You may not know his name, but you’ve heard him speak.
Harlan Rector was the first signature voice of The History Channel, and for years he could be heard on trailers for some of Hollywood’s biggest movies.
And that sudden desire to rush out and get a bucket of Blue Bell Ice Cream? It was probably a response to his folksy, nostalgic commercials reminding us that, “Some say Blue Bell is the best ice cream in the country.”
For some people, a successful career as a voiceover artist would be enough. But Rector isn’t some people. He’s also a playwright, radio drama producer, author and caricature artist.
But none of that happened overnight. For Harlan Rector, it all began when he was in the second grade.
Today, Rector lives in Greenleaf Village at Nocatee, but at the start of World War II, he was seven years old and living in St. Louis, Missouri.
One day, his teacher asked her students what they’d like to be when they grew up. A lot of his classmates wanted to be soldiers or firemen or cowboys. But even then, the boy who would one day get Clint Eastwood and Jesse Owens to autograph his drawings and who would urge audiences to see Disney’s “Maleficent” stood out from the crowd.
“I told her I wanted to be an artist,” Rector said. “And I never gave another thought to what I was going to do.”
He studied fine arts at Washington University in St. Louis, but money was tight so he enlisted in the U.S. Army for two years. When he returned to college, an instructor suggested he stay home, make samples of his work and attend a night school for commercial art.
Rector did just that, and the instructor helped him find employment with a company that made training films and animation.
He went on to a career in advertising, starting with a small agency in St. Louis and then moving to a bigger one in Upstate New York. That led to a job as an art director with Campbell Ewald in Detroit.
It was there that Rector’s ability as a caricature artist first came to light.
During an impasse on an ad he was helping to develop, he drew a caricature of the copywriter. It turned out well, and he stuck it on the wall where others were quick to notice it.
“Pretty soon, that was the most popular office in the whole place,” he said, “because everybody who came in got a caricature.”
He began to carry a pad of paper and pen everywhere he went, and on one fateful afternoon in 1971 he wandered into a restaurant across the street, The Steering Wheel. Every day at noon local radio station WJR aired a show originating from the restaurant that featured interviews with celebrities visiting the Motor City. Watching from his place at the bar, Rector did a caricature of the show’s host, J.P. McCarthy, who upon seeing it invited the artist to stop by each day and draw caricatures of the show’s guests.
Over the period of two years, Rector produced more than a hundred drawings of people like Count Basie, Carol Channing, E.G. Marshall, Kim Hunter, Stan Getz, Oscar Peterson and Maria Von Trapp. The celebrities were always happy to autograph his pictures.
Not knowing quite what to do with the caricatures, Rector simply stored them in a box.
Years later, he had them professionally authenticated. It was the authenticator who first suggested that Rector make the drawings into a book.
“Once Upon A Corner In Detroit” — named for the location of the restaurant, the corner of Grand Boulevard and Second Avenue — was published in May and features 65 of Rector’s caricatures.
LEARNING TO TALK THE TALK
Becoming a published author was still very much in Rector’s future when, in 1975, he moved to Los Angeles with his wife and five children. There, he went to work for another ad agency — one of seven he would work for throughout his career.
And it was in L.A. that he was “discovered.”
At one point in the ‘70s, he was running his own agency and was working on a campaign for Honda. A part of that was a radio commercial, and he wanted to give his client a demo tape.
“We didn’t have any money for an announcer, so I said, ‘I’ll do it,’” he recalled.
At the recording studio, he could see the engineer and a woman chatting when he stepped up to the mic.
“When I started to talk, they stopped talking,” he said. “I thought: I wonder what’s going on.”
After he finished, the woman approached. It turned out she was a top voiceover artist and, surprised that he wasn’t already “in the business,” she offered to instruct him in the craft.
Later, a former disc jockey encouraged Rector to make a demo tape of his voice work and then sent the tape to one of the top agents in the business.
Rector began to attend auditions, which helped him launch his voiceover career but had the opposite effect on his ad agency work. Finally, he lost his job and, in 1981, moved to New York where there was more work for voiceover artists.
Here is where Rector became the trusted voice of Blue Bell Ice Cream. And here is where things really took off.
In 1995, Rector was working with a producer at A&E who said his boss wanted to meet him. The producer said they were going to start something called The History Channel and his boss was looking for a signature voice.
“It’s between you and another guy,” the producer said.
“Who’s the other guy?” Rector asked.
