Meet the 'well-seasoned' women behind 'Grannies on Safari'
Regina Fraser wanted "to run around the world" with a comfortable companion. Pat Johnson was just happy running around the world. Thus was born a beautiful friendship - and a public television show.
Fraser and Johnson are the women behind "Grannies on Safari," a PBS show that begins its fourth season in May. On and off screen, they are friends, travel lovers and, yes, grannies.
Fraser, who spent her career working for the airlines, and Johnson, an art historian and arts administrator, first met about 30 years ago in Los Angeles when their children attended the same school. But their friendship didn't bloom until both moved to Chicago. Johnson was running an international cultural exchange program through the Chicago Cultural Center; Fraser worked for a division of United Airlines that provided plane tickets for the exchange program.
"I had to be very nice to her," Johnson confides, a sparkle in her eye. "She was responsible for keeping me in business."
Fraser laughs and adds, "She was easy to get along with. Then."
This kind of good-natured ribbing comes across on the small screen just as warmly as it does during a visit with the women in the small office they share.
Fraser is the adventurous one, whether travel calls for her to climb onto the back of a camel or figure out how to extract the "Grannies" entourage from Egypt during a revolution. Johnson is the slightly curmudgeonly one, who might choose to get a pedicure rather than head off on yet another trek into the African bush to see yet another lazy lion.
Leaps of faith
Fraser, mom of four and granny to three, developed the "Grannies on Safari" idea in 2004. The mother of two and granny to two, Johnson was asked to comer along - partly because Fraser thought the pair would enjoy running around the world together and partly because Johnson's background as an art historian and cultural expert added important perspectives.
It also took a lot of faith for both to become fulltime (and, at that point, unpaid) world travelers. Fraser sold a fur coat and took loans from her children. Johnson gave up a secure job as founding director of the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco and cashed in her 401(k).
"My children thought I was crazy," Johnson remembers with a laugh. "But [Fraser] had a good idea. And travel is my No. 1 passion."
Both women developed their passion for travel early. Johnson's Aunt Bea used to travel via freighter with a carpetbag and steamer trunk. She would bring trinkets home and regale her niece with stories of her adventures. Johnson's first big trip was a whirlwind family tour of Europe when she was 16.
Fraser, meanwhile, began traveling at a very young age, inspired by her father, jazz musician Rex Stewart, who played with Duke Ellington. When she was a teen, Stewart took her along on a European tour. Fraser's tour was cut short, however. "He sent me home because I was having too much fun."
When she worked for the airlines, Fraser took advantage of that great airline company perk - free tickets - and thought nothing of heading off to Paris with her daughter for the weekend.
Urge to keep going
Even today, Johnson, who turned 68 in March, and Fraser, 69, can't stay home too long. They were gone much of last fall (including a 16-day trip from Moscow to Beijing via the Trans Siberian Railroad) and came home "so darned tired," says Johnson. But after just a few weeks in Chicago, Johnson started "getting the heebie-jeebies" and began planning a New Mexico trip.
Fraser also gets itchy to travel after a short time at home. "I start seeing exotic places on the horizon, like Ethiopia and Israel."
Their Emmy-award-winning show, the only syndicated international travel show hosted by African-American women, has prompted many to call the women with this question: How did they achieve their dream?
"I tell them to be passionate and don't give up," Fraser said. "People see us and think 'Wow, look what they've done.' But they have no idea we've been slogging through since 2004."
Fraser conceived "Grannies on Safari" to offer viewers a unique perspective on travel, as told through the arts and culture of the countries they visit. One of the show's goals is to encourage everyone to travel, no matter what their age or skin color. However, her pitch was rejected by The Travel Channel, National Geographic, TLC and Oxygen. It wasn't until a friend at Chicago's public television station offered some advice on turning the show into a "how-to" for seniors who want to travel that the show made it onto television.
Fraser sees "Grannies on Safari" as a "senior Indiana Jones experience. But only because I'm a senior, not because I'm old."
"Our 'hook' is culture," she adds. "We're not two old ladies beating each other up. We're two mature, intelligent, well-seasoned travelers."
"Well seasoned? That would put us on the Food Network," Johnson interjects.
"We're older and we're minority. . ." Fraser continues.
". . . and we're wiser. Put 'wiser' down," Johnson tells a reporter, once more getting in the last word.