Discovering a second HALLway Fans know Bryan Hall for his bombast, but the legendary Esks play-by-play man, who is retiring after this season, has a kinder, gentler side
8 Nov 2009
Nobody craves the spotlight, an argument, noise or a microphone more than Bryan Hall.
A walking bagpipe, Hall has been the uninterrupted, loud and garrulous radio presence of Edmonton’s collective consciousness since 1953.
Flick the switch and the man, who broadcast his first Edmonton Eskimos game in 1965 and will soon broadcast his last, takes full command. Lights. Camera. Action. Full of bluster and bombast, he is a howling, insatiable wind knocking over trash cans and anything else that gets in his way.
Donald Trump hair, Don King swagger, Hall has never whispered in his life; to him a hum is an air-raid siren.
Loud, brash and bold, his motto has always been get the first punch in. After that, you just stand back and listen because, when he gets on a roll, nobody gets a word in. No one. Not even the ones who are paid to talk — especially his Eskimos radio broadcast colour commentators.
“One time I decided to count how many consecutive plays would go by before he let me say a word. I got to six,” said Dave Campbell, Hall’s current colour man on 630 CHED.
“Usually he just holds his hand up, which means not yet. You have to pick your spots.”
John Farlinger, who did the colour with Hall prior to Campbell when CJCA held the Eskimos broadcast rights, didn’t have any more luck.
Farlinger recalled a story when he and Fred Fleming were at the 1990 Super Bowl in New Orleans. Fleming, who is now employed by the Denver Broncos, always had a close relationship with Broncos owner Pat Bowlen.
“We told Bryan that we would call him from New Orleans before the game. Because of Freddie, we had access to just about everything — the practices, the functions, we had all the inside scoops.
“The hotel we were staying in had one phone in the bathroom and another phone in the main room. I used the bathroom phone; Freddie took the other phone and we called Bryan during his show.
“For the next 15 minutes, Bryan proceeded to tell us what was going on. ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah. I know all about the Super Bowls and what it’s like to be there. I know what happens. I’ve been there. Everybody is excited, the prices are high, the crowds, the tension ...’
“After about 10 minutes, I hung up the phone walked out of the bathroom, looked at Freddie and shrugged my shoulders.”
Crowds, action, the big game, Hall, who did his first broadcast at CKUA in 1953, can’t stand quiet.
“I’m not telling you, I’m just telling you,” is probably his signature line, but he’s got a dozen more. “Aw, what do you know.” “Will you just listen to me for a second.” Hall can even argue with himself. Fleming and Hall used to have a daily PointCounterpoint show on CJCA, which Hall joined in 1965 before leaving for CHED on Dec. 1, 1993. Fleming would argue one side, Hall the other.
“One show we did was on tennis,” said Fleming. “I said that, personally, I didn’t think tennis should be a sport.
“Now in those days, there was about three people sharing the money and women were hardly playing.
“Hall comes back at me and says, ‘Yeah, yeah. If it isn’t a contact sport, then it’s not a sport for you,’ and he goes on and on, yelling and screaming. Finally, I just walked out of the booth. He argued with himself for three minutes. He says I came back. I never did.”
Those were the days when (hard to believe but true) Hall was way more over the top than he is today. Today’s Bryan Hall is milquetoast compared to the one who roared into the microphones in the late 60s, 70s and 80s.
“I first heard of Bryan Hall when I was living in Vancouver,” said Dave Jamieson, the Eskimos director of communications, who was also Hall’s boss when he was program director at CHED.
“He was like this curious urban myth, this loud, bombastic individual. I remember the first time I heard him it was like, ‘God, what just happened?
“But it was great radio.”
Hall had an open-line Points After radio show — the first sports-talk radio show in Alberta, one of the first in Canada.
If Hall disagreed with the caller, which was invariably almost always, he would essentially humiliate the caller telling him he didn’t know what he was talking about. And then he would slam the phone down, cutting callers off in mid-sentence.
People loved it. The phone would slam down a lot after Earl Edwards left the Eskimos in 1968 to play 11 years in the NFL. It quickly became a running joke.
