By David Gernon / KPR Intern
If it’s Saturday night and you’re looking for a lively soundtrack to score your cruise around town, one that is sure to keep you entertained is A Night on the Town, produced and hosted by KPR’s George Harter.
A Night on the Town underscores Harter’s simple programming philosophy: “I want the listeners to celebrate the 100-year history of the American musical.” In that vein, Harter plays Broadway show tunes from 9-10 p.m. every Saturday. Listeners can tune in to hear songs, stories and interesting tidbits honoring the American musical.
After an hour of show tunes, Harter plays an hour of film scores, from Old Hollywood to recently released films.
Although Harter got his start in radio in the 1970s, his passion for it started much earlier as a kid, in a place you wouldn’t think would give rise to an interest in Broadway musicals: Appalachia.
“As a kid in rural West Virginia, it’s kind of a closed society,” Harter said. “You’re kind of shut off from the world. So this was a connection to the outside world. This was, to me, what the outside world sounded like.”
Growing up, Harter could hear music floating across the Big Sandy River at night. He would close his eyes and imagine what the performers looked like, wondering how strange it was that he could hear them but couldn’t see them and that they didn’t even know he existed. It was hearing these tunes while drifting off to sleep that first fostered Harter’s love for radio.
Harter got his start in radio in 1976, at KCUR-FM, the NPR affiliate at UMKC, as a news producer. However, he says he didn’t enjoy compiling a story over a few days, sending it over the air and “watching the needles move and then put it in a box and it goes on the shelf.” He eventually left the station a few years later to finish his studies in communications at UMKC. While there, Kansas City’s classical music station, KXTR, approached him about becoming an announcer on Saturday nights. He accepted, planning for radio to remain only as a hobby.
“I thought, ‘Well that might be kind of fun to be a classical music announcer.’ I always liked classical music,” Harter said.
He operated the board every Saturday night, playing songs from groups like the Boston Pops Orchestra and Keith Peters’ Big Band Hour.
“But from 10:30 to midnight, all the syndicated shows had finished and there wasn’t programming for that time,” Harter said. “I started playing show tunes because I found some in the library and no one else was doing that. That’s how I started A Night on the Town.”
Despite those modest beginnings, his show was eventually syndicated. Today, his show is known internationally and can be heard on 82 stations in the United States and Canada.
“Getting my show syndicated was quite a landmark achievement in my personal life,” Harter said. “When I was a kid, a network radio show was a big deal. To actually have one and produce one was a great source of satisfaction for me.”
To help prepare his show for syndication, in 1998 Harter founded Musical Theater Heritage, a non-profit production company. But the radio show is not all the Musical Theater Heritage does. It also hosts live shows at a 243-seat theater at the Crown Center in Kansas City.
Harter noted a few memorable shows since the theater opened in 2008, including the musical 1776 with a twist – 40 women being cast instead of the usual 40 men – and Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George. But his favorite show, without a doubt he said, is Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, based on Mark Twain’s classic novel.
“It’s my favorite because I got to play the harmonica in the orchestra pit, and I got to be Mark Twain,” Harter says.
For those curious to see some Broadway musicals in person, Harter also operates a tour company with theater trips to New York City, that include four shows per trip.
In the beginning, it was only once a year, but that sold out the first two years, so Harter bumped it up to twice a year. Those sold out, too. Now, Harter organizes seven trips per year and those usually sell out, too. In New York City, George’s tour groups stay at the historic Algonquin Hotel, “for its theater theme.” It was home to the famous Algonquin Round Table of the 1920s, a celebrated group of writers, critics, actors and wits who met for lunch each day at the Algonquin to engage in wisecracks, wordplay and witticisms that were disseminated across the country.
Harter also organizes a trip to London’s West End theater district for shows every two years.
For someone who intended for radio to remain only as a hobby, it has certainly turned into quite a career for Harter.
“There was a romance to it, a mystery,” Harter said. “It was just up there in the atmosphere and this radio device was pulling it out of the air. There was just something magical about that.”
For more information about Musical Theater Heritage’s live performances or New York theater trips, visit http://musicaltheaterheritage.com/