Brian Unger (center) and his tour group with reenactors of the Earp Brothers and Doc Holiday from the OK Corral Gunfight Show in Tombstone, Arizona for 'Time Traveling with Brian Unger.' (Photos: Travel Channel)
Like many travel series hosts, Brian Unger visits iconic destinations that we instantly recognize — the Grand Canyon, the Golden Gate Bridge and Cape Canaveral among them. But the Travel Channel series' unique approach sets it apart — aided by CGI graphics to set the historical context for a modern visit, Unger uncovers the unknown stories behind the landmarks and events that shaped America.
In the first two of 13 episodes, launching April 20, there are revelations about the Golden Gate's unsung hero, the basement full of secrets in New York's first skyscraper, the Woolworth Building, the divorce mecca that Las Vegas used to be and the truth about the infamous gunfight at the O.K. Corral.
The ideas is to be informative and entertaining — and to "bust some myths along the way," says Unger. "We're looking at familiar places and making them new again. We're not looking for obscure locations, but we want to slice off a piece of history that people have never tasted. The research that goes into these places is pretty intensive. Our producers compile source material from a lot of books by experts. We shy away from a lot of common sources like Wikipedia, things that anyone can get their hands on. We feel that if we're going to hold your attention for 22 minutes, we'd better tell you something that you didn't already know."
The series' premise began, says Unger, "with a simple question about places in America: What was here before? And through the combination of computer graphics and photographs, we are literally rebuilding the past, transporting our guests back into time and constructing an exclusive, behind-the-scenes experience."
There was no shortage of places to visit. More than 35 were selected for the first season, all of them "places people know, and perhaps visited, without knowing their often dramatic and inconspicuous histories," Unger continues. "With the Golden Gate Bridge, sometimes it's a matter of context. It's an engineering marvel built during the Great Depression, a period of hopelessness in America, yet we managed to pull together the resources and build this bridge without the aid of computer assisted design. Charles Ellis, the man who did that design, is largely uncredited. There's so much we take for granted when we look at some historic, iconic sites like the Bridge."
In Tombstone, Arizona, the location of that legendary Old West shootout, "We were able to reconstruct and bring the place to life using old photographs and very involved, complicated computer graphics," Unger says, noting that they busted some Hollywood-perpetrated myths in the process.
"In later episodes, we unearth the real Jamestown, retrace the birth of New Orleans jazz, witness the War of 1812 and discover Al Capone's Miami, among almost three dozen other stories in various cities," he says.
Unger can't pick his favorite destination, as "they all hold some secret that gets unlocked. But one that stands out the most was when the U.S. Air Force and NASA opened up Cape Canaveral to us and we were able to stand on the platforms where men and women were launched into space. Then and there, the history became very palpable, space exploration became very real for me."
Another story that made an impression on Unger was the great hurricane of 1900 in Galveston, Texas that killed nearly 8,000 people but remains all but forgotten today. "It's a textbook case of a place that had some idea they were vulnerable but did nothing to prepare. These are lessons of history that we can use to prepare for the challenges of today. The surprises are in uncovering these little epiphanies, these sparks that occur when past and present collide."
Also surprising was discovery that laid back, tropical Key West, Florida was a militarized zone during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. "We dug up old photographs that show missile batteries, machine guns and 15,000 troops that occupied Key West in a show of force and a first line of defense against Castro and Khrushchev. A lot of people from Key West didn't know about this," says Unger.
The city had the distinction of having great weather, something the production never enjoyed everywhere else they went, even though they tried to avoid the snow. "Weather is our biggest challenge, standing out in the rain, in the sun, in the cold," Unger says. "The climate has been very unpredictable. It's cold in places that are supposed to be warm and too warm in the places that are supposed to be cold. We're standing outside for long periods of time with many cameras, setting up complicated shots that involve matching old photographs, aligning cameras and that takes a lot of time."
St. Augustine, Florida was unexpectedly cold, wet, and foggy, and shooting in Las Vegas in the summertime proved more "brutal" than usual. "The air conditioning in our RV that kept everyone cool broke. I thought we'd have a mutiny on that one," Unger recalls. No wonder they appreciated Key West. "We sat around looking at each other saying, 'We deserve this!'"
If there is a second season, Unger would love to include locations in Hawaii or Alaska, and venture outside the U.S. to further "explore the places and lessons in history so we can navigate the present. I think the format and show is applicable globally," he says. "I hope it goes that far."
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