A production crew from British Broadcasting Company filmed several Sedalians Wednesday morning for a popular upcoming travel documentary “Great American Railway Journeys,” hosted by Michael Portillo, of the United Kingdom.
The series, a companion to “Great British Railway Journeys,” is now shooting its second season.
“This is the second year we’ve been filming in the United States,” Portillo said. “Last year we went down the east coast from Niagara Falls to Jamestown, Virginia. This year I’m on a journey which will take me from St. Louis, Missouri, to the Grand Canyon.
“As the name implies, we travel by train,” Portillo added. “You use a guidebook from 1880 called Appleton’s and that prompts us to look into American history, railroad-related or not. In the case of Sedalia, history is highly related to the railroad. So, we’ve come here to find, as Appleton’s describes, a Main Street which is 120-feet wide, (and) beautiful shaded but handsome buildings, but we have also found that on this shaded street there was something shadier going on.”
Wednesday morning, Producer/Director Cassie Ferrall shot scenes along South Ohio Avenue with host Portillo speaking with Rhonda Chalfant, who has a Ph.D. in history with an emphasis in 19th century U.S. social history. Chalfant spoke about the impact of the red light district in early Sedalia. The film crew also visited the site of what once was a bordello on West Main Street.
Chalfant said they discussed the clientele that visited the prostitutes and their socioeconomic range.
“We talked about the importance of prostitution to the city’s economy,” she added. “There was time in the 1890s when the city shut down all the brothels, and found they couldn’t pay their police force without the money the women contributed in the form of fines they paid weekly.”
Chalfant said the railroad usually brought an element of lawlessness that could be seen across the state of Missouri and into the west.
“The railroad made it easier for people to be lawless,” she noted. “For a few years, any town the railroad came to, there would be a period of lawlessness and it usually slowed down and stopped. In Sedalia it didn’t slow down as far as prostitution.”
Portillo said the show highlights history, “particularly social history,” and this season they would cover topics such as Native American conflicts, the demise of the American buffalo, and notable old west personalities Wyatt Earp, Buffalo Bill and Jesse James.
“The whole theme of this journey is the push to the west,” he noted. “The expansion to the west, from the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 onward.”
Sedalia Convention and Visitors Bureau Executive Director Carolyn Crooker said she discovered a year ago that BBC wanted to film in the U.S. Crooker submitted photos of Sedalia to the Missouri Film Office hoping it would be selected for the series.
She was recently notified the producers wanted to look at Sedalia a little closer. On June 15, a BBC producer and other crew members arrived to look over Sedalia and film certain areas pertaining to the theme of the show. The crew took the images back to the United Kingdom and the film was approved.
Meeting the people along the way is what Producer Farrell said she enjoys about the series. She said she’s worked with Portillo for six years on other BBC travel productions.
“We have travelled all over Europe, and extensively in the British Isles,” she noted. “It’s the most wonderful way to meet the the most glorious number of people, who have lots of rich history. It’s an incredibly exciting show to do. We are always discovering new stuff and the railways obviously are our linking theme.”
Besides covering Sedalia’s seedier side, the film also looks into Sedalia’s ragtime music history. To do this, the film crew visited the Katy Depot late Wednesday morning to film members of One Track Train as they performed “Won’t You Come Home Bill Bailey,” and Marit Johnson, of Columbia, as she played Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag.”
Band members Rob Hughes, Sarah Hughes, Aaron Hughes, Chris Clark, Chris Robinson and Alex Eppenaure, and Johnson too, said they were thrilled to be asked to play for the show.
Johnson, who specializes in playing ragtime music, began playing when she was 11, often traveling to Sedalia for the Scott Joplin International Ragtime Festival. A friend recommended her to the Sedalia Convention and Visitors Bureau as a person who would play for the show.
“I’m excited, I was not expecting that phone call,” she said.
Robinson, harmonica player for One Track Train, said the group specializes in American roots music, old time Gospel, bluegrass, ragtime, blues, and rock n’ roll.
“It’s great, it’s great,” he said of performing for the Sedalia episode. “It’s fun music, it’s great to be a musician, and a Sedalian, and to be able to acknowledge that we are the birthplace of the first popular American music genre. We’re hoping to call attention to the significant contribution that Sedalia made to music.”
The film crew arrived Tuesday evening and spent the night at the Hotel Bothwell. They left by train at 12:45 p.m. Wednesday. Both Producer Farrell and Portillo said they enjoyed their stay in Sedalia.
Farrell added that Sedalia is one of their favorite places because people are so friendly.
“We just loved it, it just has such great atmosphere,” she said. “It’s been really, really nice.”
Portillo echoed Farrell’s sentiments, saying they received a wonderful welcome while in Sedalia.
“We have really enjoyed the hospitality,” he added. “We really appreciate the history of the town, the look of the town.”
The “Great American Railroad Journeys” episode featuring Portillo’s visit to Sedalia is scheduled to air on the United Kingdom’s BBC network in January and February 2017. After release in the UK, BBC will open up the series to other networks. Portillo said last season’s episodes may be watched on YouTube.
Faith Bemiss can be reached at 530-0289 or @flbemiss.