Native Red Deerian Harley Hay is, among other things, a filmmaker, writer, musician and photographer. He writes a weekly newspaper column, publishes his own books, runs a video production company, works on feature films in several different capacities and makes hilarious or serious, award-winning short films.
Married to Nina for 31 years he is the father of two successful grown-up children, “The rotten kids” often referred to in his writing. Best of all, Hay, perhaps the City’s best known renaissance man, is a raconteur with an infectious sense of humour.
It started with music, says Hay, describing himself as “right-brained.”
Raised in Parkvale, his first gig was playing drums in a marching band around age 11. By Gr. 9 he was part of the band that played at his own graduation. Mayor Morris Flewwelling, then his English teacher, hired the band to play at his wedding to Hazel some 40 odd years ago.
There were various bands through the teenage years; one toured in a 1951 Buick hearse bought for $300. Music was often more important than school. He remembers sleeping through a major departmental final exam at Lindsay Thurber after a late night gig in Calgary and the vice-principal didn’t even wake him up.
He says he and his band were the first “long-haired hippies” in Red Deer in the 60s and were even refused service in some Red Deer restaurants because of their hair.
“But that was great for somebody with a rebellious streak and it just made me want to grow my hair longer.”
In 1970 after high school he applied to film school at the University of Southern California and got preliminary acceptance. Tuition alone was $11,500 even then, but if he’d gone he would have been in school with Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, future giants in the film world.
So when it came to a choice between film school and forming a professional band and going on the road, music won. He helped form an eight-piece horn band, the Gaetz Avenue Dance Band, (“the world’s worst name for a band and, ironically, we hardly ever played in Red Deer”).
“We played the Calgary Stampede, Vancouver, Western Canada, Washington State, even opened for big bands like Chilliwack and Lover Boy,” says Hay. “That worked for a few years, I wrote a few tunes, but eventually I went back to school and financed it with a really bad series of wedding bands, graduating as a law clerk from RDC, was essentially a legal secretary, and there I was typing away.
“This wasn’t really what I wanted to do, so I took Honours English at U of A and taught at Lindsay Thurber and later Red Deer College, but I wasn’t cut out to be a teacher either.”
He adds film was a passion from early on.
“I always liked film. The movie theatre was a magic place. What I really wanted to do was make films. I’ve been a frustrated filmmaker since I was a teenager. I’d bought a 16-millimetre camera and started making my own films, but didn’t know what I was doing,” says Hay. “There were no nearby film schools in those days. So I volunteered at Shaw Cable, then worked as a cameraman at RDTV for four years, shooting everything, doing my own editing. It was the first big step in learning what I wanted to do when I grew up (which I still haven’t).”
Then he worked for CFRN as a reporter and that got him writing. He also got involved with Larry Reese and others who started the film program at RDC. He was the camera operator and an associate producer on Naked Frailties, a full-length motion picture made by volunteers at RDC for $30,000 in 1998. That started him writing film scripts and since 1991 he’s also worked at Nova doing safety and training films and still photography.
Somehow he also finds the time to write and make his own films. He’s a freelancer, a deliberate choice to do what satisfies him the most, even it means less money and security.
“If you’re doing what you love doing, you’re doing well. I love the creative process, music, film, writing.” But he says staying in Red Deer “was the biggest disappointment of my life and maybe the best decision I ever made. I love it here, my family’s all here, it’s a great place to raise a family.
“Being a father is the most important thing I’ve done. Both my kids have said to me that growing up in Red Deer was the best thing that could have happened to them. But I do have regrets, the coulda, woulda, shoulda kind, I could have been a contender, but I was a bit chicken. However, with my personality, I think I needed to be grounded (in Red Deer).”