The Travel Channel
Thursday, April 16, 2015 | 2 a.m.
The early days of quickie Las Vegas divorces and wedding chapel marriages of Hollywood stars will be brought back to life on a new Travel Channel series premiering Monday.
Actor, comedian and commentator Brian Unger of “The Daily Show” hosts from the indoor mall that covers downtown’s Fremont Street. Marilyn Monroe, Clark Gable and Mickey Rooney were among those who flocked here to get unhitched and remarried.
History is brought to life using astonishing technology and CGI graphics with fascinating, unknown tales about America’s national treasures, and it all begins with a journey to Las Vegas in the 1940s and ’50s. It is unique and highly original TV programming.
Brian reports from the sites of two former “divorce ranches,” and audiences will be amazed at how the city park and an abandoned overgrown lot morph into the olden day divorce courts. Brian’s footage is so extraordinary that the Travel Channel gave a go-ahead to him to produce seven more episodes of “Time Traveling With Brian Unger” to the initial six.
Here’s our Q+A:
Do you wish you could actually travel back and forth in time?
Absolutely. The closest thing I’m going to get to do that is basically walking in the shoes of people who were great, great characters in history or walking in places that were very intimate for them like their offices or their bedrooms or their kitchens. You do feel the ghost of history in that respect, and in some ways you’re almost time traveling if you just listen and take it in and feel the weight of history in any one given place.
Where would you travel if you could do it for real? What time period and where?
For me, I would go back to some of the great political events. I always wonder if we’re just in Key West and John F. Kennedy sat at a poker table in the old Truman White House with the prime minister of Great Britain, and they were discussing the Bay of Pigs invasion and they were discussing the events leading up to the Cuban Missile Crisis, and there’s no recording of them. There’s no record of the event, there’s no photographs, there’s nothing written about it.
It’s just a mahogany poker table built for Truman, and we know the two men sat there for hours and it’s like an event like that, just a quiet moment with two great historical players. I’d love to hear what their conversation was like and how they talked to each other. As we know an event like that was so significant for shaping a relationship with Russia, or rather the Soviet Union, with so many of our global powers.
I would love to go back and listen to the leading of Lincoln and Sherman sitting in Savannah. When Sherman gave Savannah to Lincoln as a birthday present and it was sort of this catalyst for wrapping up the Civil War. I think these quiet dinners and conversations, I’d love to transport myself back into time and just be a guest at the dinner table listening.
Now this first hour in the second episode has you hunting around in Las Vegas on the old divorce ranches. Why did you pick that subject material?
Going to the heart of the concept of this show is to pick a place that people have been and then find a place in that place that they haven’t been or didn’t know about. Provide some unique area of discovery about a place, a common place. The divorce ranches came up. There was a book, the book fell into the hands of someone in the home office, and they thought this would be a great story.
As with all the stories, we have to figure out what physical structure still exists. Is there a place to take people? We have to be able to generate graphics to re-create these places from old photographs. It turns out the divorce ranch story is right pretty much under folks’ noses; it’s right under your feet. It was just a perfect story for us. It’s off the Strip, but it’s not too far.
It’s in a park people know but didn’t know about. Here are some dilapidated structures on the edge of town that you may have driven by a million times and wondered why don’t they get around to tearing that down. Turns out it’s the Boulderado Divorce Ranch. I think that is typical of many of the stories we’re discovering on the show.
I never knew that you had to spend six weeks in the divorce ranch before you either filed or got the divorce.
Yeah, it was the only place in America where you could do that, the six-week tour. Its genesis is rooted in creating dollars for Nevada, getting people out there. There also are a lot of men who had just come off the Hoover Dam project who were available; this was another way of getting women out to Nevada. I love it that a big part of it is incentivizing people to come out and spend money. In that way, Nevada has never changed.
It’s so true, and it’s always with unique ways to do it. So was the thinking behind the Hoover Dam employees that there would be single women out here getting divorces?
That was part of the logic in legislating this short six-week residency to get a divorce. How do we get more women out here?
Was the legislature then Mormon?
