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.
How did you narrow down the scope of Up to Speed's tours? There are so many different monuments you could’ve focused on in each of the cities you visited.
So true. There could be a thousand different Chicago episodes. Well, a lot of the monuments that are featured in these episodes are old friends of mine, I’ve been chatting with them for years. [Laughs.]
Were any of these cities new to you?
Yeah. After The Cruise, I did my own walking tours between 1998 and 2004 out on the streets for New York; it was street theater. It was fun. I met amazing people. The other thing that was happening in that time period was that film festivals started inviting me to do tours of their locations.
The Marriott Marquis was responsible for the revitalization of Times Square and yet the word 'revitalization' has never felt so stale in my mouth.
If you think about it from a film festival director’s POV it makes sense: Get that quirky New York tour guide to come to Virginia and he could do a little tour of Charlottesville for the Virginia Film Festival. But from my POV, it’s an insane assignment. It’s a kamikaze mission for a tour guide just to go to some place, do research, basically get your rough draft up and going and present it to people who have lived there for 30 years—it’s crazy. It’s awkward!
But I did it. I did it over and over again and I tried it out. I was invited to Charlottesville and that became an episode of Up to Speed. In Chicago, the film festival I was working for was a radical one, so that’s where I started developing the Bohemian Tour. I was invited to Silver Spring, MD. Lawrence, KS. Champaign-Urbana, IL. Columbia, MO. As a New Yorker it was cool to go from this huge place to start microscopically appreciating these much smaller places.
Your show encourages appreciating the beauty in the unexpected and noticing everything around us, especially in cities like New York, where people tend to keep their heads down.
It reminds me actually of a guru who was famous for a one-liner I always loved: “Have you noticed that the anticipation is never showing up?“ The only thing that’s around is the unexpected. When you anticipate, you’re on fast-forward mode. We can anticipate but what we’re anticipating isn’t around us; the unexpected is what’s actually happening.
I think it comes back to that theme of the tour guide’s mission, which is promoting vacation and illuminating the mundane. There is profound history right in front of our eyes all over the place, often in the small cracks, and it’s really just about being awake. It’s quite fascinating.
Were there any things you learned while doing the show that blew you away?
The fact that Thomas Jefferson could read seven languages is a small detail that I never knew, but it’s just a good reminder that he was a Renaissance man.
What locations interest you for future episodes?
I’d love to do a Burning Man episode and go to Black Rock City. I’ve always thought that Burning Man is a real live city. It’s got all the basic ingredients; even though the population brings the water to the city a lot of cities these days have waiters, they need water brought in. It’s got a gridded system of streets. When its active it’s like the 19th or 20th biggest city in Nevada, I think. [Laughs.]
It'd be fun to go to a place like that and investigate it as a city, but then there are other cities that already exist. A no-brainer would be Vegas. I mean, clearly there are so many monuments needing to cry out. [Laughs.] One idea that Linklater had that I love is Isle of Man, which is where he shot his film Me and Orson Welles. It’s this bizarre ancient island off of the coast of Wales. He was talking about how it would be particularly fun to go to places like that where people take their history so seriously. [Laughs.]
In the New York episode, you discuss the “Great Theater Massacre of 1982,” the controversial demolition of five historic Times Square theaters to clear space for the Marriott Marquis hotel. You describe the hotel as having its back turned on Times Square. With such condemnation, I assume the Marriott higher-ups didn’t approve of you filming inside their hotel.
The last line of that shtick is “The Marriott Marquis is given credit for Times Square’s current revitalization,” and I like to think that’s one of the more complicated uses of the word “revitalization.” It was responsible for the revitalization and yet the word “revitalization” has never felt so stale in my mouth. [Laughs.]
There is an attempt to give some objectivity to the story in that we mention that it was a dicey neighborhood in 1982 and that the Marriott being a hotel inviting visitors to the city, the visitors to the city would’ve been intimidated by the neighborhood just as much as the Marriott. I also agree that some of those guerilla shots that we got inside make it look kind of like a Death Star. [Laughs.]
At the same time, another thing you can say in the defense of the other side is that there is not even a plaque or anything commemorating the theaters. In a way we were creating the plaque and whoever takes on that responsibility has to have a little bit of an antagonistic relationship with the hotel. [Laughs.]
They didn’t make it difficult to mock them. The entrance that’s closed off to Times Square, the conference rooms named after the playwrights whose works once lit up the theaters they destroyed….
Isn’t that hilarious? It was all strategic. In 1982 it would’ve made more sense, but it’s kind of fortress-like. I think it would be such a fun, theatrical fantasy to do Waiting for Lefty or one of those great socialistic manifestos that Clifford Odets wrote in the Clifford Odets room. [Laughs.]
I’m not sure there’s enough room.
We’d move the furniture. [Laughs.]
Were there any other situations during filming that were antagonistic?
When we were working in [Thomas Jefferson’s plantation] Monticello we had to be careful. We were given profound access to the grounds. The historians there are wonderful. They are a huge help, but what you’re careful about is that this is their specialty and also it’s their job to protect Jefferson’s legacy.
It can get sensitive when you start talking about, for instance, the peculiar revolving serving door (right), which is a major character in the Virginia episode. All throughout Monticello you can seen these little architectural shticks Jefferson developed to kind of hide the injustices away from his guests and probably from himself.
He maintained throughout his life that he was schizophrenic. He knew the tragedy of the peculiar institution of slavery, but he didn’t feel there could be anything done about it. His famous comment: “Freeing the slaves is a luxury we cannot afford.” Of course, other landowners in Virginia freed their slaves, so they didn’t find a luxury they couldn’t afford, and they were Jefferson’s contemporaries.
When we were in Monticello there were always people watching us. Historians would be there, so it was sometimes walking on eggshells, because I’d make a proclamation about the peculiar revolving serving door and a historian would come over and say, “You know, Jefferson’s butler was African American and he probably would have sometimes taken the food off the shelves and put it on the table.” It became like a negotiation. [Laughs.]
Interview by Justin Monroe (@40yardsplash)