Smithsonian Collections Blog

Highlighting the hidden treasures from over 2 million collections

Collections Search Center

Monday, July 2, 2012

Promenade Home: Happy Fourth of July!

Thayer Soule, popular travel lecturer in the latter half of the twentieth century, filmed this tractor square dance rehearsal for Early, Iowa’s 4th of July celebration, 1957, to include in his travel film, The Golden West.  It is unclear when and where this novel form of square dancing began but it could have been in Early, Iowa.  In 1998 residents in the neighboring town of Nemaha recreated the tractor square dance under the guidance of one of the original Early participants.  Several other groups also appear to have taken up the call and do-si-do with antique tractors at fairs across the United States.  


Thayer Soule (1917-2004) wrote an engaging book on his life as a travel-lecturer, On the Road with Travelogues 1935-1995 which is one of the few resources on this under appreciated film genre.  Travel lectures began sometime in the 19th century with a lecturer talking about his travels while projecting glass lantern slides of foreign places. These lectures filled a nation-wide hunger to “experience” foreign travel, particularly for those who could not afford to travel or who, perhaps, were averse to the risks.  But these performances were also seen as respectable entertainment providing education and enlightenment and, hence, were popular across the country from major metropolitan cities to small towns.  Remarkably, with all of our media outlets, travel lectures continue even today.

Thayer Soule with his Cine-Kodak Special II camera 

The undisputed dean of travel lecturers was Burton Holmes who began in the late 19th century with glass lantern slides but by the end of the 19th century, just a few years after the birth of film, adopted motion pictures as part of his performance.  Holmes was so popular that he published his lectures in handsomely bound books with exquisite photographs and Hollywood studios solicited him to produce theatrical travel shorts to precede feature films.  Always dressed in a tuxedo with a gardenia in his button hole, he presented in Carnegie Hall to packed houses but was equally at home in a high school auditorium. 

Frame from one of Holmes' short travel films, ca. 1930
Thayer Soule knew that he wanted to be a travel lecturer from childhood.  Soule had already made a travel lecture film on Haiti, when, while a student at Harvard, he attended one of Holmes’ lectures at Boston’s Symphony Hall where he finagled a meeting with Holmes.  During WWII Soule served as second lieutenant photographic officer in the US Marine Corps and after completing his final exams at Harvard Soule joined Holmes as his associate.  At the age of 77, Holmes announced Soule as his successor by handing him his signature gardenia on “the platform” (as the travel lecture stage was referred to) although Holmes continued to share the platform until he fully retired in 1951.  Burton Holmes died in 1958 at the age of 88 and it was then that Thayer Soule struck out on his own developing his own signature style but always appearing with the gardenia.  He presented in Carnegie Hall 28 times, appeared on television and marketed his travelogues on VHS. 

The HSFA holds 34 of Thayer Soule’s films, his Cine-Kodak Special II camera, publicity materials and stills, scripts and audio taped lectures from some of his films.  HSFA also has a few of Burton Holmes travel shorts

Frame from one of Holmes' short travel
films, ca. 1933
For further information on the travel lecture genre there is an excellent introductory essay by Jeffrey Ruoff, “Around the World in Eighty Minutes: The Travel Lecture Film”A Burton Holmes website is a comprehensive resource and includes a timeline, publications by and about him and repositories of what remains of his motion picture legacy.  The Travel Adventure Cinema Society is a contemporary successor to previous travel lecturer organizations. 

Other travel lecture related film collections at the HSFA include the Linker collection of film and video of their popular independent travel series for a southern California television station.  Hal Linker, apparently began as a travel lecturer but soon, with his wife Halla and son David, turned to television as their platform.  Others include Father Bernard Hubbard, a geologist and traveler who was known as the “Glacier Priest” and filmed extensively in Alaska but also all over the world; travel films of Karl Stein and R. Bryson Jones; expeditionary films of scientists who lectured while presenting on their expeditions and a number of amateur travel films, some of which were presented as amateur travel lectures within the travelers’ community.  

Wherever you may be travelling this 4th of July, remember to promenade home.

No comments:

Post a Comment