In the early days of the tourist boom that now has the city awash in bus-boat-foot tours, clogging the summer sidewalks, streets and river, I remember a "guide" on one of the boat tours who had, shall we say, a unique take on our town.
He would point to the Shedd Aquarium and say, "There is the new house that Oprah Winfrey just built for herself. Isn't it nice?" and later, pointing to the John Hancock Building, he would announce, "That is where Mike Ditka and all of the Bears live." For those of us who knew the truths of the territory these were wildly amusing and somewhat surreal trips, surrounded by tourists who "oohed" and "aahed" and snapped photos.
This "guide" eventually returned to his regular duties as a deckhand, and now all of the city's tours, at least on the factual level, have improved considerably. One is now assured of fairly historically accurate and less imaginative excursions. Many of the guides are quite knowledgeable, but if you listen close enough you might be able to glean some hints of their particular passions.
On such person is Jason Travis, who has been working since March as a guide for the Chicago Trolley & Double Decker Company (chicagotrolley.com), standing atop the outfit's red buses (about 10 of them are driving around at any time during the day, and a few at night) and sharing his insider's knowledge of Chicago ("Potbelly has the best ice cream sandwiches in the world"), a few personal matters ("If I win the lottery I'll buy the penthouse in Trump Tower") and expressing his passion, which is the world of entertainment, with a particular emphasis on the Academy Awards. He put this on display a couple of weeks ago, as one of the buses coursed through its 13 hop-on-and-off stops over two hours. "Name a year, any year, and I can tell you instantly what won the Oscars that year and why," Travis told the dozen or so tourists on a recent trip. Years were quickly matched with winners and stories. The crowd was delighted and amazed.
Travis is, as you might sense, a most outgoing sort. He worked for a short time during the summer of 2009 at the Chicago Tribune as an intern in the features department. He was not one of those button-downed journalism-school sorts we usually see. "Oh, no, from the beginning you knew that Jason was not like the rest of our summer interns," says Itasca Wiggins, a longtime Tribune photo coordinator. "Witty and funny with a little cockiness thrown in. This kid was the real deal."
Travis, now 32, is a child of Hyde Park, a proud graduate of the Ray elementary school (where his mother, Leslie, recently retired as librarian; his father, David, is also retired, having worked as curator of photography at the Art Institute of Chicago) and Kenwood Academy. He attended Columbia College here, grabbing a bachelor's in film/video/screenwriting.
Since leaving the Tribune he has traveled the world, or at least some watery parts of it, as an entertainment host for Disney Cruise Line and later and longer for Carnival Cruises, as comedy club manager/host. "It was never dull," he says. "But it is a different world. I signed six-month contracts, which meant that, aside from jumping off for a little while at the islands we stopped at, I lived on ships. We would do eight to 10 shows on a four-day cruise, and they were very high-energy because all most people were interested in doing was drinking, laughing and partying. It's really like Las Vegas on water."
He fell in love with movies, he says, when he was in the fifth grade and watched his first Oscar telecast with his parents and younger brother Michael. "That did it, sparked the passion," he says. "After that, when I should have been studying math, I was at the 57th Street Books, sitting on the floor and reading film almanacs cover to cover."
He has been insatiable ever since, and has transformed his passion into a budding career. Next to the bed in the Hyde Park apartment where he lives is a copy of "Inside Oscar," a gossipy, "unofficial" account of the Academy Awards by Mason Wiley and Damien Bona. Travis calls this book his "bible."
Since 2010 he has been writing for Oscar-related websites such as goldderby.com (affiliated with the Los Angeles Times, which, like this newspaper, is owned by Tribune Publishing Co.) and posting videos of his own making. He now has his own YouTube channel, youtube.com/jasonmovieguy, which has attracted more than 11,000 subscribers.
"I have been very surprised, even shocked," he says. "I am not one of those who posts something every day. I am interested in quality over quantity."
A quick sampling of the site provides a showcase of Meryl Streep (Travis' favorite actress; Jack Nicholson on the male side); clips of what Travis believes to be the "Worst Best Picture Winners"; "Mrs. Doubtfire Predicts 2014 Oscars" (with Travis in that notable Robin Williams role); and, by far its biggest hit, a reimagined trailer for the 2002 movie "Unfaithful," which, astonishingly, has racked up more than 28 million hits.
While exploring various ways to monetize this endeavor, he is working on a screenplay with a pal, which he calls "sort of a spoof of the TV show 'Scandal.'" He also has an idea, and a pretty good one too, for a television show. It would be called "Oscar on My Couch."
"I would sit with Oscar winners, like James Lipton sits with actors on his show (Bravo's 'Inside the Actors Studio')," he says. "And I one day want to be on the red carpet before the Oscars ceremony. I won't be at all like Joan Rivers. I will be respectful and ask interesting questions."
In the meantime, he is more than happy to be riding the Chicago Trolley buses four or five days a week even though most of the people on the buses won't know any more about him than what they see and hear. That's just the way it is. We don't know that the cab driver is an engineering student, the waitress an actress, the salesclerk a painter.
"I love the tours," he says. "I get to have a microphone and talk to people, and in that way it's similar to what I was doing on the boats. But now I get to tell people about my favorite city and express my love of movies, and at the end of the day I get to go home and sleep in my own bed."