Burns barnstorms a year-plus for National Parks

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A fan greets Burns on the street at the indie doc Mountainfilm Festival in Telluride, Colo., in May. (Photo: Gus Gusciora, Mountainfilm.)

Ken Burns’s 4-year-old daughter Olivia eats her meals atop a U.S. map so she can track her father.

The documentarian has been absent from his family in Walpole, N.H., more than 200 days this year — so far. Before the broadcast of his National Parks series in late September, the last time Burns had been home to sup with Olivia was Aug. 21.

He’s been on the road promoting the series, while squeezing in work on at least eight other PBS projects planned for future seasons.

Since events kicked off in July 2008 at Glacier Bay National Park near Juneau, Alaska, he’s been on tour practically nonstop.

He paused for a quick chat with Current Sept. 28 at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. As Burns sat down he called out to his press wrangler, “I have 2:17, when do you need me downstairs?” “By 2:30,” replied Joe DePlasco of Dan Klores Communications.

As the series had already begun airing the day before, the pace was slowing a bit. Burns had given TV interviews (MSNBC, CNN) and spoken to a luncheon crowd at the Press Club, an event carried live on C-SPAN. Afterward: hand-shaking, chatting, signing autographs, posing for photos, talking with Current, then speed-walking back to his handler in the lobby to head to a meeting at the National Endowment for the Arts. Later that evening, in his hotel room, he would turn his attention to several other projects.

Burns embraces these chances to be “an itinerant preacher,” as he says, “moving from tent to tent to try to revive interest in something.” In this case, he directs his “passionate evangelism,” he says, to help the great sampling of the American outdoors that comprises the national parks system.

He often gives three or four speeches a day, some extemporaneous, some formal. Burns laughs aloud over the similarities to a presidential run.

“I guess this would be good preparation for some sort of national political campaign,” he says, adding quickly that he’s not running for office. “I’ve got the best job in the country.”

“He wants to go everywhere”

“An outreach campaign like this provides a physicality otherwise lacking in contemporary life, a chance to get to meet face to face,” DePlasco says. “This takes place over a two-year period, and Ken is willing to do it.”

The Klores firm, which oversees sthe producer’s tour for PBS, is a major player in PR, with clients such as the National Football League and Jay Leno. It has handled publicity tours for all of Burns’s films back to 1999, developing a “template” for work on other PBS series. A staff of eight breaks the country into regions to plan press events.

There’s no budget for commercial advertising, so personal appearances are key to a successful campaign, DePlasco says. “Because of Ken, we’re pretty much guaranteed significant coverage.”

He estimates Burns visited about 60 broadcast markets and numerous national parks. Anne Harrington of WETA, Burns’s producing partner, helps coordinate station visits. “He wants to go everywhere and would if he could,” said Harrington, director of interactive media and outreach. “He usually says yes to a station, and we have to say it just can’t be done. He really wanted to go to PBS Hawaii, but we couldn’t do it.” WETA has partnered with Burns since his 1985 Huey Long doc.

This trip has been memorable for him — for reasons good and bad. Burns recalls a crowd of some 3,000 in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area outside Los Angeles in March, where the temperature plunged from 85 to nearly freezing before KCET’s outdoor screening was done that evening. “We had all these people, and they stayed and they watched, and it was just spectacularly great,” he says. Then there was the annual Book Fair on the National Mall Sept. 26; he doubted anyone would show up in the pouring rain — yet some 200 fans did. “They sat there like ducks, completely soaked to the bone, to see this film, God bless them,” he says. That’s proof, he says, of the “power of the parks.”

Burns also met a continuing controversy along the way, from groups angry about the lack of Hispanic-American troops in his 2007 World War II project, The War, and the way he responded to their complaints, appending several Latino soldiers’ interviews to the completed series.

One protest, at a March screening sponsored by KLRN in San Antonio, turned out about two dozen picketers from the Defend the Honor San Antonio Coalition. The El Paso Tribune had asked Burns about the protests in a story the day before. Burns characterized the anger as coming from “a few who hadn’t bothered to look at the film or read the mail we got from Hispanic vets who said, ‘When I put on the uniform, I wasn’t Hispanic, I was American.’”

