Magazine, 22, no. 2 (Fall 1999), 21-23.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
American audiences know little about traveling to Cuba, in his
travelogue he stages his departure from Florida in a yellow
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.
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
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."
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
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,