They went from "Wheel" winnings to Amazon adventure

Sure, it's nice to get away from it all ... but maybe only a mile or two away. For some New Yorkers, the journey involves a plane ride to Peru, then a three-hour boat ride to the Amazon jungle lodge they built with "Wheel of Fortune" winnings. They're on the Travel Channel, starting Monday (March 9). Here's the story I sent to papers:

(This is a really
fun TV story about two sorta-regular Americans who built a lodge in
the Peruvian jungle. The series debuts Monday and runs six weeks, so
story works any time, print or Web.)

By Mike Hughes

One crucial day in
2012, a New York firefighter stared blankly at the “Wheel of
Fortune” board.

The letters read
“R-G-T/---N/T-/T-E/--RE.” It was a phrase that would whisk him to
the Amazon jungle... and to a reality show that debuts Monday. But at
first, it meant nothing to him.

“I didn't have a
clue,” Stephan Jablonski recalled. “I thought, 'I've gone this
far and now I was going to blow it.' Then I took a breath and thought

With four seconds
left, he blurted out “right down to the wire.” Suddenly, he had
$54,000 ($40,000 or so after taxes) that he could spend anywhere.

His fiance, Dr. Gina
Perez, suggested investment; “she's very level-headed,” Jablonski
said. His friend Rusty Johnson, who's not, suggested building a lodge
in Peru's Amazon jungle.

Somehow, the latter
idea won; now the six-part “Hotel Amazon” is a sign of enduring

The guys met when
they were 15, at a martial-arts class in Kingston, New York, the
Hudson Valley town where they still live. Jablonski, precise and
detail-oriented, became a firefighter and an emergency medical
technician – good fields for careful people; Johnson, struggling
with dyslexia and attention deficit disorder, went in other
“I always had animals,” he said. “I trained a
falcon when I was 17.” He worked with Jim Fowler (“Wild
Kingdon”), wrote a book about Africa (“Twilight of the Wild”)
and did lots of school talks.

Most of all, he
said, he savored Peru and the Amazon. “The moment you stepped off
the plane, you felt the heat, felt the humidity. I loved it.”

In the city, he
liked the free-form streets and markets. (“It's almost like the
wild West.”) In the jungle, he brought people malaria nets and
medicine and found key moments.

On his 33rd
birthday, Johnson delivered a baby in the jungle; she's now 9 and
named the native word for Miracle. He also fell in love with a native
woman, Madeley; they're married and have a 5-year-old. “You feel
like he's a Peruvian man,” she says in the show,

Johnson also kept
returning home to Kingston. “Rusty's been telling me all about
this,” Jablonski said.

Then Perez suggested
that Jablonski, handy with word games, try out for “Wheel of

He got on the show
and somehow detected that B---/TO/--E/-----E (movie title) was “Back
to the Future.” Then an opponent had almost completed “synchronized
swimming,” before accidentally saying the wrong letter; Jablonski
cleaned up that one, finished big and agreed to finance the lodge.

And he finally
visited the place. First, he landed in Iquetos, a city of 420,000
that has much commotoion -- “It's sensory overload,” Jablonski
said – and no access via roads. Then came the 86-mile, three-hour
boat trip to the lodge's Yanayacu River site.

The locals were
startled by him. “They've never seen anyone so big,” one man says
on the show. “And with no hair.”

And Jablonski –
6-foot and 250, sometimes compared to actor Michael Chiklis -- was
startled by their casual pace. “I feel like one man standing
against an entire village,” he says in the show. “I feel alone.”

Expecting to stay
for two weeks, he got an extended leave for six months, scrambling to
make sure the lodge actually got built.

It did. The Wild
Yarapa Amazon Jungle Lodge – 17 rooms and a “VIP treehouse” --
has handled groups as large as 32, he said. It has Wi-fi and cell
service. And when Jablonski happens to be there, it has good access
to help with medical emergencies and/or missing-letter phrases.

