The William H. Mortensen Travel Series — the longest-running travel-lecture series in the United States, and a fixture at the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts since 1930 — will end this weekend.
The cause of its death is the Travel Channel and other travel-adventure film providers on TV and online.
In a letter to subscribers of the film-and-talk series, Bushnell President-CEO David Fay wrote:
"Over the past decade the advent of cable television has ushered in myriad options of travel programming. With this development, both the field of lecturers and the patron base has decreased dramatically for the Bushnell series."
Ronna Reynolds, executive vice president of the Bushnell, said, "All arts programming has life cycles. ... Entertainment and the arts are evolutionary, and it has served its time remarkably well. ... It's just a changed marketplace."
Or, as Scott Galbraith, vice president of programming, put it, "You have several opportunities now to live vicariously ... in today's tech-savvy environment."
The presenter whose film will close out the series on Sunday — Tweed, Ontario, filmmaker John Wilson — said the travel-lecture circuit is fading nationwide and in Canada, but enthusiastic audiences are still out there.
"I just did Kalamazoo, Mich. They have two shows, with 500 to 700 people each. It was a tremendous success. It reminded me of the good old days, when the series was really popular around the country," he said. "What are they doing differently, it's nebulous; you can't put your finger on one thing."
Wilson said that in the "good old days," most speakers traveled five to six months out of the year, doing 20 to 25 shows a month, in 450 to 500 venues around the U.S. and Canada.
"I'm not sure of the exact numbers now, but it's down to less than half of that," said Wilson, who has been on the film and lecture circuit for 34 years. "A number of us want to keep doing this as long as we can, but it's not in our hands anymore."
Wilson and his wife, Denice Wilkins, also edit their films for television viewing, and have been seen on the Discovery Channel and PBS, among other channels.
Wilson said the trend away from live travelogues was clearly pointed out recently in western Canada.
"We lost a number of big shows in Canada, from Winnipeg out west," he said. "The sponsor at the time wanted to retire, and they couldn't find anybody who wanted to take it over."
At its founding, the series was called the Bushnell Motion Picture and Lecture Course. Later, it was renamed the Bushnell Travel Series. After the death of William H. Mortensen — who, as managing director of the Bushnell from 1929 to 1968, brought the series to Hartford — the series was named after him.
Among its more illustrious lecturers over the years have been polar explorer Richard Evelyn Byrd, and W. Somerset Maugham and Thornton Wilder, who spoke about their writings.
In past decades, the Bushnell series — billed as the "vacation that offers you the world without leaving Hartford" — was hugely popular. Patrons, lured by the reasonable cost and the family-friendly theme, would attend each offering with their children, and would hand their subscriptions down generation to generation.
"In its heyday, it had over 11,000 subscribers," Reynolds said. "Now, we have 8,500 Broadway subscribers. ... It was really, in its own way, one of the blockbuster product lines in Bushnell history.
"It was very popular for many years before the advent of mass travel," Reynolds says. "It was also great for people who were older and who had traveled but no longer could travel."
At its peak, the series was four showings over the course of one weekend, about once a month, from October through May. Nationwide, travelogue-lecture series began experiencing a decline in attendance in the mid-'80s. The Bushnell's series remained popular longer than many, but Fay said Bushnell staff could see the writing on the wall even then, and in the years after.
"There was some suspicion that that was the direction we were headed," Fay said. "We built a new building in 2001 and moved the series from the Mortensen Hall to the Belding Theater. Audiences had diminished so greatly we could no longer justify putting it in a 2,800-seat theater, instead putting it in the 900-seat theater."
In recent years, the series had scaled down to one showing per film, on Sunday afternoons, and sometimes it was just a film, not an accompanying lecture. Typically the theater has been one-third full.
(The Warren Miller ski film series is separate from the Mortensen series, and will continue at the Bushnell.)
One loyal audience member is Frances Johnson of West Hartford. Her first date with future husband, Justus Johnson, in the early '60s was to a Bushnell travel lecture.
"We used to go originally on Friday nights. It was a nice start to the end of the week," Johnson said.
In the years since his passing, she and her friends continued their patronage. Her friends have since given up their memberships, but she has held on.
"When I was with the other ladies, we'd go out for a light early supper after," she said. "It made a social Sunday afternoon."
She said she enjoys the lecture series because "it sort of widens your world."
"You see countries and people you wouldn't ordinarily come in contact with," she said.
Now, the 78-year journey is pulling in to the station.
It ends at 2 p.m. on Sunday in the Maxwell and Ruth Belding Theater with the documentary "South African Safari," accompanied by a lecture by Wilson.
Admission is $7.50. A "Bon Voyage Party" immediately follows the film, to say goodbye to this local institution. The Bushnell is at 166 Capitol Ave., Hartford. Information: 860-987-5900.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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