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One of William Marcus’ early standups as host of the Backroads of Montana television show was at the Izaak Walton Inn in Essex.

By this point, seven episodes into what would be a three-decade long run, Marcus had already adapted the host role to move away from necessitating the memorization of a long monologue. But he did have a notable chunk of text to read for that show. Outside. In the winter.

To help Marcus out, John Twiggs, a longtime producer on the show, said the crew brought along a teleprompter.

“We knew we were in trouble when the teleprompter froze,” Twiggs said. The outside element was scrapped, and anyone who’s seen the program would note it opens and ends with Marcus by the inn's stone fireplace, hearth glowing.

Now after bringing the interesting people and special places of Montana's backroads into the homes of viewers around the state over a span of 50 episodes, Marcus is handing over the reigns of one of Montana PBS's most popular programs to Twiggs. The network will air a special show Wednesday, Dec. 1 at 8 p.m. to mark the transition.

Twiggs and Marcus

John Twiggs, left, is taking over as host of the Backroads of Montana program from William Marcus. Marcus has hosted the show on Montana PBS since 1991, over a span of 50 episodes.

How it got started

The concept for Backroads of Montana came from Ray Ekness, who was a television producer at Montana PBS in the early '90s. Ekness grew up in western North Dakota and made the drive from that state to his home in Missoula several times a year.

“As he was doing so, he thought we should do something like Charles Kuralt’s ‘On the Road,’ but do it in Montana,” Marcus said.

Ekness wrote up the idea and pitched it to the Greater Montana Foundation for funding. Gus Chambers was the other producer at Montana PBS at the time, and Chambers and Ekness came to Marcus and asked if he wanted to host a TV show. He said sure, and by 1991 the first episode aired, taking viewers from Virgelle to Victor.

Ekness, Chambers, Marcus

In 1991, Ray Ekness, at left, Gus Chambers, center, and William Marcus film the first host segment shoot along Rattlesnake Creek near Missoula.

The program brings Montanans a wide array of stories, from 90-something Pearl Nickels still putting in a full day's work on her ranch near Fort Peck to an exploration of the hidden world below the streets of Havre, rehabilitated and stocked with historical items by volunteers in the community. One segment highlights the birthday celebration for a 150-year-old doughnut with ties to a Civil War veteran, one of the "wonderful goofy things" at the Range Riders Museum in Miles City.

“That reflects the fact you have four different people knocking these things around,” Twiggs said. “That’s what you’ll end up with. You’ll end up with some of us taking bigger, well-known things and then some of us going for more obscure things.”

Montana vignettes

The story ideas came from Ekness and Chambers to start, though that’s evolved as the show developed a loyal following. Marcus has always been host, though he's produced a few stories here and there. Generally Twiggs, Ekness and Chambers do all the interviews and shooting out in the field, then come back and write a script for Marcus to narrate.

The show always offers up a delightful array of Montana nuggets, and selecting them is guided by a set of parameters.

“Rule No. 1 was that it always seemed to be people-driven,” Twiggs said. “We always needed that part of it. So even if that was a gateway to get to this interesting place or building or occupation, across the board all four of us would always agree that it was people-driven.”

The statewide program aims to be sensitive to geography and highlight stories from all around Montana’s 147,040 square miles. But anyone who’s ever had a conversation about the superiority of eastern versus western Montana would understand the jabs producers hear after every episode over regional favoritism.

Over the decades the program has made an effort to steer clear of the stories that get a lot of coverage in Montana, opting to share the lesser-known tales and characters that assembled together make Montana unlike anywhere else.

Connection

Being on the show would often draw more attention to an out-of-the way event or place in the state. For Marcus, making those connections was one of his favorite parts of the work.

One segment produced by Chambers told the story of Melody Kilwine. She not only collected the history of those buried at the rural Gebo Cemetery outside Fromberg, but also took on the task of upkeep and any repairs from vandalism.