-- “Hotel Amazon,”
six Mondays on Travel Channel, starting March 9

-- 10 p.m. ET,
rerunning at 1 a.m.; 7 p.m. PT, rerunning at 10

-- Information on
the lodge is at


It's a long dig ... from old Jerusalem to New Mexico, with a detour to Croatia

Despite its flaws -- and there are key ones -- "Dig" offers a fascinating tale, digging from modern life to old Jerusalem history. And it pulled that off despite an abrupt shift in locations; here's the story I sent to papers:


At times, Hollywood
invades exotic spaces in distant places. At other times, it simply
fakes it.

Then there's “Dig,”
the six-week cable miniseries; it does it both ways.

Thursday's opener
was filmed in one of the world's most special places, old Jerusalem.
“You are walking on stones that people walked on 3,000 years ago,”
said writer-producer Tim Kring.

Or, at times,
leaping or crawling. “You're running on the rooftops,” said Jason
Isaacs, who stars. “Or you're emerging from a tunnel or a cave and
you can feel the combined history of millions of people.”

And then, suddenly,
all of that shifted. After Thursday's opener was filmed, fresh
tensions arose; the rest of the Jerusalem scenes were moved to

Anything is possible
“with the magic of movies,” Kring said, as proven by his “Heroes”
series. “We did scenes in Tokyo and Paris and Africa – and we
never left a 35-mile radius of our office.”

Still, “Dig” had
been planned to be exotic in both its theme and its locations.

This was created by
two people familiar with the classic stories of religions. Gideon
Raff (a “Homeland” producer and the “Tyrant” creator) grew up
in Jerusalem; Kring (creator of “Heroes” and “Touch”) was
once a religious-studies major in college.

They wanted “Dig”
to resonate history, after a modern start. “We are lighting the
fuse of a story that has biblical prophecies that surround this
murder mystery,” Kring said. That involved filming in:

-- Northern Canada,
which portrays Norway. There, a red heifer is born, fulfilling a

-- New Mexico. In a
cold, clinical setting, a young woman (Lauren Ambrose) watches a
lonely boy.

-- Jerusalem, where
Isaacs plays a U.S. deputy legal attache. “His life was shattered
by a personal trauma,” Raff said. “He has lost his faith. And he
is dealing with that in the holiest place on Earth.”

For Isaacs, filming
that first episode was like a daily exercise in time travel. In Tel
Aviv, he had “a modern apartment on a beach, where there are people
running around in Speedos or dental floss. And then we drive to
Jerusalem and it's like driving back through a rip in the fabric of

That old world
gripped the actors, said Anne Heche, who plays his boss and
sometimes-lover. “Every turn you take leads you into another
extraordinary space, just filled with an incredible energy of history
and love and passion.”

Then life shifted.
When trouble erupted in Gaza, the State Department began warning
Americans to stay away. “Tyrant,” which had planned to film in
Israel (after a pilot in Morocco) chose Turkey; “Homeland,” which
was moving its characters to the Middle East, went to South Africa.

And “Dig” headed
to Europe. “Croatia's old cities double beautifully for Jerusalem,”
Kring said.

They have the
ancient stones ... but not the resonance of world-shaking history.

-- “Dig,” 10
p.m. Thursdays, USA Network, starting March 5

-- Opener reruns
that night at 11:23 p.m. and 12:47 a.m.

-- It also reruns at
6:30 a.m. Friday, 10 and 11:30 p.m. Saturday, 9 and 10:30 a.m.
Sunday, 11:05 p.m. Monday and 6:30 a.m. Thursday, March 12.

-- Also, opener
reruns Friday on three sister channels – 5:30 p.m. on E, 10:30 p.m.
on Esquire, 1 a.m. (technically, Saturday morning) on Bravo


"Jewish Journey" brings passion and surprises

The new documentary "The Jewish Journey" covers massive time (almost four centuries) and geography, ranging from Eastern Europe to Egypt and Iraq. At its core, however, are intimate, personal memories. The film shows up at different times in March on public-TV stations; here's the story I sent to papers:


For Andrew Goldberg,
this documentary seemed like familiar turf.

