Here’s an interesting addition to a Route 66 fan’s library — a documentary shot so long ago and out of circulation for so long, it’s become a relic in its own right.
That would be the DVD version of “The Spirit of 66” ($20, plus shipping), the 50-minute pilot for a proposed 10-part television series meant to air during the 66th anniversary of Route 66 in 1992.
The series, directed by Dave Bartholomew and shot by Gary Parker, never was greenlighted, although the pilot showed up on a few PBS stations. A VHS videotape of the pilot was released to the market.
But the video eventually dropped out of the marketplace for so long, I’d never heard of it until a few weeks ago (I’ve been a Route 66 fan since 1999). Recent searches for copies of the videotape on Amazon and eBay turned up empty.
Bartholomew announced a few weeks ago he would re-release “The Spirit of 66” on DVD through his Hyphenate Productions in Kansas. In an email, Bartholomew acknowledged the source material was decaying, so digitizing it for posterity was crucial. It stands to reason that if Bartholomew’s tapes were going bad, roadies’ copies of the VHS tape would as well.
The episode’s first segment opens with an interview with Bobby Troup, composer of the song “(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66.” It’s a kick (no pun intended) to see Troup drive around Southern California in a 1941 Buick — the same type of car in which he composed the song — and singing his most famous tune. He talks about his early career and tells a few memories of his real Route 66 trip, including the “terrifying curves” outside of Oatman, Ariz.
It’s a terrific interview, and I’m glad Bartholomew landed it before Troup’s death in 1999.
Next is an interview with photographer Carlos Elmer inside the now-closed Beale Hotel in Kingman, Ariz., which his grandmother once owned. Elmer, who gained regional fame for submitting photographs to Arizona Highways magazine for 50 years and published several Arizona-related books, talked about delivering a telegram from Beale guest Charles Lindbergh and receiving advice from internationally famous nature photographer Ansel Adams.
At the time of the interview, Elmer still was active with a camera. “My favorite photo is the next one to shoot,” he says. Elmer died in 1993 at age 72.
By now, you start to see a pattern. Except for the seemingly ageless Angel Delgadillo in Seligman, Ariz., most of the people in “The Spirit of 66” have died. It makes me grateful Bartholomew and Parker captured these people’s memories of Route 66 (including one woman who recalled using a broom to sweep gravel off a Route 66 bridge so she and her fellow teens could dance on it Saturday night) before they died. Remember, the footage was shot about when Route 66’s renaissance began and before the Internet became widespread. If nothing else, “The Spirit of 66” fills a few historical gaps.
The film also contains an interview with Robert Allison, a quasi-caretaker for the ghost town of Two Guns, Ariz., also known as Canyon Diablo. The cowboy hat-wearing Allison guides you through the so-called “Cave of Death” and how the property reputedly was cursed. Allison noted the owner of a wild-animal zoo there was seriously mauled by a mountain lion, then by a lynx, before giving up the business. Allison didn’t seem to buy into the curse legend, but he didn’t seem to totally disbelieve it, either.
One of the most poignant parts of “The Spirit of 66” was the people who remember their towns being bypassed by the interstate. Delgadillo has become the go-to guy in recent years of someone who keenly remembers the exact hour when I-40 opened. But the film crew found other business owners who recalled that day Route 66 became deserted.
“I still get chills thinking about it,” one said.
I also got chills when Delgadillo said the only other time he recalled U.S. 66 becoming deserted occurred in the hours after President Kennedy was shot. I happened to be watching the DVD on the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s death.
One of the last segments of “The Spirit of 66” is 200 residents of Winslow, Ariz., singing along to The Eagles’ “Take It Easy” on what later became Standin’ on a Corner Park. I thought: “I wonder whether La Posada will be included in this,” then realized Alan Affeldt and Tina Mion didn’t buy that Harvey House until a few years later. And the building behind Standin’ on a Corner Park hadn’t yet been destroyed by a destructive fire. Time rolls on …
The age of the videotape shows with occasional image distortions or warbling, but the footage mostly looks good. A few may quibble about the episode taking place only in Arizona and California, but one should remember the creators were going to explore other parts of the route in other episodes, but didn’t get the chance.
I asked Bartholomew what prompted him to re-release “The Spirit of 66.” He replied via email:
Some heartfelt response in the form of handwritten letters and emails from old fans — owners of the vhs who were clamoring for it to be released on dvd — put me over the hump. In designing the new box artwork, etc., I wanted to “freshen it up” slightly, but to simultaneously keep it close to the original, so those who own the vhs would know that this is the same program — in case they didn’t want to be purchasing it again.
Bartholomew said about 25 hours of footage were shot all those years ago. As for what will happen to it:
As all of the money to produce it came out of my pocket, I figured we would finish the pilot, sell it, come back to use some of the additional footage, and go out and shoot more — finishing the journey all the way to Chicago. That didn’t happen … but we had already edited a few more stand-alone sections for a future episode. I considered adding a couple of these as a bonus feature for the dvd release, but only could find these edited on vhs.
But I do have all of the original tapes, and as their shelf-life does have more and more of an impending expiration date … I am now strongly considering digitizing all of it, and going back in and maybe at least releasing a second installment from the footage currently in my possession.
AND — I had gone out on my own and shot a reunion of the last surviving Harvey Girls, within a year of that first summer; and I really feel I will edit that together and release a stand-alone program on them, as I feel there would be interest.
I and many other Route 66 aficionados will look forward to that previously unseen footage if it’s released. But for now, “The Spirit of 66” deserves a prominent place in a roadie’s video collection.