to keep my adrenaline going for a long time."

Maclean's September 18, 1995