Travelogue Magazine, 22, no. 2 (Fall 1999), 21-23.

The Last Vaudevillian

The author is a documentary filmmaker and film historian at Reed College in Portland, Oregon.

Imagine being trapped in a motor home with a travelogue filmmaker for ten days. I survived such a harrowing experience. Here is my story.

While attending the 1997 INTRAFILM convention in Las Vegas, I met many travel lecturers, but was most intrigued by one, John Holod, who was staying outside, in the hotel parking lot, in a motor home.

On the last day of the conference, I visited Holod's motor home. (Oddly, his refrigerator was full of huge, industrial size, carrots.) Always joking and gregarious, John seemed like a good subject for a documentary about the travelogue business.

I wrote to him when I returned from Vegas and we exchanged several messages before speaking. John finally reached me from a phone booth in Florida and was quick to agree to the idea. He invited me to join him in New York for a tour down the east coast.

Cinematographer Philippe Roques and I started shooting on March 4, 1998 in Poughkeepsie, New York, where John was presenting at the Vassar Brothers Institute.

It was a big show.

Though we arrived ninety minutes before curtain to set up our equipment, we were not able to obtain a shot of the empty auditorium because several season ticket holders were already there, staking out the best seats.

The audience was large and appreciative. John was in his element, giving an enthusiastic twenty-minute opening monologue that included jokes about Fidel Castro, exploding cigars, Pope John Paul II, lawyers, Monica Lewinsky, and Bill Clinton.

With his RV parked outside the home of Vassar Brothers sponsor Ed Fitchett, Holod stayed for several days in Poughkeepsie.

Standing in the driveway, John recalled the years he spent in roadside motels, "You go to a hotel, pay fifty bucks, sleep, leave the next morning, and what have you got? A couple towels, maybe a television if you're lucky, but not much." He prefers living in an RV because "you're never


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far from home."

Like some other travelogue promoters, Ed Fitchett is an amateur movie maker and he shared with John his own 16mm footage shot in Cuba in the 1950s.

From Poughkeepsie, we headed south with Holod for the next ten days as he presented Cuba at the Crossroads three more times and Adventure on the U.S./Canadian Border twice.

The documentary I produced, The Last Vaudevillian, presents the whole routine of life on tour, the hours driving, the time alone in between performances, the encounters with exhibitors and audiences, and the equipment setup at each show.

While putting the lectern in place on a Roanoke, Virginia, stage, John says, in perfect W. C. Fields deadpan, "Not only do you have to be able to make films, edit, research, and write, you've got to be able to move furniture."

Holod follows in the comic footsteps of his travelogue idols Don Cooper and Stan Midgley, inventing slapstick routines for his movies.

Recognizing that American audiences know little about traveling to Cuba, in his travelogue he stages his departure from Florida in a yellow rubber duck.

After his performances, John often relaxes in front of his television set to watch a movie or the news. In Hickory, North Carolina, we caught him watching Mel Brooks and Madeline Kahn in High Anxiety.

During the trip, the cinematographer and I stayed in motel rooms while John parked in the lots outside. Home cooking is one of the advantages of an RV and John prepared us several delicious dinners.

Most mornings and evenings, however, we fended for ourselves, which meant Bojangles or a Waffle House in the immediate vicinity of the hotel.

Still today, John says that whenever he passes a Waffle House, he thinks of us.

Some of John's shows got smaller and smaller as we headed further south. At a beautiful 1000-seat auditorium on the campus of Presbyterian College in Clinton, South Carolina, he showed his U.S./Canadian Border film to an audience of perhaps fifty. Later that evening, John compared this experience to dental surgery.

While traveling virtually all year long, John manages to meet with friends on the road. In Havre de Grace, Maryland, lecturer Robin Williams joined us for a memorable breakfast, in which he read aloud a less than flattering review of Cuba at the Crossroads that had appeared on the Internet.

In St. Petersburg, another of John's friends took us all sailing on his


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houseboat. Floating around Tampa Bay, I discovered the title for the documentary when John explained to his friend, "We are the last of the vaudevillians. We go from town to town, set up our projectors, our sound systems, do our shows, and then drive on."

Highlights of our trip included dinners at some fine seafood restaurants and sailing off the coast of St. Petersburg. The hardest part of the trip was listening to Rush Limbaugh, John's favorite media personality.

Audience members we interviewed were enthusiastic about John's shows. A viewer in New Smyrna Beach, Florida, praised Cuba at the Crossroads for its breadth, "The variety was good, a little bit of history, climate, geography, nature, the economy."

But at a performance in Roanoke, John was confronted by a Cuban refugee who complained that he did not film in the prisons on the island. Later, driving the motor home, John wondered if he would be "the first travelogue filmmaker assassinated on stage."

Exhibitors and viewers have the last word in The Last Vaudevillian. Lou Landman, a Kiwanis sponsor, sums up the appeal of live presentations, "People go up to the travel lecturers and ask 'Where should I stay?,' 'When is the best time of the year to go?,' 'How is the food?,' and that kind of thing. You don't get that on a movie screen, you don't get that on television."

For the shoot, we used a SONY VX-1000 Mini-DV camcorder with a Lectrosonic 187 VHF wireless receiver and lavaliere microphone. (Occasionally, we used an Audio Technica shotgun mic, also on the wireless, which required phantom power from a Shure mixer.) While traveling down the highway and shooting in locations along the way, the wireless setup never failed.

I produced and directed The Last Vaudevillian for distribution on public and cable television. Cinematographer Philippe Roques, who teaches filmmaking at Vassar College, has extensive experience shooting live action and worked as a cameraman on the MTV series The Real World. Videotape is cheap and we shot about thirteen hours of footage for the thirty-minute documentary.

The Holod piece was edited on an AVID non-linear digital computer by Vassar professor Ken Robinson. Among other professional credits, he edited the fiction film Purple Rain.

Many thanks to the sponsors and audience members who shared their passion for travelogues with us. Special thanks, of course, to John Holod, who survived ten days trapped in a motor home with a camera crew.

For VHS copies of The Last Vaudevillian, send a check for $23 payable to: Jeffrey Ruoff, Film/Video, Wright Theater, Middlebury College, Middlebury, VT 05753.

 

 


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