“Hey, Bryan,” the calls would begin. “Who did we get for Earl Edwards?” Slam. One caller got very inventive. He told Hall he had seats right behind the Eskimos bench at Clarke Stadium. He said he heard quarterback Tom Wilkinson come over to talk to head coach Ray Jauch. The conversation was really getting animated, said the caller. And he heard it all.
Hall, for one of the few times, was interested enough to let the caller actually talk. “So what were they saying?” asked Hall. Well, said the caller, Wilkinson wanted to know who we got for Earl Edwards.
“In those days, he would drive me crazy,” said CHED morning man Gord Whitehead, who has worked with Hall for 32 of the 33 years he has been in Edmonton.
“I used to say I could murder him and I would have been out on good behaviour. He could really be a handful. We’ve had more than one set-to, but the one I remember the most was when I grabbed him by the lapels of his sports coat. His feet were waving above the ground. Fred Fleming had to come and break it up.”
“When Bryan passes on, it’s going to be the largest funeral the city has ever seen. Which just goes to prove if you give people what they want, they’ll come.” — Farlinger
Infuriating. Caustic. Cantankerous. And those are his good qualities. Except for one thing. It’s an act. There are two Bryan Halls. There is the public Hall, who everyone has come to love and hate. And there is the private Hall, who very few get to see.
The real Bryan Hall is no more the on-air Bryan Hall than Jack Nicholson is the Joker or that Tom Hanks is really Forrest Gump.
One is an actor. The other is a character. Hall is both, and very good ones.
“No question about it,” said Fleming. “There’s an acting side big time. There’s the side of Bryan Hall that you love him to death. And another side you hate. And the acting side is one you hate. You turn the camera on him and he goes to a different level.”
“One night after a game in Calgary we ran out of gas on Highway 2,” said Fleming. “We had just passed Gasoline Alley in Red Deer. I asked him if we needed to stop for gas, but he said, ‘Nah, we’re OK.’
So a few minutes and a few miles later, we’re out of gas. It’s dark and Hall’s legs are getting chaffed. I told him, ‘Bryan, it wouldn’t matter if it was daylight, no one would stop for us because nobody likes you.’ ”
Fleming also remembers when they filmed the movie Running Brave, a true story about Billy Mills, a North American native who won the 10,000-metre race at the Tokyo Olympics. The movie was shot in Edmonton, much of it at Commonwealth Stadium. Hall played the role of the announcer.
“The camera went on and he was unbelievable. I mean, he can really act.” Farlinger agrees completely. “More than anybody he understood his place in people’s minds and he played to that. He had an image he was creating and he honed it for the ages.”
With Hall, there is no grey. It is either black or white.
“Bryan knew that better than anybody else,” said Farlinger. “He assessed every situation, and he took the side where it made the best sense to position himself. He was an actor putting on a show.
“He’d pick a position and you either strongly agreed with him or violently disagreed. He always reminded me of Howard Cosell.” Or a carnival barker. Danny Maciocia, the Eskimos general manager, said the first time he met Hall, he was the Montreal Alouettes offensive co-ordinator.
“We did an interview at Olympic Stadium,” Maciocia recalls. “It probably went about 15 minutes. Most of the time he was answering his own questions. “I never met anybody like him.” Richie Hall, the Eskimos head coach, soon found the same thing.
“Sometimes I don’t have to say anything because he provides the question and the answer for me,” said the Eskimos coach. “I just sit there and smile and say, ‘Yes, yes, yes. You’re absolutely right. Thank you very much.’ ”
“If you didn’t know who you were talking to, you’d think you were talking to the general manager of the Edmonton Eskimos.” — TSN’s Glen Suitor
“It’s show time all the time,” said Whitehead.
But then, as Whitehead said, television and radio personalities are paid to perform.
“ For Bryan the performance was bombast, confrontation and stubbornness,” said Whitehead. “A lot of people have criticized him because of it. But he’s been very successful with it.”
Hall also irritates a lot of people with the commercials he spins into his broadcasts.
“His broadcasts have been called three hours of commercials wrapped around some occasional play-by-play,” wrote Herb Zurkowsky of the Montreal Gazette.
