An Evening with Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan
Monday April 20, 2009
Benaroya Hall, Seattle, WA
Ken Burns is a bonafide rock star with the PBS crowd. Known for epic documentaries about all types of American history, from Jazz, to Baseball, to The Civil War, he is one of the few documentarians who is actually recognizable (this side of Michael Moore, of course), with his eternally boyish mop-top and beard. His epic documentaries (the most recent being the 15-hour The War) have been so popular that the late historian Stephen Ambrose said, “More Americans get their history from Ken Burns than any other source.”
So when Ken Burns and his writing/producing partner Dayton Duncan blew into town to promote their upcoming PBS documentary, over 2000 people showed up. This was the type of audience that cooed knowingly when it was mentioned that during PBS’s showing of Lewis & Clark, that Seattle’s total PBS viewing audience one night beat all the major networks, including the hugely popular show at the time Frasier.
The men of the hour were introduced by two men named Moss and Chip (I would NOT make that up)—Maurice “Moss” Bresnahan, the President and CEO of our local PBS affiliate KCTS 9, and Chip Jenkins representing the National Parks Service as Superintendent of North Cascades National Park. Let’s just say that Chip, and the handful of other park rangers in the audience, was bedecked in what I would guess is the park rangers’ dress uniform (green pants, cropped green jacket, and Smokey the Bear hat)—and the entire audience was sneaking envious peeks their way the entire evening. Later, when it was mentioned that Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan were made honorary park rangers at the end of their project, the documentarians giggled like little boys when they said they were thrilled to get the park ranger hats (jealous!).
This “Evening with Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan” was really the equivalent of an author being on tour with a new book. They were here to peddle their new wares and get their target audience all riled up (which they easily did). Their new project, set to debut on September 29th, 2009 on PBS, is The National Parks: America’s Best Idea. The project apparently has been brewing for over a decade (with Duncan proposing the idea to his best pal over 10 years ago while hanging out in the small New Hampshire town where they both live). Of course such a project would appeal to Burns: apparently National Parks are an American idea. Unlike, say, Europe where preserved parks tend to be palaces and ruins of the aristocracy, the United States was the first to propose protecting land in its natural state for future generations, and have this protected land be co-owned by all citizens.
The six-part, 12-hour series will cover not only the history of the National Park system, but of course as is typical of Ken Burns, offer the human side of the story. In the hour-long sneak peek of the show, we got to see highlights about Mount Rainier and Olympic National Parks, as well as portraits of a few Japanese-Americans (including painter Chiro Obata) who were not only early fans of the parks, but victims of World War II internment at the hand of their adopted country of the United States. Though we didn’t get to see any credits, it sounded like the series was narrated by stalwart Peter Coyote, who got props for trying some of our local native-tribe tongue-twister names... yet he still, unsurprisingly, stumbled on the name-to-end-all-names: Puyallup (the audience again chuckled knowingly).
There was some Q&A time (which showed that Burns is about as long-winded as his documentaries), and the evening ended with someone mentioning that the next day was John Muir’s birthday. How often do you get a chance to sing in Benaroya Hall? The audience and host gladly joined in for a rousing rendition of "Happy Birthday, John Muir" to close the event. You’ve gotta love a PBS crowd!
Check out the Official Website for The National Parks: America's Best Idea.