Have TiVo, Will Travel
Published: April 2009
By Frank DeCaro
For decades, television shows have offered idealized images of places both far-off and familiar. <b>Frank DeCaro</b> remembers his favorite armchair vacations
Everything I learned about U.S. geography, I learned by watching television. You ask me the show, I'll tell you the location. One Day at a Time? Indianapolis. Laverne & Shirley? Milwaukee, of course. From The Dick Van Dyke Show (New Rochelle, New York) to Twin Peaks (Snoqualmie, Washington), TV has profoundly influenced my sense of place—and my travel plans.
The first time I went to Minneapolis, for instance, I did what any true fan of The Mary Tyler Moore Show would do—I drove a cabdriver nuts looking for the white Victorian house in which Mary Richards threw all those awful dinner parties. (Hint: 119 North Weatherly doesn't really exist!) Never mind that I've always been more Rhoda than Mary and that my high school nickname was Phyllis (don't ask).
Such a strong connection to fictional characters (and fictionalized versions of actual places) is common among pop-culture addicts such as myself. For those who faithfully watched, week after week, the budding feminists typified what we believed Minnesota women were like. Visiting Minneapolis without stopping by Mary's house, which is really at 2104 Kenwood Parkway, would be like traveling hundreds of miles to see relatives and then not saying hello. In fact, so many people were making that pilgrimage in the seventies that the owners hung up an anti-Nixon banner and refused to take it down. The show couldn't use the house for exterior shots anymore, so Mary was moved to a high-rise.
"There are definitely people who make their travel choices based on TV shows," says Fran Wenograd Golden, the author of the location guide TVacations. Although the interior of the bar formerly known as Bull & Finch Pub in Boston doesn't look that much like the bar it inspired on Cheers (the name was changed in 2003 to Cheers Beacon Hill), it's still a huge draw 11 years after that series ended. We all know that Sam and Diane were just characters, and Cheers was filmed in Hollywood before a live studio audience, but there is a part of us that wants to believe that these people and places are just the way they are on TV.
Most interesting is that a good show allows you to look at your everyday environs again, often with the wide eyes you had when you first arrived. Sex and the City reminded me that the party I'd joined in 1988 when I moved to Manhattan from the style-deprived Detroit suburbs was still in full swing if you stayed up late enough. Those four outrageously dressed, fabulously shod women lived in a dream of what New York City is—a place of big love and small portions, tiny dresses and enormous fun.
Let's face it, if you grew up watching The Andy Griffith Show, the sleepy hamlet of Mayberry defined the small-town South as a laid-back existence consisting of fishing holes and Aunt Bee's home-canned pickles. Each year the residents of Mount Airy, North Carolina, the town that the show was based on, celebrate Mayberry Days, which annually draws 30,000 visitors from around the world. And the mayor of Seattle publicly thanked the producers of Frasier (the Cheers spin-off starring Kelsey Grammer), which just ended a successful 11-year run, for putting the city on the national map.
It doesn't stop there. The conniving residents of Melrose Place—with their penchant for poolside catfights and rampant bed-hopping—conveyed an idea of the Los Angeles lifestyle. Dallas made the Lone Star State ten-gallon glamorous, Dynasty raised Denver up on shoulder pads, and Falcon Crest squeezed every last drop of juice out of Napa. And who would doubt that the crime-stopping excitement of Miami Vice helped spur the comeback of that pastel-and-neon beachfront in the early nineties?(The lusty old broads of The Golden Girls didn't hurt the city's reputation either.)
The Sopranos has managed the nearly impossible task of making New Jersey seem cool, or at least colorful. The HBO hit's use of real suburban locations has prompted bus tours of such fictional hot spots as the Bada Bing strip joint (actually, Satin Dolls in Lodi) and Satriale's Pork Store (formerly West Hudson Auto Parts in Kearny). In fact, the pig on top of Satriale's became such an item of interest that there were rumors the prized prop had been stolen. Likewise, when a New Jersey newspaper printed the name of the real owners of Tony Soprano's house in North Caldwell early in the show's run, the family that lives there suffered an onslaught of curious fans.
