Wikipedia has dates and facts. If you want history to come alive, take a virtual tour with Timothy "Speed" Levitch, the offbeat star of Hulu's historical travel show Up to Speed. In the first season of the web series, which the renowned guide's longtime filmmaker friend Richard Linklater (Dazed and Confused, Waking Life) directed, Levitch discusses and literally converses with oft forgotten but nonetheless fascinating monuments, like San Francisco's Golden Fire Hydrant, which played an important role in a 1906 earthquake.
Complex recently sat down with Levitch to discuss history's ubiquity, Thomas Jefferson's architectural monument to guilt, and antagonizing the Marriott Marquis, which both built and destroyed Times Square.
Interview by Justin Monroe (@40yardsplash)
How did you get into tourism?
I was studying dramatic writing and theater at NYU and somebody said that I had to get a job. I started thinking about things that I had an interest in and if there was a dream job I actually would like. I knew I liked the city, walking around; I didn’t study history intensely but I was always interested in it, and I’m a girl watcher.
When you add up these ingredients, plus the performance aspect and the opportunity to meet people from all over the world every day, tour guiding seemed like the perfect job for me. It seemed like the one thing my dysfunctional self could actually contribute to society.
Did you discover a lot about the city that you didn’t know?
Yeah. Oh, my God. I still remember those first days when I met some of my early teachers. One of the first gigs I got was doing the Central Park trolley tour. It was seventy-five percent vehicular, but you got off the trolley like three different times. And parts of the park people don’t go to that often, like the northern woodland area.
I remember when they brought me in to meet with the historians that work for the Central Park Conservancy and they started doing lectures to prep us for the Central Park trolley tour and it was one of the most incredible, flabbergasting moments to feel the voltage and knowledge of how complicated and dense just the story of one park is. I had never thought about it on that level.
The head of tour guides for Gray Line at that time gave free lectures every Monday night just for tour guides. I’d show up and take total notes. This guy was another example of a walking encyclopedia.
These places that we’re living in live and comment on our lives. Even the fire hydrants and the dumpsters are crying out on the topics of our lives.
A lot of these early teachers I had, they weren’t rocking out with the tour. I was young and I knew I could take this and do some rock ‘n’ roll with it, but I’ve always been completely reverent and never have come close to the level of knowledge that those guys have. It’s incredible what some of the historians in New York know. I feel like you can put them on any block and they can tell you what was there 100 years ago.
Do you retain most of your knowledge of places or do you constantly brush up on the history?
I retain when I’m interested. When I read something or hear something that’s cool to me it goes right between my eyes and that’s what I remember. The tour becomes an assembly of details that interest me that I find interesting.
Guides often have a script that they go by, and any two tours will sound largely the same. How scripted or improvised were your tours?
When I started doing my own walking tours it occurred to me that the main landmarks I’m touring are the present tense. The tour guide’s essential mission, I suppose, is to illuminate the mind. My tours became just as much about what was going on around us as the history so that ultimately and hopefully it becomes a dance between the past and the present. But the real reason for tours, it seems to me, is to pursue exhilaration together. So, for that, the present tense is the absolute landmark.
How did Up to Speed come about?
My good friend and collaborator Richard Linklater and I started working together in the late ’90s. I met him in Austin at a screening of my documentary The Cruise (right) and we hit it off right away. We started cruising that night and hanging out and it was soon after that that we shot a scene for his 2001 film Waking Life and we did a short film in 2002 called Live from Shiva’s Dance Floor. It was a 22-minute mini doc largely about the tour I was giving at that time of the hole that was Ground Zero, when the hole was fresh. The film also had a little manifesto at the end about our own recommendation for what should be done for those 16 acres ’cause at the time the debate was still going on.
It’s like a pre-pilot for this show. September 11 was such a huge tragedy and at the forefront of one’s mind, so the little comic bits that are in the film, at the time people were kind of shocked that we had any humor at all, but we wanted to do a film that was about my Wall Street tour as well as Ground Zero.
For instance, one of the shticks in the film, I was standing in front of the George Washington statue on Wall Street, which is the famous one of him taking the Oath of Office. I talk about how his hand is held out 'cause he’s waiting for someone to hold it and it’s an art installation created by the city to show the importance of intimacy and the lack of it. We have a shot during rush hour of thousands of people walking right by it and ignoring the hand being held out.
So we took time with those details even back then in a film about September 11. About three years ago, we came back to New York and we shot an actual pilot. At that time it was called Magical History Tour. It then became Up to Speed as the show continued to evolve and percolate under the auspices of Hulu and they helped us bring it to the further outlandish level.
The animated history segments and dialogue between you and monuments are a fun touch. How did those more fantastical elements become part of the show?
Talking to monuments came up during the pitching process as we were developing it with Hulu. Our original pitch was a history show that meets The Muppet Show and it was an ebullient conversation right away. We were on the same page with that.
In my tourism I always felt that the city was alive. The city is made up of human beings, built by human beings, it’s a stage set for human drama, and as a thing that is alive it goes through transitions. Over the years, looking at the city as living things, it occurred to me that these places are such profound opportunities to understand ourselves, that even the fire hydrants and the dumpsters are crying out on the topics of our lives. The inanimate objects became an extension of that same feeling I always had, that these places that we’re living in live and comment on our lives.