This article appeared in The Town Courier.
A genuine Broadway veteran will play the lead role of Kris Kringle, the department store Santa Claus, in the Sandy Spring Theatre Group’s production of the holiday classic, “Miracle on 34th Street,” Nov. 9 to 11 at the Arts Barn. During his 30-year career, Gaithersburg actor Harley Venton added numerous professional stage, film and television credits to his resume—and has worked with many well-known stars of stage and screen.
Venton set his sights on becoming an actor when the eighth-grader landed the lead role at his first audition. “What else could a boy do after that?” he recalled. “I did every play, talent show and speech contest I could through high school.” He studied theater at the University of North Dakota, earning a bachelor of fine arts, and won a Bush Fellowship to pay for a master of fine arts at the University of Minnesota that included an apprenticeship season at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis.
And as many aspiring actors do after their studies, Venton went to New York City where he found an agent and “with all my classical theater training, promptly and unexpectedly landed a two-year contract as Derek Colby on the (soap opera) ‘Guiding Light’” (1980-82). He also snagged two Broadway parts, including a stage role as Tony in “The Circle” with Sir Rex Harrison, Glynnis Johns and Stewart Granger.
Making “my first foray into night-time television, playing Susan St. James’ ex-husband on two episodes of (1980s sitcom) ‘Kate & Allie,’” he said, “led to more and more night-time television work and a move to Los Angeles” in 1989.
During his nine years in California, Venton landed his favorite role—so far: “the lead in a two-hour pilot for Fox Television called ‘Blood Ties,’ as a good guy vampire. It was produced just before the vampire film craze of the 1990s, and the executives thought it was a little too daring.”
“Ironically,” he recalled, “they aired it on a Memorial Day Weekend with little fanfare, but dedicated fans of the genre sniffed it out and it dominated its timeslot.”
Venton came close to getting Bruce Willis’ role “opposite Cybil Shepard on the hit series, ‘Moonlighting.’” The small consolation was that a decade after the show’s debut, “they released a commemorative DVD with both Bruce’s and my screen tests for the role with commentary.” Successes included parts in “Seinfeld,” “Ellen” and “Cybill.”
Family concerns brought Venton and his ex-wife and their twins (now age 21) back to Maryland, where he “stepped out of the entertainment business and became a stay-at-home dad.” He was close enough to New York “to do a terrific guest starring role on ‘Law & Order’ (2000) as a crazed hockey dad who, in a fit of ‘sports rage’ murders his son’s coach.”
And he is pleased to “have managed to keep my foot in and my skills up along the way.” Those stints included filling in for an NPR host to read ‘A Child’s Christmas in Wales’ with the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra, readings with several playwrighting workshops and two plays in the Kennedy Center’s Page-to -Stage Festival. Venton is collaborating with his friend, Gaithersburg playwright John Sowalsky, on directing and producing one of those Millennium Stage plays, “A Theist,” at next year’s D.C. Fringe Festival. He also produced an Oct .28 Halloween event at St. James Episcopal Church in Potomac.
While coveting roles in plays like “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “Richard the Third’ and “The Man Who Came to Donner”—as well as “any good guest starring roles opposite Julia Louis Dreyfus … or on ‘House of Cards’ with a chum from my New York Days, Kevin Spacey,” he is excited about playing the lead in the talented Sandy Spring Theatre Group cast. “Miracle on 34th Street,” he said, “is a classic as a film and the radio version from the famous Lux Radio Series is likely to appeal to those of my generation who actually experienced them as kids, but additionally, the radio format will be a delightful surprise to younger audiences.”
In partnership with Sandy Spring Theatre Group, Arts on the Green presents “Miracle on 34th Street” at 8 p.m. Nov. 9, 1 and 8 p.m. Nov. 10, and 2 and 8 p.m. Nov. 11 at the Arts Barn, 311 Kent Square Road, Gaithersburg. Admission is $20, $12 for ages 14 and younger. This show is recommended for ages 7 and older. Call 301-258-6394 or visit www.gaithersburgmd.gov. View this performance on CultureSpotMC here.