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On the Road Again

Before there was Ira Glass, there was Charles Kuralt.

In October 1967, when Walter Cronkite’s CBS Evening News was swollen with combat footage from Vietnam, a young correspondent named Charles Kuralt made a novel proposal to the network brass. His request: a small film crew and a large recreational vehicle. His idea: to roam America in search of tiny, happy moments.

The stories that resulted—profiles of charming eccentrics, odes to the small-town spirit, visits to quaint rural festivals—were a welcome breather from the misery and strife that surrounded them on the newscast. Kuralt’s first segment, which showed children in New England rollicking in autumn leaves, lit up the CBS switchboard. People wanted more.

“I haven’t a doubt that some of my colleagues find it kind of sappy,” Kuralt would later say of the relentlessly upbeat, stubbornly trivial genre he’d invented. “I don’t. The stories are true and about people who really live in the country. You learn that the country isn’t in flames. I think it’s nice to be reminded of that.”

Kuralt and his bare-bones crew—one cameraman, one sound guy, one producer—continued to pilot their RV across America, away from their homes for weeks on end, right up until the early 1980s (when Kuralt became too busy as the host of CBS Sunday Morning to keep up the constant travel). Many stories were inspired by viewer suggestions, but some stories the team just stumbled upon as they drove around. Hundreds of bite-size “On the Road With Charles Kuralt” segments aired during those years. A few dozen are now being released for the first time on DVD, collected in a three-disc set that’s an endless parade of feel-good vignettes.

There’s the retired fellow who fixes up old bicycles and doles them out to the poor children in his neighborhood. The Kentucky hillbilly who adopted croquet as a hobby and ended up competing against the best players in the world. The Denver man who heats his home with junk mail. The South Carolina town that holds a festival every year to fill in its potholes.

These stories are often a hoot in and of themselves. But the unexpected pleasure of watching the segments now—three or four decades after they were filmed—is that they serve as a set of newly discovered time capsules. They are miniature historical documents, allowing us glimpses into a bygone era replete with vanished artifacts like regional accents, World War I veterans, and small-scale manufacturing.

There is something distinctly pre-Internet about the folks who appear in Kuralt’s reports. They harbor no ambition to become famous. They’re odd people, doing oddly beautiful things, tucked away in odd corners of the country. Nowadays, many of them might publicize their doings on personal Web sites and YouTube channels or try to scheme their way onto a reality show. But back then, it was a pleasant, one-in-a-million surprise when Kuralt rolled into town and put them on TV. “They didn’t know there was anything special about themselves,” says Kuralt’s longtime cameraman, Isadore Bleckman, “until Charles held up a mirror to them.”

Perhaps because his subjects are so unassuming, or perhaps because he’s the constant across all these stories, Kuralt himself is ultimately the star of “On the Road.” Pudgy and forever rumpled, with arched eyebrows and a pleased twinkle in his eye, his delight in presenting his silly little stories is both evident and infectious. And there’s that voice: somehow deep and authoritative like a newsman’s, yet gentle and warm like a campfire raconteur’s.

Kuralt made his bones as a newspaper writer before he became a famous face. Here the clean, spare rhythms of his voice-overs serve as crisp counterpoints to the on-screen visuals. “Do we not all have dreams of glory?” intones Kuralt, opening a story about a Texas barber who moonlights as a bullfighter in a Mexican border town. “Breathes there a man who in the moments before sleep has not broken through the Dolphins line for a touchdown, or sunk the long putt on the 18th at Augusta, or fought George Foreman, or sailed the Atlantic? Hector Barragon, El Paso hairdresser, used to dream of fighting bulls.”

But more than his other talents, it’s Kuralt’s knack for setting people at ease—coaxing them to seize this precious opportunity to pour their souls out over the airwaves—that creates compelling television moments. Kuralt is curious and bighearted and never condescends. He recognizes that these folks have been waiting their whole lives for someone to ask them why they would, for instance, spend all their time constructing and flying their own self-designed kites. And when Kuralt finally does ask them, they gaze into the camera with open, forthright expressions, and out come these humble pieces of handcrafted wisdom that they’ve been whittling at and polishing for years. “The reason I like flying kites, you’re always looking up,” says the 89-year-old kite-flying man. “You’re not looking down like you do when you’re playing golf or some of those other things. You’re looking up at that pretty blue sky. It’s a beautiful sight.”

By now, the sunny human-interest piece has become standard fare on both national and local newscasts. We’ve all endured (at 11:28 p.m., as we wait for Letterman or Conan to begin) the local lifestyle reporter’s dispatch from the ribbon-cutting ceremony at the new petting zoo. At their worst, Kuralt’s segments are difficult to distinguish from these bland imitations they spawned. But at their best—when Kuralt finds the sweet spot at the nexus of wryness and profundity—they create an enchanting mood that the blow-dried wannabes seldom manage to capture.

In truth, the direct heir to Kuralt is not the local newscast fluff-monger, who lacks the requisite depth and emotionality. If anyone has seized Kuralt’s baton, framing the American experience as one giant piece of folk art, it’s Ira Glass. Glass’ public radio show, This American Life, has carried on the earnest search for spiritual transcendence in the everyday and the irrelevant. Glass is Kuralt plus hip background music, a dash of jittery neuroses, and enough airtime to spread things out and let a narrative unfold.

Of course, those who find Ira Glass irritating will be at least as annoyed by Charles Kuralt. Kuralt can sometimes puff into a windbaggy caricature of himself, reaching for poetry where there is only prose. Harry Shearer once parodied Kuralt, imagining the correspondent taking a stroll around his own house and finding resonant meaning in every nook and cranny. Shearer-as-Kuralt marvels at the water running in the bath, observing, “You wouldn’t even have to get in the tub. The sound itself could … [dramatic pause] … cleanse the soul.” (It also seems in retrospect that Kuralt may have spent all that time on the road in part to run from his own demons. After his death in 1997, it was revealed that Kuralt supported a longtime mistress in Montana and lived a sort of double life. He kept the secret from his wife in New York, who later battled the other woman over the terms of Kuralt’s will.)

I wouldn’t recommend you watch more than a few “On the Road” segments in one sitting. The apple pie sentiment piles up and becomes too thick and too sweet to swallow. But in smaller doses—Kuraltian bonbons—these stories are a wonderful antidote for those moments when you’re feeling overwhelmed by your own cynicism.

And after all, what’s wrong with a slice of good news every once in a while? Consider the words of the old man, in the segment labeled “Roadside Shangri-la,” who planted a beautiful garden next to a highway for no apparent reason: “If you don’t try to make the world just a little bit nicer, when you leave here,” he ponders, facing his own mortality, “what is the reason for a man’s existence in the first place?”