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 They are miniature historical documents, allowing us glimpses into a bygone era replete with vanished artifacts like regional accents, World War I veterans, and small-scale manufacturing.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.
Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.