During the segment, Kilwine said there was one fix she couldn’t make — vandals had crushed the headstone young Alberto Coronado’s parents made for him to get four of the boy’s marbles.

Lou Seymour, of Laurel, saw the program when it aired and helped replace the broken grave marker. He also left a box of marbles for people to take instead of destroying something.

“It’s just kind of the perfect Backroads response,” Marcus said. "Favorite stories of mine (are) ones that motivate people to do something. ... It shows me how closely people watch it and how much they care about the state and what people do."

Marcus' aunt and uncle are also buried in Gebo, he told viewers of the segment. 

Another of Marcus’ favorite stories was on Jean Wrobel, an incredibly talented jazz pianist from Hamilton who passed away in 2004. He met Wrobel through working at the public radio station and became enamored with her story of finally securing piano lessons from the famous Teddy Wilson in New York by citing her Montana roots.

Chambers tends toward the quirkier stories, including the century-and-a-half old doughnut. Ekness appreciates stories about process, like a wheelwright in Deer Lodge teaching his fine-tuned method for making wooden-spoked wagon wheels.

Twiggs said he’s drawn more toward people-focused stories, like Katie Rolf and her gourmet dog "kookies," and Ray Zell, the World War II soldier who might have been the oldest veteran still playing Taps at military funerals before his own death in 2016.

Zell was one of those people Twiggs learned about while in Shelby on another assignment, which was nerve-wracking because while he planned to return the following year, Zell was already 98.

Fortunately Zell was still driving himself when Twiggs came back and took the two to lunch. Over the meal, Zell shared so much of his life, from being a teenager during prohibition to relationship highs and lows over the years.

“You’re just sitting with somebody who’s living history at that point,” Twiggs said, describing how often producers gather up far more details than could ever fit into a show. “I was just so blow away by that and how warm and gracious he was.”

When Twiggs learned about Rolf, a woman who operates her own dog treat business and was born blind, he was surprised no one had done the story before.

“It was one of those moments where right away you knew you had an impressive story, it was a question of capturing it on video,” Twiggs said. But Rolf's family was open, had plenty of tales to share and home video and photographs to illustrate it.

Sometimes people like Rolf would end up more as role models than interview subjects for Twiggs.

“Because she couldn’t see, she was so much less judgmental than the rest of us,” Twiggs said. “ … It was how people acted and treated her that mattered more because she couldn't see. She didn’t know what they were wearing, how tall they were, just the quality of the people.”

Welcoming

It strikes Twiggs how even in this day and age, people still get excited about the idea of being on the program and are as helpful as they are. Even those that turn their nose up at the idea of PBS still welcome the producers in and show them around.

“In a time where you feel like people are a little more jaded toward the media, you’re still stunned when you go on these Backroads stories how open, how genuine, how welcoming people are,” Twiggs said.

Marcus remembers a story about the Days of 85 Rodeo in Ekalaka back in the corrals with men on horses and women preparing for barrel races.

“Everyone was so nice to us, so accommodating,” Marcus said. Then one of his classmates from growing up in Wibaux approached him and said everyone thought the crew was there to do an anti-rodeo piece.

“I thought, ‘Man, that’s what they think and that’s how they treat us?’ It’s so amazing to me that people could be so accommodating, given they suspected that maybe it wasn’t going to be a good story,” Marcus said.

Marcus doesn’t know whether to attribute it to the pride people take in their part of the state or that the show would shine a spotlight on things that locals wished got more attention, but even though some people found PBS to be "the wrong three letters," they’d still welcome the crew in. People who’d furrow their brow at the outlet would turn around with great pride and show off their hometown

'Driven by stories'

The show isn’t driven by any strict production requirements. While it's always aimed to do at least two episodes annually, election years show a pattern of late fall plans being sacrificed for political coverage.

While it’s one most-viewed local programs on Montana PBS, Backroads has always been something producers head down between their work on other projects.

