If you’ve seen the 1998 documentary The Cruise, then you’ll recognize Timothy “Speed” Levitch, the Gray Line tour guide who would be right at home in a Woody Allen movie. The guy with a crazy mop of hair and nasally voice is now hosting Up to Speed, a six-episode travel series made exclusively for Hulu, and directed by Richard Linklater (of Dazed and Confused and School of Rock fame). In addition to illuminating the more mundane “monumentally ignored monuments” across the U.S., it sheds new light on well-known landmarks, too.
What exactly is a “monumentally ignored monument,” and why do they hold such appeal for you?
When you work in tourism for a little while, you start to realize it’s a lot like high school. A lot of famous landmarks are pretty vapid—it’s the dweebs and the wallflowers, like the ignored monuments, that often have more interesting things to say. It’s the idea of finding beauty in the unexpected. History is hiding in plain sight all around us.
You visit everywhere from Chicago and San Franisco to Lawrence, KS. What are a few unexpected highlights?
We had the privilege of shooting at Monticello in Richmond, Virginia. It was surreal learning lines at 6 a.m. while pacing around Thomas Jefferson’s bedroom. One of the characters we bump into is the peculiar revolving serving door; it was a way to get food from the kitchen to the table. It witnessed two different worlds: one side was part of the elegant party, and the other was always facing the world of slaves. We also visit with the Kansas and Missouri borders wars that occurred before the Civil War. We spend time with a buoy knife housed in a historic society that was owned by a Confederate colonel and taken by the infamous abolitionist John Brown.
What can the show teach people about travel?
One of the themes is how being a tour guide is a way of looking at the world. It’s a certain perspective, and it effects your own traveling. My own tourism has taught me that we’re all tourists all the time, even when we’re at home hanging out, because we’re all ephemeral, we’re all in a current state of visiting the planet.
You were born and raised in New York, and started working as a tour guide there in 1992. What are some of your top New York secrets?
First, there’s an infamous mural in the King Cole Lounge in the St. Regis Hotel on Fifth Avenue. What is going on in that mural? That’s one of the big questions. Go figure it out on your own. If I’m remembering correctly, there’s a piece of the Berlin Wall in a courtyard between two skyscrapers on 53rd Street between Third Avenue and Madison. It looks like dull piece of sculpture, but if you look closely it’s an actual fragment of the Berlin Wall. One side has graffiti and the other side is totalitarian clean. The last thing is the Earth Room in SoHo; it’s a permanent exhibition on the second floor of a ritzy building that’s been there since the late 70’s. If I share too many details I’ll give it away, but it’s pretty amazing.
If you could be a tour guide anywhere in the world, where would you choose?
This question really leads in to one of the essences of the Up To Speed show. That is that it turns out that any city, any town, any village, is a sage teacher. There are parables to be learned in any story in any place, and there is so much to learn about ourselves in visiting these places. The other day I was talking to a guy from Cleveland, and he immediately started making fun of it. I was like, ‘Wow, that could be a great episode.’
Up to Speed premieres Aug. 9 on Hulu and Hulu Plus.
Brooke Porter is an associate editor at Travel + Leisure.