Theaterdelphia: Former radio star tries his hand at acting

Posted: January 11, 2013

THEATER IS SUPPOSED to surprise. But there was no way I was prepared for what happened last Sunday afternoon when I arrived at the Players Club of Swarthmore for a matinee performance of playwright Tom Gibbons' "Permanent Collection." I opened the playbill and learned the character of Paul Barrow is being played by John Harvey.

The name "John Harvey" may not immediately ring any bells, but readers of a certain age are likely to remember "Harvey in the Morning," the popular show he hosted for more than two decades on WIOQ (102.1-FM) and later on WMGK (102.9-FM).

"Permanent Collection," which runs through Jan. 19, was first staged at InterAct Theatre in 2003 (it returns there in March). It's based on the early days of controversy at the Barnes Foundation which, at the time, was located - along with its priceless art collection - in Lower Merion. Harvey co-stars as Paul Barrow, the insulated academic who, for a couple of decades, has been the museum's education director and locks horns with Sterling North (played by E. Scott Jones), a high-powered African-American business exec who has been named the new director of the internationally acclaimed repository created by the late millionaire, Alfred Morris.

The conflict in the thought-provoking and well-acted drama flows from North's insistence on displaying a handful of African artifacts he found in a storage room. Barrow strenuously objects, ostensibly because adding even one piece to the public display would be in violation of the eccentric Morris' will. But, as it turns out Barrow's submerged racism may be the real catalyst for his actions.

For Harvey, whose character delivers a couple of key monologues and stages an intense verbal duel with North, playing such a meaty role is a delight.

"I love the challenge of playing a guy like that - who has a deep flaw that you don't see until later on in the course of the story. Boy, is it fun!"

Harvey credits Jones for his comfort with a none-too-likeable character, and for the freedom to deliver some lines that are less than politically correct. "To me," he said, "it's really ugly stuff. We're just two giant egos battling it out trying to decide who's gonna end up winning."

So what happened to Harvey's two-decade-plus radio career? And where has he been since being fired by WMGK in the mid-1990s?

As opposed to high-energy, wiseguy competitors like "Morning Zoo" host John DeBella and the envelope-pushing Howard Stern, Harvey, 61, took a warm, low-key on-air approach that was usually described in the public prints as "folksy." That, he suggested, was his downfall as a radio personality.

"I'm not exactly sure what happened, but I know the market changed, that what I did was not what people were doing for morning shows anymore - mean-spirited pranks kind of things," he said. "I spent five years trying to get [the radio career] going again. I couldn't get hired on radio. I figured after 22 years, maybe I wouldn't be a star, but I could certainly get a gig on radio. But I couldn't get arrested."

His immediate post-radio career was spent in reality television, on both sides of the camera. His resume includes stints as supervising producer of the popular "Trading Spaces," and a subsequent run as executive producer of NBC-TV's Saturday morning version, "Trading Spaces Kids."

When the "Trading Spaces" production operation was relocated from Philly to Los Angeles, Harvey took a left turn out of the media universe. A friend suggested the self-taught carpenter become a handyman. Today, "Harvey the Handyman" makes his living as a jack of (almost all) home-repair trades .

Harvey's life as a stage actor actually dates to 1980, when he started lessons with an eye toward moving into television. He performed locally for years, stopping in 2000, when he began with "Trading Spaces," and picked it up again a couple of years ago.

As much as he enjoys acting, Harvey will not be taking it up full time. Nor does he ache to return to radio - something he doubts will happen.

"People ask me, 'Do you miss radio?' I don't miss radio because I don't know if radio, as I think of it, even exists [anymore]," he said. He added he would listen to offers, "but I don't pine for it either."

"I'm a very happy guy at this point in my life. I don't know if I would have described myself as that way until about 10 years ago. The first 50 years 'happy' wouldn't have made the list of top 25 [adjectives]. It's at the top of my list now.

"I'm a happy guy. I'm lovin' my life."

Players Club of Swarthmore, 614 Fairview Road, Swarthmore, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and Jan. 18 and 19, 2 p.m. Sunday and 7:30 Thursday. Tickets: $15, $14 (seniors) and $8 (students), pcstheater.org.

Curtains up

Two of the city's largest venues are debuting productions Tuesday evening:

Just 48 hours after "Les Miserables" bids adieu to the Academy of Music, another Broadway smash, "Catch Me If You Can," checks in for a six-day run. The based-on-a-true-story musical was inspired by the Tom Hanks-Leonardo DiCaprio film of the same name about a young man who passes himself off as, among other things, a doctor, lawyer and airline pilot.

Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 8 p.m. Jan. 18, 2 and 8 p.m. Jan. 19 and 1 and 6:30 p.m Jan. 20. Admission is $100-$20. Tickets: 215-893-1999 or kimmelcenter.org.

A few blocks east, at 9th and Walnut streets, the Walnut Street Theatre's Mainstage premiers Oscar Wilde's "An Ideal Husband." The comedy, which runs through March 3, concerns a seemingly "perfect" politician who is not all he's cracked up to be - as is the old friend who comes to his aid when scandal strikes.

Show times vary. Admission is $65-$10. Tickets: 215-574-3550 or walnutstreettheatre.org.


On Twitter: @chuckdarrow

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