Previous films --
“The Armenian Genocide,” “The Iranian Americans” -- took him
to other worlds and other cultures. But “The Jewish Journey:
America” -- now showing on public-TV stations -- reflected stories
he'd heard at family dinners.

His own
great-grandmother had emigrated in steerage with four kids. The
oldest (his grand-uncle) was 5 and had a steep responsibility: “He
had to go upstairs and be a cute little kid, so he could steal food
for the rest of the family,” Goldberg said.

So the subject of
Jewish emigration seemed familiar to him ... yet brought surprises.
That included:

-- The reasons. The
most massive influx was economic, he found, not directly spurred by
persecution. Russia and Eastern Europe simply had little money, food
or opportunity.

-- The diversity.
“In some countries, notably Egypt and Iraq, Jews were very
assimilated,” Lital Levy of Princeton University says in the film.
That ended in the 1950s, propelling emigration.

-- And the effect on
the people left behind. “The parents knew they would never see them
again,” Rabbi Marc Angel says in the film. “They were gutsy

Younger generations
went to a new world, expecting to never return. For their parents,
Rabbi Brad Hirschfield says in the film, this was final. “You'd
realize it was the last hug you would ever get.”

Mostly, Americans
welcomed these newcomers, Goldberg said, but there were exceptions.
Henry Ford was openly anti-semitic; in 1920, a front-page headline in
his newspaper, the Dearborn Independent, read “The International
Jew: The World's Problem.”

In 1924, new
immigration rules harshly limited the arrival of Jews. Fewer than
150,000 were allowed during World War II (compared to six million who
were killed in Europe), he said, only another 150,000 after the war.
“The U.S. ... could have saved countless lives.”

But many of the
people who did arrive prospered. In the film, Holocaust survivor
Melvin Fedebush recalls his father telling him: “You honor us by
living, not by crying,”

It's a philosophy
Goldberg, 46, heard often. “My father always said the best revenge
was living well.”

And many immigants
did. Jewish families brought an emphasis on education and on books,
he said. “In Judaism, people are required to read” instead of
simply having religious leaders read to them.

His dad became a
psycho-analyst in Chicago. Goldberg graduated from Northwestern, got
a Master's degree from Chicago University, then made documentaries
about subjects both distant and familiar.

-- “The Jewish
Journey: America”

-- On public-TV
stations (check local listings) at various times in March


Suburban secrets turn lethal on ABC

For people who like TV that's new, odd and interesting, this Sunday (March 1) is way too crowded. There's "Last Man on Earth" at 9 p.m., "Battle Creek" at 10 p.m. and the "Downton Abbey" season-finale filling both hours. Also in both hours is "Secrets and Lies," a suburban crime mini-series that quickly pulls you in. Here's the story I sent to papers:


Hollywood knows all
kinds scares. It knows sharks and crocs and giant apes that grab
screaming blondes; it knows creepy, make-believe worlds.

But some of the
scariest notions, director-actor Tim Busfield said, are rooted close
to everyday life. That's the idea behind ABC's new “Secrets and
Lies” miniseries.

“It could happen
to you,” Busfield said. “You wake up one morning and ... your
life is upside-down.”

In this case, Ben
(Ryan Phillippe) is a house painter who lives in suburban comfort
with his wife (KaDee Strickland) and their two daughters. Then he
races into the neighborhood, saying he found a body while jogging.
Soon, a relentless police detective (Juliette Lewis) has him as the
prime suspect.

“Every day, I was
playing a guy whose life was falling apart,” Phillippe said, “who
was being accused, who was being slandered.”

Ben's wife also felt
shattered. Here's a “person you've literally shared a bed with
since you were 19 years old,” Strickland said. “What ... if you
wake up one day and think, '(Is he) capable of something I can't
imagine (him) doing?'”

That's complicated
by side issues and deceptions. The wife may be “angry about,
perhaps, other secrets and lies,” Strickland said.

All of this began as
a six-part Australian mini-series. Kligman – formerly a “Vampire
Diaries” and “Private Practice” producer – was put in charge
of the U.S. version, with room for new twists.

