KWCH Roadside Kansas Documentary 1987
The general notion about Kansas is that it’s long and flat with not much to look at besides corn and wheat. I drove straight through the state a couple of times on my way to and back from California and tried to time it so that the eight hours it took to traverse the 400 miles from the eastern to western border could be done at night. I have to say that once I started living there, I was dead wrong about the state.
In the mid-80s Kansas geologists Rex C. Buchanan and James R. McCauley wrote a book called Roadside Kansas: A Traveler’s Guide to Its Geology and Landmarks about the unusual geological features of the state and how they were formed. This book instantly became a statewide sensation. KWCH contacted the authors about doing a half-hour special with them giving a tour of these places, giving the pages a bit of life.
For four days Jon Roe and I traveled around Kansas with Rex and Jim to some of the sites they’d written about.
Rex and Jim had a thing they’d do every time we approached another little town that was no more than a few blocks long. One of them would say, “Hmm, that’s a nice little place.” Then the other would respond, “Yup. I might like to settle down there one day.”
After a day or so of this Jon and I would chime in and say the same thing. Rex and Jim never said anything, but I don’t think it was appreciated.
Another day we were in a tiny Kansas town not on the main road to anywhere. It literally could have been twenty or thirty or forty years earlier in time from the looks of the streets and houses and lamp posts. Rex and Jim had a soft spot for these little out of the way places. We were having lunch in a little diner that was situated in an old hotel. It should be noted that with Rex and Jim every meal consisted of chicken-fried steak, something that Jon and I got hooked on ourselves.
I was looking around the diner and through the doors into the hotel and had a funny feeling of deja vu. I said, “I don’t know what it is about these little towns — maybe they’re all looking the same because I feel like I’ve been here.”
“Have you ever seen Paper Moon? They filmed in this place and the hotel. It’s in a lot of the movie. So is the town.”
When I was in high school I worked as an usher at the Sunset Cinema, which no longer exists, and Paper Moon ran for four months. I must have seen the film fifty times. Wonderful. And those scenes, permanently imprinted into my brain, now transposed perfectly over the diner and the hotel lobby that was adjacent.
It was a fascinating couple of days. I had no idea that Kansas has landscapes, natural freaks of nature, like this.
One ancient history note on how this was made. It was shot on the two-piece system of a video camera connected on an umbilical cord to a 3/4″ recording deck. This was before the one-piece BetaCam system became the norm. Also, this was long before the advent of nonlinear editing. Everything was cut machine to machine. If you wanted to have a dissolve you carefully edited your shots on two separate tapes, played them simultaneously and recorded onto a third tape. An engineer in a control booth would be watching the two tapes on monitors and when he started to see the video come up on the second tape he would manually move a lever, creating a dissolve. In the old days of TV this was called your “A-roll” and your “B-roll.”
Roadside Kansas was edited this way. We returned from the road trip with sixteen 20-minute tapes. Jon took a few weeks to write it. Then I went into the station at 11 PM, after the 10 PM newscast, to edit. Because the entire show is edited with dissolves and no cuts I needed three editing stations — one to cue up my footage, then one station to be my “A-roll” tape and the third to be my “B-roll” tape. Each machine had to be cued from “0:00:00” and started from there. If I wanted to fade in on one shot, that would be my “A-roll” tape. Then if there was going to be a dissolve five seconds in, on the “B-roll” tape I would start my next shot at three seconds, so that the engineer running the dissolve switcher would have two seconds of cue to begin the dissolve. Also, that meant keeping the shot rolling on the “A-roll tape running to eight or nine seconds so that there would be video there when he completed the dissolve.
If I wanted a fast dissolve or a slow dissolve I would have to make notes of these to the second and sit with the engineer to give him cues.
The editing was like this for the whole show. Sounds archaic today, but that’s what we did. And all the titles were added “live” as we were doing the switching, meaning as we were recording to yet another tape which would have the dissolves, titles, etc. This was called the “final mix.”
Amazingly, this final part only took about an hour. Only one hour for the whole half-hour program.
Roadside Kansas, thanks to it’s timeless story, wound up running on KWCH for years, even long after I’d moved on and was out in Sacramento, California, where I am now.
I must add that I loved living in Kansas. A great experience, great people, great station and learning opportunity. I was very lucky to have lived and worked there. I’d love to see it again.
Perhaps another road trip someday.