“It’s fair to say he developed a big association with football advertisers,” said Farlinger. “He pounded the pavement, kissed the babies and met these guys.”
Just as Farlinger said that Hall purposely irritates and antagonizes, he said Hall’s relationship with advertisers “isn’t by accident, either. It didn’t make him a better broadcaster; I’d argue it made him worse. But it made him financially more successful.
“Is that a criticism? I think the thing that trumps all of this is that Bryan wouldn’t be around if it wasn’t for his talent. His talent always overrode the criticisms.
“He has a lot of talent, a lot of ability. He always had a tremendous ability to add more than what happened; he made a happening of it.” You love Hall. You hate him. But Edmontonians have never stopped listening. He is like a car wreck. Even if they hated what he was saying, people tuned in to hear it. It’s like trying not to look at a car wreck. You can’t do it.
“He is the most arrogant, self-centred, bullying, know-it-all, overbearing, audacious, pretentious, loud, egotistical, disdainful windbag this city has ever seen. He will be dearly missed.” — a Journal website comment when it was announced Hall was leaving the Eskimos broadcast booth.
Born in Toronto in 1934 — his dad a lawyer who died when he was only nine, his mother a nurse — Hall got his first broadcasting job when he was 19 years old after moving to Edmonton. After graduating from Strathcona High School, where his football team (Hall played on the defensive and offensive lines) had just beaten the Victoria Redmen for the city championship, Hall said: “A classmate wanted to get into broadcasting. He said he went down to CKUA and they gave him an audition. He said I should do the same.
“I had no idea what I was going to do for the rest of my life. I just thought it would be neat to hear myself,” he said. “My life is just a happening. Everything I did, I fell into and its all been terrific.”
Hall did the audition on a Friday in 1953. He was hired on Monday. He did all-night shifts, hosted a jazz show, did the news. And started doing some sports.
Two years later, Jim Brook, a columnist with the Edmonton Journal, suggested he apply for a vacant sportscaster job at CHED. Hall got that one, too. He was already developing his shtick.
Hall won’t go so far as to say what he does is an act.
“That implies that I’m a phoney,” he says. “I’m not. I’m not a blowhard. I’m not looking to self-ingratiate myself or build myself up.” But the rest of it? Absolutely. “I don’t want to be dull and boring. “I want people to say what a loud-mouthed, opinionated jerk, or what a know-it-all,” said Hall, who was recently honoured by the Canadian Football League club at its 46th annual dinner — he’s been to all of them — by announcing that the media centre at Commonwealth Stadium would be named after him.
“You have to remember I was trying to build a reputation,” said Hall. “I wanted to get a reaction and say something to get a reaction from an audience. Bombastic, aggressive, opinionated — strongly opinionated — at times rude. I was young and I was having fun.”
He also makes no apology for being an emboldened homer who owns three Grey Cup rings, two of which he always wears and invariably refers to the Eskimos as ‘we.’
“How can I not be? I live here. This is my city. I want the Eskimos to win. I want the Oilers to win,” said Hall, who also loves “his” New York Yankees, but then, being a cross between Billy Martin and George Steinbrenner, that’s not a surprise.
“He’s the biggest booster the city has got,” Whitehead said of the man who is always immaculately dressed and groomed, looking and acting nothing like a man who just turned 75.
“Hallsy predated radio. He called Moses parting the Red Sea. That’s where he found his hairpiece.” — TSN’s Darren Dutchyshen
“I am not retiring,” Hall said when it was announced this would be his last season as the Eskimos broadcaster. He stresses that he will remain with CHED, continuing to get to the office at 5:30 a.m., doing his sportscasts, the station’s three-hour Afternoon News talk show, and then finishing the day around 6 p.m.
“What am I going to do? Walk Bonnie Doon Mall with a coffee cup every morning?”
Hall left Edmonton for Toronto in 1962. But in 1965, he was back. Now at CJCA.
If anything he was now more caustic than ever. The legend was only beginning to grow. So was Hall. Weighing close to 250 pounds, he even started looking like a football.
But then, those were the days when sportscasters and sports writers worked hard and played harder. After a game had ended, the other games were just beginning.
