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'Travels' takes the 'Wild' out of Chicago

WTTW's new Wild Travels takes the zany energy of the old Wild Chicago out on the road.

The television event of the year so far — yes, the year has hardly begun, and, yes, we've watched the dull Golden Globes, and seen an incalculable number of reporters shivering while standing near huge piles of street salt — has been the premiere of a new show called "Wild Travels," which is very much like but also quite different from an old show called "Wild Chicago," which was such an effective video concoction that it has embedded itself in the city's collective TV memory along with the Bears' 1986 Super Bowl triumph, "Kukla, Fran and Ollie" and Siskel and Ebert.

It is the work of two veterans of "Wild Chicago," executive producer Harvey Moshman and host Will Clinger, who, along with cameraman Dave Seman, have created a compelling, exciting and altogether enjoyable series of 30-minute programs that take viewers across the country and into the lives and passions of unusual people and the equally intriguing places and events in which they are involved. In its fast-paced fashion it reaffirms that there are fascinating stories out there beyond what the Kardashians ate for breakfast or who Chris Christie was hugging.

A bit of history is now necessary for those new to this "Wild" world.

"Wild Chicago" was created in 1989 by entertainer Ben Hollis and WTTW-Ch. 11 producer John Davies, with Moshman working the camera and doing the editing. The reason they did this, said Hollis at the time, "was because there was nothing like it on TV." Davies described the program as "'PM Magazine' on acid."

As this newspaper's TV critic, I wrote then that the show was "altogether unusual and wacky, (with a pace that) defies cataloging … everything about it flies in the face of what we are accustomed to seeing on TV. In its raw and simple way, it is passionately committed to uncovering Chicago's most interesting, amusing and laughable corners."

It became an immediate hit, one of the most successful locally produced shows in Chicago television history. Hollis, fun-loving in a pith helmet and khaki clothes, won three local Emmys as host, and then quit in 1992, saying he needed to recharge his batteries. There followed a well-publicized effort to find a new host — more than 250 people applied for the job — before TV director/stage manager Laura Meagher and comic/actor Clinger carried on ably, with Moshman, for a couple of years. Clinger was then joined by a variety of others until the show ended its run in 2003, after more than 1,000 segments. During that run, the show did venture outside the city, filming shows in the Wisconsin Dells, Las Vegas, Branson, Mo., and Tokyo.

Moshman continued to work in television, and Clinger devoted himself to acting, producing and directing. "We'd see each other every once in a while but rarely talked about the show," says Moshman. "Then a couple of years ago we just asked each other, 'Want to do it again?'"

The answers were "Yes," and with Seman, a longtime friend and colleague of Moshman's, the trio hit the road in April 2013, operating on a shoestring budget that entailed a few plane rides, many long road trips and often sleeping three to a room.

"This is really guerrilla television in the best ways," says Seman. "It made us all feel like we were 25 years old again."

And so, here it is, airing at 5:30 p.m. on Saturdays and 10:35 p.m. Sundays on WTTW-Ch. 11. The first two "Wild Travels" (wildtravelstv.com) episodes featured stories from Houston (a parade of artfully, oddly decorated cars), Las Vegas (a neon "graveyard" and a doctor who "cures" hangovers) and Sparta, Wis., for a visit to the Deke Slayton Space & Bicycle Museum, among other stops and sites. One of the unconventional joys of the show is that episodes are not geographically themed but rather cover the country.

This weekend's show finds the team in, among many places: Houston, to show us a house made of beer cans; McMinnville, Ore., for a look at the home of Howard Hughes' famous plane, the so-called Spruce Goose; and Emburdo, N.M., and its Classical Gas Museum, a gathering of gas pumps and other service station paraphernalia from years past.

The pace is smooth, the camera work vivid, and Clinger is an ever-curious and self-deprecating host, full of good cheer. "It never gets old," he says. "Maybe I have gotten a little better at it (interviewing) over the years, but it is all about the wonderful feeling I get from the give-and-take with the people we meet."

The show is scheduled for a six-week run that will also include segments on such events as the Stand Still Parade in tiny Whalan, Minn., and a Voodoo Donut Wedding in Portland, Ore., and such places as the Pinball Hall of Fame in Vegas and a two-story outhouse in downstate Illinois.

"Never a dull moment," says Clinger.

You may notice that among the credits for the show is the name of "Wild Chicago" co-creator John Davies, who has the title of "Executive Consultant," an honorary and unpaid position.

Now living and working in Los Angeles where he produces for film and television, Davies says: "I support all efforts to keep any incarnation of the show alive. I tried to make it visually groundbreaking and to give it a format strong enough to survive any host change. That turned out to be true as it was a ratings hit on WTTW for at least 12 years after Ben left. Harvey was there at the very beginning. Who knew it would become his life's work to keep the show on the air, and he's still pursuing that. Ben has also pursued different incarnations of the original idea over the years and I support those efforts too."

Hollis, who after "Wild Chicago" hosted and produced "Ben Loves Chicago" on UPN and another PBS show called "Ben Around Town," can currently be seen online in "Ben Hollis' WILD Life City Safari" (vimeo.com/gowildwithben); presenting a live show called "What's It Like To Be You?" for colleges and organizations around the country (whatsitliketobeyou.com); creating "Wild"-like videos for businesses via arrangements with local chambers of commerce; and working on a "one-man musical show with stories, video and whatnottery" for the stage.

"You can take the boys out the 'Wild,' but you can't take the 'Wild' out of the boys," says Hollis. "I'm glad Harvey and Will have answered the call. It's good for America."The response so far to "Wild Travels" has been positive, with social media offering such comments as "Thank God you are back on the air, and on an even grander scale!!!" (Nancy Voigts Godinez) and "Great Job, smiled all the time while watching" (Pamela Scesniak). According to Moshman, "the station says the show nearly tripled the ratings for that Sunday night time slot."

Well, that's nice, but it does not guarantee anything. The show does have a number of Chicago-based sponsors, including The Second City, Lagunitas Brewing Co. and New City, but TV, especially local TV, is an unpredictable and savage business.

There was talk, long ago, during the "WC" days, of syndicating the show nationally. And there is now some talk of doing that with "WT."

"Yes, I am happy with the shows and the reaction they have been getting," says Moshman. "So I have to be optimistic, but I am also a realist. Whatever happens, we've had a great time."

"After Hours With Rick Kogan" airs 9-11 p.m. Sundays on WGN-AM 720.

rkogan@tribpub.com

Twitter @rickkogan

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