Shirley Thomas, Traveling Stars, and the world in Your Living Room

“Today’s travel has assumed a fourth dimension. We think not distance, but time” says Shirley Thomas, host of TV’s short-lived but fascinating series Traveling Stars, at the start of the show’s first episode in 1956. “By this equation, any place on Earth is only hours away” (you can watch this introduction below, but apologies for the quality; the video was shot with an iPhone pointed directly at the screen of a Steenbeck in the IU Libraries Film Archive). Thomas is speaking about plane travel, but the subtext transcends the literal here. For Thomas’s show brought many places on Earth to the home of the viewer, requiring them to not count the hours of a plane flight to an exotic location, but rather to assume the position in their living room at the appointed time tune their television sets.

Traveling at Home

The IU Libraries Film Archive (IULFA) holds the first — and perhaps only — episodes of Traveling Stars, including film elements. In fact, it is likely that IULFA is the only entity in the world that holds copies of this long-forgotten television show at all. An interesting fact, because Traveling Stars featured some very prominent Hollywood personalities over the course of its short run.

Shirley Thomas and Cecil B. DeMille
Shirley Thomas with Cecil B. Demille, discussing his then soon-to-be-released epic The Ten Commandments

The format is not unfamiliar to twenty-first century television viewers. Thomas, our host, introduces the subject of the show which, in every episode, is a city in a foreign country or a foreign country itself (save for Hawaii, a then fairly recent addition to the United States). Shirley then introduces her guests — the stars — who are familiar with the location and wish to share their stories about it. Generally the stars are promoting a film that was shot in the country in question. In each episode Thomas discusses architecture, the ways of the people, the food, and, often, the shopping associated with the location with the stars. She interviews them about their experiences in those places which are often illustrated by home movies or photographs shot by the stars themselves.

Hollywood Globetrotters

Television was still a very young and seemingly very exciting medium for some of these stars, and they were more than happy to share their personal experiences. In episode #2, “The French Alps”, makeup artist Frank Westmore, fresh off of the set of The Mountainprovides home

Yvonne De Carlo poses in front of the sphinx during a fashion shoot while filming The Ten Commandments

movies that go behind the scenes to show the crew’s hotel, some of the location shots, and even star Robert Wagner goofing off a bit. Westmore, Claire Trevor, and blacklisted director Edward Dmytryk eat fondue, discuss the villagers, and show what gifts they brought back from France. In episode #3, “Egypt,” we see home footage of Yvonne De Carlo on a fashion shoot in front of the pyramids and the sphinx while enjoying some time away from the set of The Ten Commandments.

Some guests do not seem as excited. In one of the more tense episodes, a seemingly very intoxicated Dean Martin, just “divorced” from Jerry Lewis, and his co-star from the then-recently finished film Ten Thousand Bedrooms, Anna Marie Alberghetti, go on a trip to Rome with Thomas. Martin is consistently inappropriate and somewhat embarrassing, complaining

Anna Marie Alberghetti shows off a beautiful 1956 Vespa while Dean Martin and Shirley Thomas do their best to make it through an episode of Traveling Stars

about “terrible” European coffee, expressing his disinterest in going anywhere but one restaurant in Italy, sweating, smoking, and seeming very distracted. Alberghetti looks worried about Martin’s behavior and their mutual concerned glances seem to indicate something deeper — a bad on-set relationship? A torrid affair? Mutual dislike? Inappropriate like? And all the while Thomas handles it with the grace of a Hollywood reporter.

Two Kinds of Americans

In fact, Thomas was a red-carpet interviewer before her stint on Traveling Stars. Surely the origin of the show exists in someone’s papers (perhaps her own; she deposited both papers and films with the Lilly Library, yet her papers seem to be mostly notes about her later Men of Space project). It may be reasonable to assume that her experience as a red-carpet worker led her to this show, and also scored her her connections with these particular Hollywood elite. She is credited with “Readin’, Writin’, Research” so she was not simply the face of the program, she also provided all of the written content. And while the format of the show may seem a little old hat in 2012, I would argue that Shirley Thomas was actually ahead of her time.

Television watchers and film-goers in the post-war era were used to celebrity fetishism, and while the locations featured in the show were likely out of most Americans’ price-range as far as travel expenses go, Thomas never seems condescending when discussing these exotic places. Even the celebrities themselves are very humble about their travels, and very inclusive; at the end of the show one feels hopeful about going to these places rather than othered and excluded from them. In fact, Thomas ends the first episode by saying “There are two kinds of Americans: Those who are taking a trip, and those who are planning one.”

The Rise of Realism

Edward Dmytryk makes the case for realism on Traveling Stars

This post-war optimism typifies the era; anything was possible, even a trip to far-off Japan. Thomas succeeds in bringing not only Hollywood, but also the entire world, into the living rooms of those watching. It is likely that many of these television watchers had never seen such candid footage of these foreign places. Dmytryk points out that for years Hollywood had relied on “phony” sets to transport viewers, but that Hollywood could not “fool people anymore.” Traveling Stars, with it’s actors and directors as real people model and its amateur footage of far-off places was only helping in making realism an important Hollywood and television commodity.

Dean Martin, Anna Maria Alberghetti, and Shirley Thomas say “hello” to Rome from an “airplane cabin”

Woman of Space (and Time and Travel)

Shirley Thomas completed one season of Traveling Stars and, though she  remained somewhat active in show business, received her B.A. in 1960 and, subsequently, her PhD in Communications. Between 1960 and 1968 she authored an eight volume work about astronauts entitled Men of Space, the papers for which are now held at the Lilly Library.

The cover of Shirley Thomas’s Men of Space

This ambitious work shows that, for her, traveling was more than a mundane tourist activity; in fact, it was a way to understand the world, both on earth and off of it. Despite the show propagating some 1950s female stereotypes (it was sponsored by a “diet” cookie called Duets, meant to curb your appetite — see the link above for a complete ad), both it — and Shirley Thomas’s subsequent work — instead show the presence of a strong, independent citizen of the world, working within a media which was, at the time, largely run by white men. IULFA is proud to hold these works and we hope to make it more widely available as our preservation activities continue.

~Jason Evans Groth