History teachers come in all shapes and sizes. Stan Ellsworth's form just happens to be bigger, scruffier and more charismatic than most. The brawny intellectual is just one of many reasons to check out American Ride, a television series that highlights the best stories you may have missed in high school history classes and starts a new season tonight.
Ellsworth is a former college football coach whose handful of film stints led him to create a TV show focused on two things he loves: motorcycles and talking about America's past. Westword caught up with Ellsworth last week, when he was in Denver filming a segment for the fourth season on the cattle drives that helped make the West what it is today.
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Westword: How did you catch the history bug?
Stan Ellsworth: Originally I'm from Charleston, South Carolina, but I grew up mostly around Manassas, Virginia.
No wonder you're doing what you do now, considering all the Civil War reminders you grew up around.
When I was a little kid, I used to ride my bike up to the battlefield, and I'd look at the statue of General Jackson. And I'd say, "I'm gonna be like that man." So I started reading everything I could on him, General Lee and General Stuart.
So why are you filming here in Denver?
We came to the stockyards, one, to discuss the Goodnight-Loving Trail. And two, the Western "experience." Denver plays a large part in the cattle boom of the 1860s. After the Civil War, that's the first big money thing that hits the American economy. So you have the Chisholm Trail, which lots of people traveled. You have Goodnight-Loving, which opened up the West; it went from Fort Belknap, Texas, across the Pecos River and hitting the Rio Grande, up through Fort Sumner and up to Denver. There were a lot of people bringing beef up this way. In one of our episodes, we talk about how beef, after the Civil War, was really driving the American economy until the crash of '73. We were in Denver discussing the importance of the city to that movement.
There's been a lot of American history television shows over the years. How's this one any different?
As far as history goes, and I don't know if you watch many history shows --
I don't own a TV....
Yeah, I just watch football on it. My wife has to DVR my show. A lot of history shows are presented by a scholarly gentleman who is wearing a sweater vest and bow tie. We don't have sweater vests and bow ties. We have denim jackets and leather. It's a little out of the ordinary. There's a lot more energy in our show. And it's authentic, I believe. I'm not going to evaluate myself that way. The people who have watched the show, their perception and take is that our show presents history with a great deal of passion. Very definitely with a patriotic point of view. It's exciting stuff, and it's important that the rising generation understands what their history is. By and large we're forgetting who we are, and that's a tragedy.
Can you give an example?
I used to teach history at Highland High School in Salt Lake City. Kids couldn't put World War I, Vietnam and Korea in chronological order. That's horrible. The kids couldn't explain to me about Jacksonian democracy. I'm talking to juniors and seniors. These kids should've had a little understanding of this. They couldn't give me the geography of the U.S. outside the mountain states. Utah is not unique in this problem -- I imagine that most teachers in most states have seen a similar disconnect from our past. We're raising a nation that may be ignorant of its past, and I want to amend that.
Your show is more about stoking curiosity than reciting a list of facts.
It is, I hope. But I'm definitely telling the truth, too.
How do you feel like history's traditionally been presented in pop culture?
Like the teacher in Ferris Bueller. There are very few folks who say, "I loved history in high school!" I feel bad that that's how history's perceived.
How did you get started in the entertainment business?
I used to coach college football. I started at a little school in Pennsylvania, and then moved on to the University of Utah, Arizona, and then defensive coordinator at the University of Pennsylvania. Then my first wife passed away, and I had two little kids. You can't be a football coach and a single parent -- it's either one or the other. So I chose to raise my kids. That's how I got to high school. I had a friend who was making a movie. He came to me and said, "I know you coach football. I need a mean basketball coach and I know you understand the levels of coaching." I didn't even know coaching had levels! [Laughs.] I originally said I wasn't really interested. Then he said how much he'd pay me, and he had my attention. That started this whole thing.
And how'd the show itself come about?
I did several movies. Nothing Oscar-worthy. And I wanted to continue working, so I made work for myself. I spent eight years trying to sell this show. And I'm very grateful that Brigham Young University saw the value in making it. That's how it came into being. We're now in our fourth season, and we have 26 episodes up right now.
How do you go about connecting with audiences?
The way we hope to connect with audiences -- and for a long time we were trying to figure out who our audiences are, but it turns out that our audience ranges from eight to eighty -- it's all story-driven. The story of American people is very compelling. We come from everywhere. It's what we as a people have in our heart, that love of liberty and human life, the belief that everyone can contribute. If we can tell those stories, we can connect.
You can view full episodes of American Ride by visiting byutv.org; the weekly series that starts at 7:30 p.m. tonight focuses on the Civil War.
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