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GUEST BLOG #57: Tom Brinkmoeller on TV's coolest road trip
October 15, 2009  | By Tom Brinkmoeller

[Bianculli here: Contributing writer Tom Brinkmoeller delights in unearthing TV treasures from the remote spectrum of broadcast TV. This time he's outdone himself, and champions a show I've never even HEARD of, much less seen...]

rare visions makers.jpg

On the road again for revelations

By Tom Brinkmoeller

In 1967, Charles Kuralt invented a television genre when he began documenting simple and interesting parts of America and its people with his series of "On the Road" reports for CBS News.

In 1995, soon after Kuralt ended those reports, three guys from a Kansas public television station accidentally picked up the thread. And they've been having nothing but fun with it ever since.

Rare Visions and Roadside Revelations is a half-hour series that finds outsider art in all corners of the country, has fun making the discovery, and tries to include the creators of that art. It's a road trip with a trio of the coolest tour guides ever on public TV -- a kind of a Monty Python meets Rick Steves mix that tells you a lot about what you're seeing and makes you laugh at the same time.

It's one of those small, obscure public television series that's a delight to discover, so if you see it on the schedule where you live, don't pass it up. Where Kuralt's reports reflected the decorum of CBS in its "Tiffany network" era, the guys behind Roadside -- producers Mike Murphy and Randy Mason, with videographer Don Mayberger [left to right in photo at top] -- look at their subjects with a decidedly Midwestern point of view. Kuralt's detached smile has been replaced with more than a few hearty laughs and endless bad puns. Most of the charm is in the presentation.

The Rare Visions trio is, in fact, a quartet. The "world's largest ball of videotape" -- 70-pounds-plus -- has had its own seat in their van on every road trip since the series began. It's their own version of outsider art.

rare visions folk art.jpg

Mason said by phone from Kansas City's KCPT that the series is "about people creating stuff they want to. Some of it's art, and some is not. They're just making it because it's something they can do and share. We never make fun of an artist." (A New Orleans artist named Big Al made this piece of folk art.)

That's the approach that made Georgia resident Gary Arnold a fan. "(They) feature people that are marginalized and categorized by society as 'different,' or 'eccentric,' or just plain crazy," said Arnold, who often enthuses about the show online. "(The show) doesn't present these marvelous individuals to their viewers as freaks in a freak show, to be mocked and jeered at, but as visionaries to be celebrated."

RVRR starts its 13th season early next year, but it began simply as a rebuttal to what was perceived by Kansas residents as an insult to their state. A New York Times story had named Kansas the worst tourism state, and KCPT programming executives Mason and Murphy decided to hit state roads with videographer Mayberger to prove the mighty Times wrong. They spent five days on their project, turned it into an hour-long special, and were surprised when its showing resulted in a large viewer response. "We had thought it was going to be a one-show thing," Mason said.

That reaction convinced the station's management to expand the idea. In early 1996, the three rented a van and shot enough non-Kansas footage for six more shows. "The smart money would have said that's it," Murphy said.

rare visions gas station.jpg

But the show's popularity has resulted in 72 more episodes, shot in all but two of the 48 contiguous states. (Connecticut and Delaware haven't yet made the cut. They found this gas station in Decatur, Texas.) They limit their road time to two weeks each year -- "The joy we have in traveling with each other by the end of those two weeks becomes somewhat diminished," Murphy said -- then return to Kansas, where each episode takes about three weeks to edit.

An early fan wrote a four-page letter of praise and included two checks -- one to the station and a larger one to the RVRR team to make their road life a bit nicer. They estimate they have driven nearly 70,000 miles in the rented van that's a step or two down from the motor home Kuralt used as home base. Motels and meals aren't fancy.

But "I look forward to it every year," Murphy said. "How could you not be happy seeing America like this? It is this very visceral thing. You get up every morning, start driving and eventually you see something really cool."

That enjoyment is contagious.

[Check your local public TV station's web site for air times. In New York, WLIW/21 runs Rare Visions and Roadside Revelations Friday nights at 11:30 p.m., while in Philadelphia, WHYY's Y ARTS digital subchannel runs it Thursday at 4 p.m., Saturday at 10 a.m. and Sunday at 10:30 a.m.]


tom-brink-new-sig.jpgTom Brinkmoeller travels vicariously through good TV travel shows. He thinks there ought to be a medal for people who drive 70,000 miles so non-travelers can see strange things and meet amazing artists.


Eileen said:

Thanks for the heads up on where/when this show airs. I'll be tuning in tomorrow night for sure.

My son gets a kick out of the PBS shows I'll watch: Amusement Parks, Hot Dog Stands, Diners... But they are amazing gems, with incredible research, and presented in a charming way, and always with a great back story and characters galore. Real Americana...

This sounds like my kind of show.

Comment posted on October 15, 2009 12:00 PM

Rick said:

A correction if I may. KCPT is in Kansas City MISSOURI. KCMO folks get testy when they get moved across the state line. The civil war is still alive and well here.

For the record the Kansas City Metro area does straddle the state line. And while the geographic center of the area is in Kansas over half of the people live in Missouri.

Comment posted on October 19, 2009 3:25 PM
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