While filming a new TV series for Travel Channel, Brian Unger visited Dallas last month and led area residents on a time-warp sightseeing tour of Bonnie and Clyde’s North Texas.
But doesn’t it seem like it should work the other way around?
Shouldn’t the native North Texans be showing the visitor from Los Angeles their landmarks and regaling him with their local stories?
The unfortunate truth, however, is that many people don’t know the history that happened in their own back yards.
It’s a safe bet that many Dallas-Fort Worth residents have never visited the Grassy Knoll, Southfork Ranch or the Stockyards.
The host of Time Traveling With Brian Unger admits that he’s no different. “I lived in New York for years,” says Unger, who worked there as a correspondent on The Daily Show, “but I never once went into the Empire State Building.”
Time Traveling, which premieres with back-to-back episodes at 9 and 9:30 p.m. Monday on Travel Channel, is a show that visits historic landmarks all over the country, many of them taken for granted today, and gives them a second chance to make a good first impression.
“I’m sure we’ve all driven past a dilapidated old building in our hometown and wondered, ‘When are they ever going to tear that down?’” Unger says. “We saw a place like that in west Dallas. But it was loaded with history. It was the old Barrow filling station where Clyde Barrow’s dad worked.”
After Bonnie and Clyde gained lasting notoriety and were on the run for a string of Depression-era robberies, Clyde would often drive past that gas station and toss out a Coke bottle containing a coded note to communicate with his family.
“I love that this little gas station is still there,” Unger says. “By visiting these places, you feel the ghosts of history. You can stand in Hargrave’s Cafe on Swiss Circle in east Dallas and imagine a bustling lunch counter where a very lonely Bonnie Parker was running food out to the workers at Baylor Hospital.
“By exploring the physical place, you get a sense of the hopelessness she must have felt — and you can understand how this charismatic Clyde can come in, sweep her off her feet and basically draft her into a life of crime.”
From the Golden Gate to Tombstone
Time Traveling is chock-full of these off-the-beaten-path tales. It’s as if Unger pulled five people out of a tour line and led them on a subversive side trip to fascinating places they never knew about.
“It’s like going to Disneyland for the umpteenth time,” Unger says. “You’ve been on all the rides — or so you thought until somebody shows you a different part of Disneyland that you never knew existed.”
The show has a giddy sense of discovery — or re-discovery — that’s invigorating.
In the half-hour premiere, Unger shows San Francisco residents the wonders of the Golden Gate Bridge and tells them the story of engineer Charles Alton Ellis, who designed the structure but was denied credit by the chief engineer for 70 long years.
In the same episode, Unger also brings New Yorkers into Manhattan’s Woolworth Building, which from 1913 to 1930 was the tallest skyscraper in the world. All these years later, it’s an underappreciated architectural marvel.
In a bonus episode at 9:30, Unger visits Tombstone, Ariz., home of the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, and he reveals that the famous 30-second shootout didn’t really take place there.
It more accurately would be called the “gunfight about a block away from the O.K. Corral.”
“If you want to walk in the footsteps of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday,” Unger adds, “you had better be careful, because you’ll be walking in the middle of what is a busy street.”
The summer air date for the Bonnie and Clyde episode isn’t locked in yet.
Also to come is another Texas-centric episode featuring Galveston and the great storm of 1900, the deadliest hurricane in U.S. history, with an estimated death toll of more than 6,000.
“The themes of Galveston have a resonance that is so contemporary,” Unger says. “It is a story of being prepared, having plans, how cities react when there are imminent threats and whether people take the threats seriously.”
Unger could have stayed in Texas and done a whole season of shows here. Of course, the same could be said of other locations. This country is positively bursting with great stories, Unger says, if only you take the time to look for them.
“It’s like the Joni Mitchell song, Big Yellow Taxi, in which she laments that we’ve ‘paved paradise and put up a parking lot,’” Unger says. “We have a tendency to pave over our history.
“That’s why our show is here. We’re a corrective measure. We’re digging up the parking lot and looking at what used to be there.”
Time Traveling With Brian Unger
▪ 9 and 9:30 p.m. Monday
▪ Travel Channel