“We have done this completely backwards (from what) you should,” Twiggs said. “Backroads is probably the most popular (local) series on Montana PBS, and yet we’ve always done it as an afterthought and around other big projects.”

There have been efforts in the past to make Backroads a larger focus, and Twiggs said he’d like to re-up those attempts going forward.

Marcus said the lack of any sort of quotas has been a part of why the standard of the show is so high.

“It has always been driven by stories,” Marcus said. “That’s why the quality is what it is. Nobody does a story just to fill the time.”

Twiggs and Marcus

John Twiggs, at left, and William Marcus on their way to Mann Gulch for a Backroads story about the 50th anniversary of the tragic event. 

For Twiggs, it can be a respite. 

“When we get done with election coverage, I really need to do a Backroads story that cleans the palate,” Twiggs said.  “That’s probably why we’re not burned out. It’s kept us fresh. It’s probably been frustrating for people who watch the show; they always ask why you don’t do more episodes. For us, it’s still a treat to get to go out on the road and spend a few days.”

'The best of Montana'

Marcus retired from his position as director of the University of Montana Broadcast Media Center and Montana Public Radio/Montana PBS in 2015, but remained on Backroads until the 50th program this year. Hosting the show has never felt like work, he said. 

“As I meet people on the street who approach me because I’m the host, they consistently talk about how proud it makes them of Montana, how they’ve really loved meeting people that they would like to know better.”

Among both longtime and new residents to the state, the show strikes a chord of nostalgia Twiggs said is reflected in the letters and emails the team receives suggesting future stories.

Chambers, Marcus, Ekness

From left, Gus Chambers, William Marcus and Ray Ekness with the first award for Backroads of Montana. The award was for the 1991 E.B. Craney Non-Commercial Program of the Year.

Producers also strive for carefully curated stories, balancing all the details of their subjects' lives and situations that aren't always as rosy as what ends up on each episode. There are a lot of judgement calls, and some stories come with negative components so integral they can’t be skipped, because often someone’s hardest time can be formative to what got them on the show.

“That’s usually the balance you’re trying to strike,” Twiggs said. “Everything wasn’t sunshine and roses for everybody. They had difficulty to overcome and they did and that makes them all the more impressive.”

But the focus of the program still remains on the positive, lifting up viewers along the way.

“The show has never been investigative, it has never been advocacy, it’s never been ‘We need to do some deep digging into a controversy,'” Marcus said. Other producers at Montana PBS do a great job covering those kinds of stories.

"But if you look at Backroads, you would think every person in Montana is friendly and every place is beautiful. We know that’s not the case, but I think that’s why people love the show so much, is we try to put the best of Montana on Montana PBS," Marcus said.

What's next

Twiggs said he doesn’t plan to change much up on the show when he starts as host.

“I’ll be myself. I’ll have my own way,” Twiggs said. “But I’m also not going to be bigger than anything else on the show. That’s a valuable lesson learned from William.”

As Backroads changes, it's doing so along with an ever-evolving Montana. Through the run of the show, the state topped 1 million in residents as population centers bulged to consume former farm and ranch land while small towns lost residents and swaths of the state have been bought up. So far those developments haven't also taken over Backroads.

“At some point, there will be some urban Bozeman story that’s going to get in Backroads,” Twiggs said. “But in terms of us and our relationship with the viewers, they still seem to crave that and the newcomers really crave that. The audience has been pushing us in that direction even though the state clearly is changing. … Right now it remains more nostalgic than reflective of the change.”

And even with the continual evolution, the things that make Backroads, and Montana, special still remain much the same.

“It’s the combination of genuine people living in beautiful places,” Twiggs said. “That’s a visual storyteller’s dream. And when you’re welcomed in the way we are, it just makes the job a pleasure to be able to come in and have people open their homes and their hearts and their stories to you. That’s a dream come true.”

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