That’s a very good question. I don’t believe so. The legislation was 1931, and it was at the same time that gambling was legalized or the re-legalization of gambling. So they set the table for this six-week tour. They really loosened up the criteria for divorce, and they increased the gag laws on divorce records so that it ensured maximum privacy. They created a setting for maximum divorce efficiency.
I love the fact that it was probably the beginning of the Las Vegas Convention & Visitors Authority, too.
Probably. At the time, Reno was considered the Divorce Capital of the World, but then when they started luring celebrities, and it really turned the tide. I think the Clark Gable divorce really solidified Las Vegas as the Divorce Capital of America.
While it had these very lustrous folks who come out and get divorced, you have this very rustic environment. You know these ranches with real cowboys, real working agricultural settings, the need for this kind of romantic six-week life on a ranch with working cowboys.
Some things never change, except now it’s six days?
I think, too, a lot of these rich Eastern women came out and for many of them they rode horses English style. They were into dressage or jumping, and then they were suddenly out here in Las Vegas meeting western riders for the first time, real cowboys, and many of them fell in love with the cowboys and ended up staying.
What are some of the other things that you will do in these series? You must be having fun with it? It’s a fun way to teach history.
I’m trying to make history fun for the most part and make it less of an academic subject. I love when we went to NASA at Cape Canaveral, and the Air Force let us run all over the great historic Apollo launches, and then they gave us a front-row seat to the future of the Gemini launches. I mean we stayed on these launch pads where history literally took off and were able to computerize graphics and re-create those launches.
I get to stand there with guests, and you feel the weight of history. I think when we retraced the actual footsteps of actor John Wilkes Booth from D.C. into Virginia in his three-day escape after assassinating President Lincoln, lying down in pine thicket and trying to imagine staying there a week and then getting in a boat and doing river crossings that he actually did.
Going to Galveston, Texas, and reimagining the worst natural disaster in U.S. history that has largely been forgotten. Sherman’s March, to actually follow in those footsteps, to go to Savannah to occupy the house where he stayed and commanded. All of these things really do provide, as best we can, a front-row seat to history and the lessons that we’ve learned from them we get to plunder, and for that it’s incredibly fun and insightful. I hope the viewers find that, too.
I’m certain they that will, and I think your series arrives in a time when history is catching on again on mainstream television. I look at what Mark Burnett is doing with biblical history, I look at what Bill O’Reilly is doing with “Legends and Lies.” There’s a thirst out there from people to learn more about U.S. history. I think it’s great.
I hope so. I hope that’s the trend. I think, and this is my personal opinion, I think the whole docu soap and quasi-scripted reality TV, viewers are fatiguing on that. I think whenever people fatigue on something, it’s always a good idea to go back to the basics. Television is a great tool for edutainment and fun, formative subject matters, and I think we’re hitting that nail on the head here.
I want to ask you a couple of technical questions. What’s the process for bringing things back to life? And when was that available to do technically with television?
That’s a good question, but thankfully you’re a pro, and you know all this stuff. I learned a lot of it on the way. I started with a simple idea in terms of holding an old photograph up in any place in America in contemporary times. So you match the old photograph to the setting. Now given that, how do you blend those two? What’s the technical challenge? We couldn’t do it without 4K technology — 4K is still relatively new to America.
It’s been widely used in Asia and in Europe, but the resolution is so high in pictures, it allows us to manipulate images in such detail that you don’t lose resolution. That was the first thing. We had to shoot images in 4K, shoot scenes in 4K. It takes a tremendous amount of memory on our cameras, and it takes a tremendous amount of time to process. Once we have done that, we are taking the contemporary image of a place and then stick it into a computer.
We have a room full of computer geniuses, they take our video and then blend it with the old images and it involves literally painting out certain images and bringing other images in the photograph to life and animating them to effectively insert us, the guests, in these images and places. It’s a very challenging technical show to do. It takes a lot of time and thousands of hours to do this. No one is really doing that on television, so we feel like we’re doing a first here and that we’re weekly presenting these images.
While they are flaming away in front of computers to generate these images and to blend these old images with new images, we’re faced with challenges in the field to effectively shoot them in a way that provides the best image. That’s our challenge.
So you couldn’t have done this show three years ago?
No, you couldn’t have done it with efficiency.