“We've done 10
episodes as opposed to six,” she said. “And because our pace is
faster, we had the opportunity to really go deeper.”

And, perhaps,
darker. Kligman quotes a recent comment from Paul Lee, ABC's
programming chief: “Paul said ...: 'We need more secrets, and we
need more lies.'”

Hey, that's been an
ABC trend lately. From “Scandal” and “Revenge” to “How to
Get Away With Murder.” the network has shown that secrets and lies
can be monstrously scary.


-- “Secrets and
Lies,” 10-part mini-series, ABC

-- First two parts
are 9 and 10 p.m. Sunday (March 1); then 9 p.m. Sundays

-- Also, the first
hour reruns at 10:01 p.m. Monday (March 2)


"Motown 25"? Now it's sort of "Motown 57" and forever

Most music fades away quickly, but Motown is forever ... just as its TV special said, 32 years ago. Now that special is back as a pledge-drive special on many PBS stations. Here's the story I sent to papers:


By Mike Hughes

For one grand
evening in 1983, music history filled our TV sets.

There were Tops and
Tempts, Miracles and Supremes, Smokey and Stevie and more. It was the
first time Berry Gordy would see Michael Jackson moonwalk, the last
time he would see Marvin Gaye.

It was a
ratings-winner and an Emmy-winner, aptly titled “Motown 25:
Yesterday, Today, Forever.” And now comes the “forever” part.

On Saturday, many
PBS stations will rerun the special, to help launch their pledge
drives. “I can't wait to see it again,” Mary Wilson of the
Supremes said by phone.

The special rippled
with talent. “That show was one thrill after another,” Gordy, the
Motown founder, wrote in “To Be Loves” (Warner Books, 1994).

Wilson savored Gaye
(who was killed a year later) but she grants the buzz was about the
“moonwalk” from Michael Jackson. “He hadn't done that before
.... It was reminiscent of Jackie Wilson.”

People also buzzed
about portions that were edited out of the TV version, when
ex-Supreme seemed to spar onstage. “(Diana) Ross swung around and
pushed Wilson backward,” Gerald Posner wrote in “Motown”
(Random House, 2002); she also took the mike out of Wilson's hand.

These days, Wilson
dismisses that as a communication error. She didn't realize that Ross
had planned that moment to call Gordy onto the stage, she insists.
Mostly, she points to the Supremes' triumphs.

“We dared to
dream,” she said, “and we made those dreams come true .... We
helped the world see that black women could be strong and important –
and beautiful at the same time.”

They had auditioned
at Gordy's “Hitsville” headquarters. He liked them, he wrote, but
said he wouldn't sign them until they'd graduated. “Almost every
day after school, the girls were making friends with producers,
trying to get gigs singing background .... They were the sweethearts
of Hitsville.”

There was a family
feel, Wilson recalled. “You could see (Gordy's) father up on top,
fixing the room. They would cook for us. It felt like home.”

And after the
Supremes were signed in 1961, they received the full Motown
treatment. “They taught us how to present ourselves, taught us

And then ...
nothing. Nine singles sputtered, none better than No. 75 on the
Billboard chart. Wilson says she coined the phrase “no-hit
Supremes,” but remained confident. “We were, in our minds,

The difference came,
she said, when they were linked with the Holland-Dozier-Holland
songwriting team. “Where Did Our Love Go” was the first of a
dozen Supremes singles to reach No. 1.

“We weren't the
neccesarily the greatest singers,” Wilson said. “We were not the
greatest girl group. We just recorded a lot of hit records.”

They had the best in
songwriters, musicians, production ... and image. “We loved
glamour,” she said. “We loved to look good.”

Ross left in 1970
and the Supremes persisted. “What a fighter and a survivor Mary
Wilson was,” Gordy wrote. “She ... was the heart and soul of the
Supremes, ... the glue that kept their legacy alive.”

And for one night in
1983 – now returning via pledge drive – the full Motown legacy
was on display.

-- “Motown 25:
Yesterday, Today, Forever,” 8 p.m. Saturday (Feb. 28) on many PBS
stations (check local listings), with reruns throughout March