Tales From Afar: How a Prairie Public producer built a life in Amsterdam

Daniel Hart (left) and his husband Dirk-Jan Zonnefeld on the boat launch across the canal from their home in central Amsterdam. They live on the Oudezijds Voorburgwal in a building that's stood there since 1655. Murray Lemley / Special to The Forum

AMSTERDAM — I sat down with an old friend, Langdon, N.D., native Daniel Hart, a few days after he’d returned from New York in mid-June, having produced a concert in Central Park with three Jewish cantors and a 16-piece orchestra.

He’d cast the singers as The New York Cantors for a PBS concert he produced last year in the 17th century Portuguese Synagogue here in Amsterdam. It's just a 10-minute walk from the apartment he’s shared with his Dutch husband, Dirk-Jan, for something like 25 years.

It was his 12th concert for PBS, but the first one where he’s been touring an “act” he created.

When he left Fargo in 1983, Daniel had been at Prairie Public TV for a dozen years, heading up programming and production. He says his days in Fargo were where he learned a lot he needed to know about producing for public TV, and he began to build up a network of other PBS station people, some of whom he’s still in contact with and are now “clients” for his productions.


Daniel Hart (left) and Geoffrey Lillemon, his neighbor in Amsterdam, stop for a photo on the the small pedestrian bridge over the Oudezijds Voorburgwal. Daniel’s home is in the building above his head and slightly to the right. Murray Lemley / Special to The Forum

He remembers, “My first office at what was then KFME-TV was in a warren of trailers below the transmitting tower on the river south of town. When I left, Prairie Public had become a network of five stations across North Dakota. Series like 'Sesame Street' and 'Masterpiece Theater' and 'Nova' had become part of the TV diet of a fair chunk of North Dakota, western Minnesota and southern Manitoba. The story of that quite amazing growth owes mainly to the skills of (late station manager) Dennis Falk, whose management style allowed us all room to grow."

Hart also credits the "incredibly effective" fundraising work of Virginia Geston for keeping the contributions coming.

“For my part,” he says, “I guess I’d want to be remembered for our local productions and hiring great producers like Michael Olsen and the late Boyd Christenson, whose work bringing North Dakota’s own stories to PPTV was top rate. As was the work of a PBS national award-winning promotion team headed up by Allan Dregseth and ace designer Les Skoropat.”

As a coda to this brief history of the former KFME, I can add that Daniel's the one who gave KFME its new name, Prairie Public TV.

It was a sabbatical in 1980, taken in Paris with a visit to Amsterdam, that convinced Daniel he was meant to live in Europe. Noting that everyone in Amsterdam spoke English, he left PPTV in 1983, sold his house on Seventh Street South and moved to Holland.

It might also have had something to do with a love-at-first-sight story when he met Dirk-Jan on the North Sea beach due west of Amsterdam a couple of years earlier — that's now almost 40 years ago. Except for a seven-year stay in New York starting in 1994, during which he created, cast and produced his first hit for PBS, "The Irish Tenors," Daniel and Dirk-Jan have lived in the same apartment in an Amsterdam canal house built in 1655.


Daniel Hart (right) and his husband Dirk-Jan Zonnefeld pose for a photo at the doorway to one of the oldest houses in Amsterdam on the canal across from their house on the Oudezijds Voorburgwal. Murray Lemley / Special to The Forum

Dirk-Jan is a cookbook author and over the years has entertained a steady stream of North Dakotan and Minnesotan relatives and visitors with memorable meals and great stories about growing up in a village among the tulip fields southwest of the city.

“I’m pretty sure that my ability to produce my way out of some tight corners owes something to a kind of low-key stubbornness, one of the survival tools we acquire growing up on the Northern Plains,” Daniel says.

Like the time he had a nine-camera TV production all set up in the Registry Hall of the Ellis Island Museum, ready to record his third Irish Tenors concert — until he woke up to weather reports that “the storm of the century” was heading toward New York that very day. Through hourly phone calls, he got to truly know and appreciate the U.S. Coast Guard, who were understandably reluctant to confirm they’d allow him to run the ferries he’d hired to take 700 people out to the island for a 7 p.m. concert. No audience, no show.

But with the luck of the Irish, the storm veered back out to sea at about 4 p.m., and this time his new Coast Guard friends called him with the all-clear to fire up the boats.

A collage of DVD covers of concerts Daniel Hart has produced over the years. Special to The Forum

Another time Daniel needed his prairie-grown, no-panic toolbox was a couple of years ago with the local police department in the hilltop town of Assisi, Italy, where he was about to record a concert with a very fine young singing friar. The venue was the Basilica of St. Francis, which was usually only accessible by small, winding streets up the hill. On setup day, his production team arrived from Amsterdam after driving all night to find their rig was too long to make the sharp turns winding up to the church. Alternatively, there was one very long shopping street that's more of a straight shot. Unfortunately, it was a one-way going the wrong direction.


“The formidable female captain of the traffic Carabinieri was maybe impressed that I didn’t need to wave my hands/arms around to explain the problem," he says. "She finally caved after I used every ounce of charm on her. And with her male colleagues shaking their heads, she had them close all the access streets and cleared the way for us to drive slowly, wrong way, up to the Basilica during 20 minutes of the morning ‘rush hour,’ which isn’t more than a few dozen cars. But still.”

Already a little beyond retirement age, Daniel and Dirk-Jan have begun discussing a possible move to a warmer climate— southern France, maybe. But definitely close to an airport.

Amsterdam and all its history and culture have been a touchstone and inspiration for a life of producing TV concerts. But as Daniel looks ahead, he thinks, “Maybe a garden in France can also generate some project ideas. Or maybe I’ll just grow tomatoes. We’ll see.”

Daniel Hart on holiday in 1996 near Trejouls in southwest France. Special to The Forum


Tales From Afar is an occasional series of profiles and portraits by photographer Murray Lemley of folks with ties to North Dakota and Minnesota now living abroad. Look for more installments in The Forum’s Life section in the coming months, and contact Lemley at

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