Rich Copley: 20 years in, arts radio show's host isn't ready to call it curtains

Nick Lawrence, host of Curtains @ 8 on WUKY-FM,  estimates he has had more than 3,000 guests in the show's first 20 years.
Nick Lawrence, host of Curtains @ 8 on WUKY-FM, estimates he has had more than 3,000 guests in the show's first 20 years. Lexington Herald-Leader

Shortly after 7 p.m., when Garrison Keillor can be heard delivering the daily Writer's Almanac over a speaker outside the studios of WUKY-91.3 FM, the elevator in the station's building is creaking and quaking toward the third floor.

The door shudders open, and Nick Lawrence emerges as he has many, many weeknights for nearly 20 years to host Curtains @ 8, his local arts talk show that airs at 8 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday.

Since its debut Jan. 18, 1993, with guests Everett McCorvey, Alicia Helm and Lexington Opera House general manager Dick Pardy promoting a production of Porgy and Bess, Curtains has become an essential stop for Lexington-area artists and arts groups to hawk their events.

"I like to see what's going on and see who needs the help," says Lawrence, who estimates his show has had more than 3,000 guests during its two decades. "I'll get a call from people saying, 'Nick, we've got to sell some tickets,' and they'll come on and we'll talk."

The coming week might be a bit more about honoring Lawrence than selling tickets. It will be a celebration of Curtains' 20th anniversary, with numerous guests rolling through his moody, dark studio.

The show itself was a long-deferred dream come true.

Lawrence, 69, majored in engineering at the University of Kentucky during the mid-1960s but discovered broadcasting along the way.

"I would have made a career change, except the draft board wanted me to join the Air Force," he says.

When he returned from Vietnam, Lawrence indulged his primary love: sports cars, owning an auto dealership and dabbling in Formula One racing.

He eventually sold his dealership, and while contemplating his next move, he spent an afternoon jotting down ideas for a Tonight Show-style television show. Then he put it away. He got an offer from Loy Lee at WEKU-88.9 FM to spin classical music, which Lawrence did for nine months before getting an offer from WUKY.

Curtains @ 8 was actually born of the bane of many public radio listeners' ears: on-air fundraisers.

Lawrence, who was on a daytime shift, started having guests on during pledge breaks.

"I got into the interview mode and I just got a taste of it, and it really turned me on," he says. "I love music, which is radio's mainstay, but I also love people, love talk, and I love carrying on a conversation."

It worked for him.

Soon, Lawrence was off the day shift and on at night with what was originally a 21/2-hour program combining chatter and classical music.

He says general manager Roger Chesser wanted a show that was 80 percent music and 20 percent talk, but "he gave up when it was about 50-50," Lawrence says, laughing.

As the station's format evolved through the 1990s and early 2000s, Curtains was reduced to one hour, primarily of local talk.

About five years into the run of the show, Lawrence ran across that his Tonight Show-style idea and realized he had brought it to fruition: It was Curtains @ 8.

Over the years, he even had Tonight Show veterans on: former Johnny Carson band leader Doc Severinsen and his righthand man, Tommy Newsom.

Lawrence doesn't hesitate to name his favorite show: an evening with Tim Conway, when Pardy brought the comedian to the Opera House.

"We hit it off real well," Lawrence says. "We were right in the middle of a fund drive, and he helped us raise money. I went down to the Opera House the next day and saw him, and the first question out of his mouth was, 'Did we make any money?' He's a fan of public radio."

Of local guests, he cites WVLK-590 AM host Jack Pattie as his favorite, when Pattie came on to promote a production of Miracle on 34th Street, in which he was playing Kriss Kringle.

"Jack is the dean of broadcasting here," Lawrence says. "He paid me a big compliment on the air, which I took to heart. He said: 'You are the ultimate interviewer.' I felt like I should kiss his foot."

During the years, Lawrence has watched the evolution of the Lexington arts scene. When Curtains started, he says, groups worked to avoid overlapping performances. But now, he says, the scene has grown so much that is impossible.

Despite a sometimes crowded calendar, Lawrence says, he manages to get everyone on who has a show and needs a little free publicity.

When much of what audiences hear on radio has become automated and prerecorded, Lawrence says, he still prefers to come in the studio and do the show live whenever possible. Occasionally, an artist's schedule will prompt Lawrence to record a show or segment, but "it's never quite as good. I like the immediacy of being live, on the air, now."

In recent years, Lawrence has dealt with health issues that have prompted him to miss the show for extended periods. He hails the work of stand in Joe Conkwright but admits, "It's hard to listen to someone do what you love to do."

That's why 20 years for Lawrence is just a milestone.

"I'll do this as long as can," he says, "until they pull my cold, dead fingers off the fader."

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