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World Travel Series ends 33-year run at Fredonia’s Rockefeller Arts Center
Friday, January 22, 2016

World Travel Series ends 33-year run at Fredonia’s Rockefeller Arts Center

Filmmaker Rick Ray

The World Travel Series presented by Rockefeller Arts Center will take its final journey in April, ending a 33-season run. “The Promised Land: Adventures in the Middle East” a documentary film by Rick Ray will be presented by the filmmaker at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, April 9 in King Concert Hall. It will be the final event in the long-running series.

 Jefferson Westwood with filmmaker Doug Jones.

The World Travel Series was launched in the fall of 1983 with the presentation of Andre de la Varre Jr.’s “Charming Vienna.” Over the course of 33 seasons, another 138 programs featuring hundreds of destinations followed. More than 62,000 people have attended travel series events since its inception.

Jefferson Westwood, director of Rockefeller Arts Center, established the series during his second year on campus. He explained recently that the series is part of the national travelogue industry in which independent filmmakers – often just one person, or perhaps a coupe – travel to another part of the world, shoot documentary footage about that destination, and then return home to edit the footage, write a narrative script to go with it, put in background music and sound effects, and then travel from city to city across north America, sharing their travel experiences with local audiences. Often, the narration is done live by the filmmaker.

During the 1980s and early 1990s, events in the Fredonia series regularly drew between 600 and 800 patrons per show. The attendance record for the series was set in 1989, when 878 people attended a presentation of “Lumberjack in Alaska” with filmmaker/humorist Don Cooper.

By the mid-1990s, a variety of factors, including the increasing availability of high-quality travel programs on cable television began to impact attendance at travel programs around the country. Changing audience tastes and a gradual diminishing of the number of filmmaker-speakers touring each season led a number of series, including those run by Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh and the National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C., to discontinue their travelogues.

Fredonia was not immune from the decline in audience attendance.

“I always knew that one day, we would likely need to close down our own series as well,” Mr. Westwood said. “But I wanted to keep it going as long as I felt it was sustainable, even if it had to be subsidized – after all, all of our other programming is subsidized to some degree.” He noted that corporate support from Fredonia Place and funds from the Friends of Rockefeller Arts Center have allowed the series to continue over recent season even though the finances are not as good as in the heyday of the program.

Average attendance at the Fredonia series over the last four seasons has averaged 225.

“But neither the decline in attendance nor the increasingly challenging finances are not the main reason we’re phasing out the series,” Mr. Westwood said. “The over-riding reason is the declining pool of available talent.” He noted that over recent years, many of the established filmmaker-speakers have retired and new filmmakers have not entered the industry to replace them. “With fewer and fewer series around to county at which to show one’s films, it has not been a lucrative field for young people to go into,” he said. “The speakers just can’t make money the way they used to.”

The result, Mr. Westwood explained, is that it has become increasingly difficult to find three new acceptable-quality programs to put on the series each year. “It was a huge challenge to put together the current season, and it was clear this was only going to get worse in the years ahead. The simple truth is that the travelogue industry has been in decline for over 15 years and the national trend has finally caught up with Fredonia,” Mr. Westwood said.

While the series will end, Mr. Westwood said great memories remain.

“I’ve made a lot of friends through presenting this series, among both the filmmakers and the audience members who regularly attended the programs,” he said. “I’ve also appreciated the opportunity to provide so much educational and entertaining programming at an affordable price, and I was always glad to see people bring their kids along with our ‘kids get in free’ offer.”

“I am extremely proud of the programs we have presented to the community during the course of the World Travel Series,” Mr. Westwood said. “My own understanding of cultures, traditions and geography from other parts of the world has grown thanks to these programs, and I trust it has for community members as well.”

“While I have a certain sense of sadness about closing down the series, I also have a deep feeling of gratitude for the opportunity to be part of the travelogue industry, for the chance to serve the greater community, and for all the support the community has shown for the program,” he said.

“And I’m particularly excited that we were able to Rick Ray to come back one more time. We have not shown his film on the Promised Land before. We have used every other film he has made in the last 33 years. In my opinion, he is the most talented filmmaker in the business. It’s good to be going out on a strong note,” Mr. Westwood concluded.

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