The list of entertainers who have graced the stage of the Harlingen Municipal Auditorium is impressive. They include Guy Lombardo, the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, Paul Robeson, the Von Trapp Family Singers and famous pianist, composer and conductor Sergei Rachmaninoff. But, all of those names go back to the 1940s, just a few years after the facility was built.
Today, the music and entertainment continue at the 1,500-seat auditorium, but most of the acts who appear on stage aren’t the known names like they used to be. Instead, they are up-and-coming musical talents who bring a variety of styles to Harlingen.
Typically, six times per season, mostly from November through March, top national and international musicians and groups travel to the Rio Grande Valley to perform at the historic auditorium. This is all thanks to the efforts of the nonprofit Harlingen Concert Association in existence since the 1960s.
“We are trying to appeal to our audience and our market, but our first consideration is that the music must be outstanding,” said Cheryl LaBerge, HCA executive board vice president.
LaBerge said the artists on stage this season, which include “America’s Got Talent” Season 9 finalists Sons of Serendip, were actually selected back in the summer of 2018. Each year, several Harlingen Concert Association board members travel to the Tennessee Performing Arts Center to attend the Live On Stage conference and talent show. Here, they select their favorite acts with hopes to schedule their appearance in Harlingen.
During a span of three days, the board members, along with dozens of other similar types of organizations, watch about 30 different acts audition. They then hold quick meetings with the artists to get a better feel for their personalities and background. This ensures they will be able to connect with the audience as well as hold educational outreach programs with the local schools.
“The main thing is the talent showcase,” LaBerge said. “These are groups all over the world – from Russia, Scotland, other groups from the British Isles, Canada, Latin America. It is wonderful and fun. We are basically getting mini concerts.”
But, then the tough part comes in. The group has to agree on their choices.
“We are looking for different things when they are auditioning,” she said. “We try to rate them so that we are considering everything.”
LaBerge said the group uses a tally sheet to help pick a top six or a top 10. This is just in case some of their top choices can’t fit into the Harlingen Concert Association’s winter schedule. Everyone on the board becomes part of the decision-making process.
“We have to put aside our personal preferences,” she said. “We want groups that are engaging, talk and are personable. People want to be entertained.”
Mix and styles
“Back years ago and for a long time, it was more classical and maybe more ‘high brow,’” LaBerge said of the preferences of the audience, which leans older and often are the Winter Texans.
“Today, we are trying to get a mix – country, tribute, jazz, a variety of genres. We are not a blues organization, not a country organization. We want to listen to what our people want.”
LaBerge also feels it is important to expose the concert-goers to new, fresh sounds and styles. This includes ones that may be difficult to categorize or that cross entertainment and musical boundaries. The association is attempting to reach a younger audience as well as more locals. She said the demographics are slowly changing.
“We want to do a good job on behalf of the community to bring them something they enjoy,” LaBerge said.
They must be doing something right. Most of the lower level tickets for all shows already are sold, due to the pre-season sales of season packages. There are some single seats downstairs and many tickets available for the balcony for each show. However, LaBerge is quick to point out the balcony is not accessible to people who can’t walk up stairs.
Big names no more, still support
LaBerge said sometimes people will say they don’t know any of these groups.
“I say, ‘You are not going to know them because the ones you may know will be out of the price range we can bring in,’” she said. “We are a nonprofit. We are volunteers trying to bring great live entertainment to the area.”
That fact hasn’t hindered the organization’s ability to garner support and be successful.
The Harlingen Concert Association has several supporting businesses as well, which helps fund the entertainment along with the ticket sales as the only two revenue generators for the organization. The nonprofit members continue to go out and inform people about the music they bring to Harlingen.
“We have the potential to fill 1,500 seats, and if we can’t do that, it is tragic,” LaBerge said. “There are so many entertainment options. People have so little free time. We have to hit the sweet spot. We have to get people to come out and have fun. It should be a fun evening out, that is what we are after.”