Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Day I Met Chris Hess

Fidelity to reality (or lack thereof) has never been a "deal breaker" for me in regards to the plastic horses: there’s so much more to a model’s appeal beyond how closely it matches the real thing. It’s not just a physical representation of a horse.

There’s a persistent strain of hobbyist that takes perverse delight in delineating every single fault in every new release. Take a look at any given thread on a new mold on any of the major discussion boards - it never takes more than five posts on the subject for the model to be declared either an abomination, physically impossible, or an affront to someone’s delicate sensibilities.

I try to keep my eyerolling and keyboard in check when the inevitable destruction of the newest Breyer releases comes up. (The original Auld Lang Syne thread on Model Horse Blab was particularly embarrassing. Upchuck smilies? Seriously?) But I get somewhat more defensive and chatty when the target of derision du jour is a Secretariat.

You want to know why? The first time I saw it was also the first - and only time - I ever met Chris Hess. You know, the guy who, more than any other person, made Breyer what it was - and what it is.

It was at Model Horse Congress (the BreyerFest before BreyerFest) in Chicago. Marney had casually mentioned something about the casting of the new Secretariat model being brought in, and in a spare moment I went over to see it.

I can’t remember what the indignation level was, if any. Other hobbyists examined it, made a few comments and minor critiques, though I can’t remember what they were. If any sentiment was expressed, it was the pleasure of actually being able to see a brand new Breyer mold, in the pre-production phase - in person!

This was in the mid-1980s, way before this sort of thing became commonplace. The coolness factor for me was pretty darn high. I was also pleased to see it because the Secretariat mold was something that was a very, very long time in coming - and here was proof, at last, that the promise was about to become reality.

The person who had brought the model in was, of course, Chris Hess. He sat next to the casting, in a rumpled windbreaker, looking a little out of his element. I didn’t realize who he was at that very moment - I guess I assumed he was someone’s father or grandfather. It wasn’t until after he left that it dawned on me.

I probably would have been too intimidated to ask him any question, even if I had been formally introduced. Although I was not the history diva then that I am now, I was well on my way; I had already had the audacity to rewrite the Master List Breyer had been sending out to collectors back then - and send it back to them!

The questions I would ask now are probably quite different from the questions I would have asked then. Not because I know more about Breyer history, but because I didn’t know that the Secretariat mold was going to be Chris Hess’s last gift to us: he "retired" from mold making with his completion. And that he would pass away not much longer after that.

In fact, I’m not so sure I would ask any questions at all. If I could have a time machine do-over moment, I think I’d just use it as an opportunity to thank him for giving us Secretariat (the horse that, in a roundabout way, brought me to the hobby) and for making my childhood a little less lonely.

Not so much history in that one, but an interesting post for some of you, I hope.


Ian said...

Interesting post! The best one I ever heard was at Breyerfest in '95 when I overheard someone describe Rawhide as painted like a "sneeze with a nosebleed" LOL. People can be a little harsh in their criticism. Will I personally ever like KC or Secretariat? No... but I don't disparage those who do. There are plenty of molds I do enjoy that others would include in their "never want to see again" list. One of my favorite things about Breyer has always been their wide range of molds. If all they ever made were Silvers and Wintersongs the hobby would be a much more boring place.

desktopstables said...

Interesting! A lot of my favorite horses were sculpted by Hess, and I have a growing wish list of many more. Some are a bit awkward and a little rough around the edges, but I think that's what makes them special. :) Now, if only Breyer would re-release some of these molds with their newer paint jobs!

The Secretariat mold has a sweet face. He reminds me of a gentle old lesson horse that's "been there and done that" with all different types of riders. I'll have to add one to my collection someday.


Anonymous said...

Just read your post and read it out loud to my mom. My mom's father was Chris Hess and that put a smile on her face. Thanks for remembering him and enjoying the models that he loved to make.

Truson said...

WOW! Know this: he brought everlasting joy and a whole new level to Christmas to several generations! Every day that I get a model is Christmas to me because the models were what I asked for every Christmas!