Video leads down Memory Lane
By Mark Voger, author
‘Britmania: The British Invasion of the Sixties in Pop Culture’
In “House of 1000 Corpses” (2003), three young travelers stop at a combination gas station-fried chicken takeout joint run by a man in a seedy clown costume wearing runny clown makeup. (Somehow, the travelers fail to detect any red flags here.) One of the youths (Rainn Wilson) explains to the clown (Sid Haig) that they are researching a book about those odd, kitschy roadside attractions one finds along the highways of America.
As Rob Zombie‘s “House of 1000 Corpses” is set during the 1970s, I can reach only one conclusion: The unlucky travelers are based on my old college roommates.
Doug Kirby, Ken Smith and their collaborators boldly went where no journalists had ever gone before. Since kicking off the Roadside America brand in the ’80s, they have been imitated constantly. Coverage of tourist stops and attractions with an eye toward the offbeat has since become commonplace in both “old media” and social media.
(For example? There were Kevin Smith‘s “Roadside Attractions” segments on the Jay Leno-era “Tonight” show. With the rise of video bloggers and podcasters, anyone with a smartphone and a snarky sense of humor can whip up a segment on highway oddities.)
But Kirby and Smith were there first with two books for Simon & Schuster/Fireside, “Roadside America” (1986, co-written with Mike Wilkins and Jack Barth) and its followup “The New Roadside America” (1992, co-written with Wilkins). This momentum eventually yielded the immersive, hugely popular travel website RoadsideAmerica.com with content that, while more mainstream-friendly, retained the brand’s stock-in-trade: humor. It would not be an overstatement to say that Roadside America has become a state of mind.
Anyhoo, I’ll get to the point. I first met Kirby and Smith in 1976 when I joined Venue, the student magazine at the College Formerly Known as Glassboro State. (It is now called Rowan University, named after a generous benefactor, comedian Dan Rowan of “Laugh In” fame. I think.)
Venue was a print enterprise, of course, but many on the staff held multi-media aspirations. We put on two radio shows and several film festivals, and were always making films. We thought of the magazine as the wellspring, but treated Venue as a kind of movement — just as Kirby and Smith have done with Roadside America. (Kirby graduated GSC in 1979; Smith and myself in 1980.)
I’m taking this little stroll down Memory Lane because Kirby recently shared something that brought it all back — the sheer joy that our younger selves had trying to create something provocative or funny or interesting. He, his wife Susan Kirby, and Smith made a video, a faux newsreel titled “This Exit for News,” for the Roadside America website. It is hilarious, informative and, at 3 minutes and 38 seconds, fleet. And it reminds me so much of those halcyon days. I’ve watched it five times. Doug produced and edited the video; Susan co-produced it; and Smith wrote the script, which he narrated in a ’50s pitchman cadence I remember cold from our radio days.
Watching this video makes me feel like our dreams came true. The website calls it the “first episode of our news highlights show, an archival and current event creation by the Roadside America research team.” I hope my old compatriots do a hundred more. Have a look …
P.S.: Here’s an illustration of the reach and status of Roadside America. The Stuckey’s chain, with its sweet ‘n’ chewy pecan logs, is an American roadside institution unto itself. A coupla years ago when I interviewed Stuckey’s CEO Stephanie Stuckey, I casually mentioned that I “knew the Roadside America guys.” Stuckey became effusive, declaring herself a longtime fan and insisting that I put her in touch with them. It made me feel like some kinda power broker to do so.
P.P.S.: Above is that “House of 1000 Corpses” scene I was telling you about. It’s probably the highlight of all three movies.
Wow, the Kirbys and Smith have already posted a sequel. Enjoy “This Exit For News” 2. Electric Bugaloo!
And here’s Episode 3. Keep your ears peeled for the undisputably Smithian line: “Mothers! Hoist yon wash clothes high! For here stands liberty! Enamel’d!”