“James Earl Jones.”
“I said, ‘Just give it to him,’” Rector recalled. “Darth Vader!”
But Rector was selected and served as the voice of the new cable TV channel during its first four years on the air.
After that stint, the History Channel executives decided they wanted a younger voice, so Rector told his wife, “Let’s go back to St. Louis; I’ll play golf the rest of my life.”
But shortly after that move, he got a call from his agent in New York asking if he would like to record movie trailers from his home studio.
“So, for years, I did a fabulous amount of movie trailers,” he said.
Then, one Christmas in the early 2000s, Rector was listening to some carols on the radio and began to wonder about the person who took the last room at the inn where Mary and Joseph later stopped.
“I started to write lyrics to a song that he’d sing about the experience,” Rector said. This was something new that he’d never done before, and he wasn’t completely sure why he felt compelled to do it.
He also wrote songs for other New Testament personalities, such as Barabbas and Mary Magdalen. After he’d written the lyrics to 14 songs, he got a call from his friend at A&E. After Rector described his latest project, his friend encouraged him to send his work to a composer he knew in Nashville.
Rector and the composer collaborated on the musical stage show called “A Taste of Heaven,” which eventually ran for 18 sold-out performances in 2010 at a small theater near Branson, Missouri, and for 10 more in St. Louis.
But the show was not Rector’s first theatrical endeavor.
While working in New York in the 1980s, he found himself listening to a radio drama called “Heartbeat Theater.” The show featured stories that evoked hope and optimism and inspired Rector to try to do something similar.
“I thought, I’ll produce radio dramas, only they’ll be true stories about how God works in people’s lives,” he said. He called the show “L.I.G.H.T.,” which stands for Living In God’s Hands Today. He wrote the first of the show’s 40 stories while on the train one morning as he traveled into New York.
“L.I.G.H.T.” was aired on 10 Christian radio stations across the country over the next two years, after which a friend recommended recording the shows onto CDs and donating them to prisons so that inmates could listen to them.
He also made podcasts out of the shows, and they can be found today at https://hrector234.podbean.com.
TURNING THE PAGE
Rector moved to The First Coast four years ago. It was a move that signaled a new direction for the man who had done so many different things.
Here is where he launched another career: author.
After the authenticator suggested publishing his caricatures, he thought: “Well, I’ve done everything else; might as well write a book.”
But “Once Upon A Corner In Detroit” turned out to be a much bigger job than simply printing the drawings he’d made in the early 1970s. He wanted to include a one-page bio about each celebrity on the page facing the corresponding caricature. He began to write these, but soon saw that he would need some help.
At the invitation of the friend, Rector spoke to the members of the Del Webb writers’ club, asking if anyone would like to write some of the bios for him.
One of the writers who responded was Ed Mickolus, author of several books on a variety of subjects, predominantly counter-terrorism. Mickolus wrote eight of the bios himself and helped Rector navigate the road to publication.
Then, when Rector visited Mickolus to drop off a published copy of “Once Upon A Corner In Detroit,” the latter asked him what he would be writing next.
Rector’s response: “I’m not going to do that. I’m going to play golf. I haven’t played golf in six months.”
Two days later, he did just as he promised. But on the seventh hole, he got a hole in one — and just like that the game lost a good deal of its appeal.
“Now that I’m on the mountaintop, golf doesn’t have the draw anymore,” he said.
Before the week was out, and possibly in answer to a prayer, Harlan Rector found himself wanting to write that second book after all.
“I Matter” is a collection of short essays from people who have experienced a positive change in their lives, a change that has helped them to understand that they do matter. The book’s subtitle, suggested by Mickolus, is: Finding meaning in your life at any age.
The essays are divided into several stages of the average person’s life. There’s the Age of Innocence, which is childhood, and the Age of Learning, which applies to the high-school and college years. There’s the Age of Adulthood, followed by the Age of Responsibility, which addresses marriage and parenthood. There’s the Age of Retirement, when people have an opportunity to reflect.
Among the people included in these essays is a onetime substance user who was saved at a church in Harlem, recovered and went on to open up rehabilitation houses for men addicted to drugs and alcohol. Another essay is contributed by a former NFL linebacker.
The book is nearly finished and Rector is seeking a publisher now.
So, what’s next for the Renaissance man of Greenleaf Village? One can only speculate.
He may even get a chance to play some more golf.
“Once Upon A Corner In Detroit” is available at amazon.com.
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