Appellate Judge James A. Stewart put these documentary discs into his classic DVD player for a spin down Route 66.
"Today, Route 66 means a time before America became generic. When motels didn't take reservations and doctors made house calls. Some things never change—even in a modern era of jumbo jets, shopping malls, and superslabs—people are turning back to the past."—Michael Wallis, introducing A Journey Down Route 66
People have been getting their kicks—along with kitschy souvenirs, steaks and corn dogs, and evenings in motor courts—on Route 66 since 1927. The highway, now a National Scenic Byway rather than a main route, stretches from Chicago to Santa Monica, Calif. You've heard it immortalized in song and seen in on TV, most notably in a series titled Route 66.
Author Michael Wallis has made a career of traveling the fabled road, writing books and articles on the people he meets and the places he sees while his wife, Suzanne Fitzgerald-Wallis, preserved the fading mom-and-pop culture along the road in photos. Their travels along the Main Street of America are captured on video in three documentaries:
"A Journey Down Route 66": This one started it all in 1994 with vignettes of life at Ted Drewes's frozen custard stand in St. Louis and other stops, looks at the faded and forgotten portions of the road, and historical background on Cyrus Avery, who fought for the creation of Route 66 in the 1920s.
"Route 66 Revisited": In this 1995 follow-up, Michael Wallis invites viewers to "study the signs" of the road—for the Launching Pad Restaurant (complete with giant spaceman out front), 66 Bowl, Snow Cap Burgers, and the Wigwam Village Motel (Which now invites people to "do it in a tee pee"), for starters. It also shows people vintage postcards featuring Route 66 attractions. This one, the shortest of the three, is more of a poetic tribute than a documentary.
"Route 66 Turns 75": This 2000 finale in the DVD series lets people know what's new on the Mother Road, telling people about the loss of Pop Hicks Restaurant to a fire, the restoration of drive-in movie theaters along the route, and new museums that have sprung up along the way.
These documentaries mix historical footage—and movie footage from Rain Man and The Grapes of Wrath—with recent video of Route 66 to create their portrait of the road. The portrait takes in some beautiful vistas and some forgotten scenery such as the broken-down roads that run parallel to the road that's in use. Still, the story of Route 66 is about humans—people who lovingly care for classic cars; the crews of popular restaurants along the highway; dreamers who restore weed-filled, abandoned drive-in theaters—and their often-commercial creations (the bumper sticker was first used commercially at Meramac Caverns, one of Wallis's stops).
Wallis proves to be an engaging narrator, giving time to a bloody coal mine strike in Kansas as well as gentle reminiscences and anecdotes about caverns, frozen custard stands, and steak houses along the Mother Road. He's fond of poetic turns of phrase like "Route 66—the name is still magic. It will always mean going somewhere." The three documentaries featured here are good at giving you an overview of the Mother Road's history and allure, but leave you wanting to learn a little bit more.
Each documentary travels in order, going from Chicago to Santa Monica, which makes it easy to spot the repetitions between "Journey" and "Revisited," which make some of the same stops. That repetition and a short run time (clocking in at just over half an hour) made "Revisited" a disappointment and the weakest of the three documentaries featured here, despite some heartfelt narration by Wallis. Disc Three's "Turns 75" has quite a few stand-up shots of people lauding the highway on its anniversary, which may wear on you after a while, but it offers hope for the future of the Mother Road. After all, there are six drive-in theaters along the route today, compared to three in 1994.
Bonus features help expand the offerings here, giving viewers some of the extra depth we crave. Each disc features a photo gallery with pictures taken by Suzanne Fitzgerald Wallis. The photos move at their own pace, accompanied by music (which pauses oddly at a few points on Disc One). On Disc One, interviews (with unseen interviewer) with Wallis, photographer Suzanne Fitzgerald Wallis, producer Linda Lewis, and director Chris Lewis round out the package. Disc Two features "Snapshots from the Road," which actually goes with the "Route 66 Turns 75" documentary on Disc Three (not to worry; it's repeated on Disc Three as well. "Snapshots" expands on segments in "Turns 75," giving us more time with the people and places Wallis finds on his journeys, with the extra footage both welcome and interesting. Disc Three also features a separate five-minute extra on one new museum along Route 66: The Exotic World Museum in California. It's a titillating feature that pans a couple of nearly-naked women. Exotic World is featured a lot on Disc Three, getting play in the documentary, "Snapshots," and its own featurette; each offers the same tidbit about Ginger Rogers's start as a burlesque soubrette.
The video, sound quality, and transfer are reasonable for a videotaped documentary, with the occasional sequence that suffers from too much natural lighting on bright days. One thing that annoyed me about these discs was the discovery that I couldn't skip the promos for other DVDs from The Entertainment Group without skipping the menu.
Though I was left wanting more and could have gone for a few more expanded vignettes in the extras, Wallis's anecdotes grew on me. Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: VCI Home Video
• Photo Gallery by Suzanne Fitzgerald-Wallis
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