“You’d go out to eat. You’d have a few predinner drinks. Then you’d have a New York steak, garlic toast, baked potato, after-dinner drinks,” said Hall, the father of four from a previous marriage.
One late-night, post-game get together started at the old King Edward Hotel on 101st Street where Holt Renfrew now stands.
“At one point, I said I had to go to the washroom. I was bagged. And I probably had too much to drink,” said Hall. “I remember putting my head down on the toilet-paper dispenser. I fell asleep. When I woke up, the place was pitch black. It was 3 a.m. Nobody came to check on me because, in those days, nobody wanted to say they were going to go home. They’d just say they were going to the washroom and then they’d leave. “The doors were locked.” Hall, however, found a trap door that led to a tunnel that led back to the hotel.
“I climbed through, asked for my coat and car keys and went home.”
“I used to hate you,” a man said, coming up to Hall. “Then you bought me a Slurpee. I’ve loved you ever since.”
“There’s nothing I can’t do in broadcasting,” said Hall.
That’s true. As well as broadcasting Edmonton Eskimos, Flyers and Oil Kings games, plus games of the Alberta Oilers of the World Hockey Association, Hall has called more than 10,000 thoroughbred races in the 10 years he was employed by Northlands.
One night, he was at an Edmonton Oilers game when the Boston Bruins were in town and the Bruins play-by-play man got laryngitis — an affliction Hall has naturally never had.
“Somebody went down to ask Hall, who was sitting in the season tickets he has, if he could call the game,” said Jamieson. “He was like, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah. I’ll be up in a minute.’ He made it look easy.”
He can do news. Obviously, he can do sportscasts.
“Everybody thinks I’m just a sports guy. I’m a broadcaster. And I’ve never used a script. I like to think I’m only talking to one person.” So just who is the real Bryan Hall? “That’s the big question, isn’t it?” said Hall, playing his cards tight against his very expensive-looking jacket.
“Everybody asks me that. Everybody wants to know what Bryan Hall is really like. I can only deduce from that they don’t believe I can really be like I am on the air. “I’m a very private person.” Whitehead said that given the three decades he has worked with Hall, “I think I know him as well as anyone. But I don’t know who his friends are. He used to be close with Mel Neville, Zane Feldman and Leo LeClerc. But those guys are all gone. So I don’t know.
“What I do know is that he is very intelligent, very well read, has a great sense of humour, likes jazz and a good martini. He’s a very complex individual. And he dotes on his wife.
“When you see them together, you’d never know it’s the same guy. It’s something the public hardly ever sees.”
“A huge heart,” said Campbell. “Very caring. He would do anything for you. That’s the Bryan Hall I know. People don’t get to see that. And his love for his wife just leaps out of him.”
“Extremely compassionate,” said Maciocia. “The rest is all part of the gig.”
The one person, who does know Hall is Lil, his wife of 30 years.
“Huggy Bear,” she begins. “He has his public figure and his private figure.
“He puts a persona behind the voice. He gets people going by taking the opposite view opposed to the normal view. He gets people all riled up. And then he leaves. Or he hangs up on them.
“But the private figure that nobody gets to see is that he’s very generous with his time and his money. People phone him all the time. I can’t tell you how many people he has helped, whether it’s to get a job, to help make an inroad, or whatever.
“He’s my best friend, my confidant,” Lil continues. “He’s also very positive in his outlook and how he thinks. He lives by a higher power; he knows there is a higher power. I don’t think people would think that about him.”
At home, Hall loves to watch Coronation Street or PBS National Geographic shows. He loves to listen to music, all kinds — blues, classical, rock — but his favourite is jazz, particularly anything by Oscar Peterson.
“Oh, and one other thing,” said Lil. “He loves hotdogs.”
Now that is something nobody will be surprised about.
Eskimos play-by-play announcer Bryan Hall hams it up in his radio station's newsroom in 1988.
... and in February, when the Canadian Football Hall of Fame broadcaster announced that 2009 will be his last season calling Eskimos games.
Hall talks to B.C. Lions head coach and general manager Wally Buono before Friday's showdown with the Edmonton Eskimos in Vancouver.
Another 1988 CJCA Newroom shot