Of course, that house is just the outside of Tony and Carmela's sprawling abode. The interiors are shot on a soundstage in Queens. Viewers don't mind, though. The show has convinced us not only that the characters are flesh and blood, but that this version of the so-called Garden State is real—just the way Northern Exposure made us believe that Roslyn, Washington, was Cicely, Alaska. Seinfeld, that most New York of shows, was shot almost entirely in Studio City, California, but a Seinfeld bus tour of Manhattan landmarks—the soup shop and Monk's restaurant among them—led by Kenny Kramer, the real-life inspiration for Cosmo Kramer, has drawn fans for years.
A successful show can also help revive an entire mode of travel. The Love Boat, set aboard the Pacific Princess, was a boon to the cruise industry in the seventies and eighties, redefining cruising as something "exciting and new" for everyone, not just for dowagers in need of alone time. It wrapped exotic ports in Mexico and the Caribbean in the promise of romance.
Today, of course, reality television rules the airwaves. While Survivor and other examples of the eat-something-disgusting-and-win-a-prize genre may inspire only the most intrepid travelers, shows like The Bachelor are influencing the rest of us. After you've watched Bachelor Bob and his date du jour luxuriate in a private plunge pool on an island off the coast of Belize, what's stopping you from calling your travel agent?
Perhaps the most telling evidence of the connection between television and place is the fact that the Travel Channel has hired five members of the original Brady Bunch cast for an upcoming special on Hawaii. Sure, Hawaii Five-O and Magnum, P.I. bolstered our feelings about the islands, but it was the Brady kids and their misadventures during the three-part "tiki taboo" episode that sparked the flame.
Even today, Hawaii continues to reap the benefits of prime-time exposure, thanks to the bikini-clad bodies and soapy plots of FOX's North Shore, NBC's Hawaii, and the WB's Rocky Point. Glitzy locales are characters, and that makes a series a lure for travelers. Even Tom Cruise recently said that his earliest notions of Hollywood were based, in part, on The Beverly Hillbillies (the original sixties sitcom, not the proposed modern-day reality show). If a man who understands make-believe from the inside out can admit to being suckered, who can blame the rest of us for buying into the TV-travel fantasy hook, line, and clicker?
Classic TV sends viewers packing for a trip around the world
That telltale whistle theme for The Andy Griffith Show immortalized Mount Airy, North Carolina, a.k.a. Mayberry.
Throwing a beret in the air was never the same again after Mary Tyler Moore did it at Minneapolis's Nicollet Mall (a bronze statue commemorates the occasion). The Victorian house where WJM associate producer Mary Richards lived was recently sold for $1.7 million, proof positive that the city of Minneapolis is "gonna make it after all."
The Brady Bunch visits Hawaii for the three-part "tiki taboo" episode, where they cement Generation X's view of the islands as a land of enchantment, danger, and really bad haircuts. Today, Hawaii is again a prime location for TV shoots.
Schlemiel, schlemazel...Schotz brewery bottle-cappers Laverne and Shirley make Milwaukee seem like a great place for bowling and a little vo-de-oh-do-do. Beer lovers remember the good old days of Schlitz while watching reruns on Lifetime.
When Dallas premiered, the Southfork ranch in Parker, Texas, became Peyton Place with spurs. Y'all come by for a tour of J. R. Ewing's favorite spots now, ya hear?
Who wouldn't want to knock one back with the gang at Cheers?After it hit the airwaves, the real Bull & Finch Pub was turned into a tourist mecca. The show's tap went dry in 1993, but fans still stream into 84 Beacon Street to shout "Norm!"
Snoqualmie, Washington, got a mysterious rap in David Lynch's Twin Peaks. The Mar-T Café was rechristened the Double R Diner, but the cherry pie is "damn fine" at both.
The Sopranos captures what's been called the "scenically ugly" side of the Garden State and—go figure—makes New Jersey cool. A $40 bus tour of Sopranoland sights is more Tony than tony, but it's worth the cannoli that comes with the ride.
Survivor and other reality shows take us to such exotic settings as Pulau Tiga, the Australian outback, and Vanuatu. Whatever you do, just don't eat the sea cucumber.
TV executives are putting their chips on Las Vegas, hoping the glittery backdrop will rake in viewers. But from the looks of Dr. Vegas and Father of the Pride, don't bet on it.