When we see the divorce ranches, they’re really coming back to life as if they’re still from 1931?
We couldn’t bring them back to life if something wasn’t already there. In every image that we bring back to life, we’re using something that is in the scene. So at the Boulderado Divorce Ranch, the house burned down, but the fence is there. There are two structures on the property that are original. We used those structures, too.
There was an adobe structure that was used as a bedroom or a cabin, and then there was a little place called a doll house that is a ramshackle storage area. These are places, Robin, that you look at and would say, “When are they going to tear this eyesore down?”
Over at Tulle Springs, since that is a city park in Las Vegas, I think there were 28 structures that still exist today. The barns, the duplex cabins that Howard Hughes stayed in, the pool has been filled in, but there this little bridge that goes over like a spring still exists. All of these images that we’re reanimating and regenerating are literally pre-existing and are still there.
What did people do when they spent six weeks on a Las Vegas divorce ranch long before there was Cirque du Soleil?
If you told people that you’re going to Las Vegas and you’re going to go fishing, you’re going to ride a horse and just sit by the pool, I think most people would stay home. I don’t know. I mean it was such a different time. There was gambling in a small part of Tulle Springs Divorce Ranch, but everything had this sort of intimacy of like a parlor. Everything was very small and quiet. It had this feeling of exclusivity.
There was a certain thrill of being wealthy and being out so far removed on a dude ranch with real cowboys. There was something very cool about it. I guess everything has its own sort of context and then that was probably something that was fun. You’re right, no Cirque du Soleil, no any show to take in at night. There was no Strip; there was very little to do.
Was there a certain amount of shame attached to divorce in 1931?
I think there was. I think it’s reflected in the laws at the time. In the East, it was so difficult to establish the grounds for divorce, and Nevada came along and made it so easy. It used to be the criteria was, I think it was probably a burden for a woman to establish criteria for divorce and was probably unable to get it on her own easily.
Then Nevada came along, and some of the criteria included impotency, adultery, desertion and mental cruelty, and it was so easy to establish these things. You didn’t need several parties to establish the criteria. Usually her word was enough to establish this. People flocked to Las Vegas to get divorced. It was so easy to do. All you had to do was ride out the six weeks, and, voila, you were single again.
Fascinating. So when you made the original pitch to the network, how did you describe this show, and is the description that you gave them on the pitch how it has turned out?
Yes, it is. The pitch was let’s take four or five people from a town and show them something about the place they’ve lived in that they never knew. Let’s make this like a trip to Disneyland for the first time for them.
That was the pitch, and I think after only 18 shoots, we effectively delivered on that, and it’s never really wavered. I think what has evolved is a great deal of technical know-how about how to achieve this end.
So in a sense it’s like Steven Spielberg going back to Jurassic Park, but you’re doing it for real?
Pretty much. The technical challenges and the complexities of that are self-evident. How do we re-create Jurassic Park when we don’t have real-life dinosaurs chomping through our path. My job as a storyteller is to paint the scene and describe the narrative enough for them to imagine. Without imagination into reality, this show wouldn’t work.
We need these guests to in their minds time travel while I sort of set the table for them. We found that it’s much more effective than we thought it would be because people have a moment where they feel something. There’s some spark, some collision of past and present, and it means different things for different people.
Some find a familial connection meaning, some resonance in their heritage comes alive, and they have a moment. Others just feel changed in that they’ve learned something they never knew about the very place of which they live.
How did you find the “Las Vegas guests”?
Usually one guest leads to another. We found one guy who is a bartender in Las Vegas. He had a friend, and then that person turns you on to a friend, so there’s a bit of a domino effect. It’s not unusual for us to have two or three people who know one another in our group.
Our casting people are mining for a lot of factors. They’re looking for foremost people who are curious and want to know more and want to explore and are willing to do that with us.
“Time Traveling With Brian Unger” premieres Monday on the Travel Channel at 10 p.m.
Robin Leach has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past 15 years giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground.
Follow Robin Leach on Twitter at Twitter.com/Robin_Leach.
Follow Sun A&E Senior Editor Don Chareunsy on Twitter at Twitter.com/VDLXEditorDon.