This tour began drawing to a close on a high note: A huge concert in Central Park Sept. 23, which drew a crowd “in the thousands,” according to PBS spokeswoman Carrie Johnson. And there were nationwide screenings in the parks on National Public Lands Day, Sept. 26.

“Just think about it,” Burns says, “two nights ago, in 200 national park venues across the country, there were hundreds of people — in some cases thousands of people — all looking at the film, inspired to be doing work and helping out in the parks.”

This couldn’t be packed into a typical quick media blitz for a commercial show. “This is not promotion, it’s not publicity,” Burns notes. “It’s a national conversation to say, there are bigger ideas in this film. What we hope the film does is sponsor a conversation about those ideas, in this case about the national parks—the sense of ownership that each person should have toward the national parks, about the way the parks are threatened, about the need to visit them, the ways in which the parks can become transformative agents in your own life.” In Burns’s view, those values are “quite apart” from, say, selling DVDs and companion books.

Although of course, as DePlasco says, “the ultimate goal is to enhance tune-in.”

The tour logistics range from simple, with Burns traveling alone and toting his own bags, to elaborate, with publicists creating localized preview reels for each stop that highlight nearby national lands.

Multilayered agenda

Though the National Parks outreach takes most of his time, Burns practices a kind of turbo-multitasking to keep other projects moving along. Take The Roosevelts, a series on the lives of Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor. Tentative air date is 2013, “but that may be pushed to 2014,” Burns says.

His longtime producer/editor, Paul Barnes, details the filmmaker’s involvement. Burns has already read first drafts of scripts for three of the six episodes and passed notes to writer Geoffrey C. Ward. Under Burns’s direction, Barnes and Coordinating Producer Pam Baucom are filming at Theodore Roosevelt’s Manhattan birthplace, as well as Campobello Island in Maine, Hyde Park in New York and Warm Springs, Ga. Associate Producers Susanna Steisel and Daniel White are gathering photos and stock footage — all to be approved by Burns. He’ll personally conduct 14 interviews with historians Nov. 10–20. By the end of this year Burns and producers will select interview bites to weave into the script, and he’ll oversee rewrites. In the spring Burns will cast actors to voice the scripts and direct them in production.

That’s just one project. There’s also:

  • The Tenth Inning, set to air 2010, now in editing. A four-hour follow-up to his popular Baseball series;
  • Prohibition, 2011, preliminary editing. A six-hour doc on the era of the 18th Amendment that criminalized alcohol;
  • Central Park Five, 2012, preproduction. A shorter project Burns is doing with his 24-year-old filmmaker daughter, Sarah, revisiting the 1989 rape and beating of a jogger;
  • The Dustbowl, also 2012, preliminary research. It will revisit what Burns calls “the worst man-made ecological disaster in American history”;
  • a bio of baseball star Jackie Robinson, in cooperation with his widow, set for completion in 2012 or ’13;
  • a“major, major history,” as Burns describes it, of the Vietnam War. Research is just beginning, with a very tentative completion date of 2015.

But wait! “There are two or three projects beyond that I can’t yet discuss,” he adds, that he’s actively pursuing.

Despite all this work, Burns’s permanent staff at Florentine Films is smaller than you’d think. “There are only a half dozen people who are actually full-time employees,” Burns says, and it expands periodically with the workload. In fact, he notes, “I am not a full-time employee of my own projects. When there’s grant money, I get paid.” In Walpole are clerical and financial staffers, one researcher and one editor. A few film interns come and go from Dartmouth and New Hampshire’s small Keene State College, about 15 miles southeast. Five producers and editors are based in New York City.

Burns says he’s still a small businessman, with paperwork to shuffle and workaday details to mind. The evening of Sept. 27, as the series premiered, he was in his Washington, D.C., hotel room, not only viewing it (“I like to watch it when everyone else does”) but also exploring fundraising for half a dozen projects, reading scripts and finalizing his Press Club speech.

To juggle all of these projects, Burns has a co-producer for each — “the day-to-day general” who lets him spend time on fundraising, public speaking, production and editing, “which is what I absolutely have to be there for.”

Burns’s general for National Parks, Dayton Duncan—whom Burns calls his “best friend” and who served as justice of the peace at Burns’s 2003 wedding—appears at his side for about half the events. Duncan also travels on his own so they can cover more ground.

The process is physically exhausting. Burns says he eats carefully and tries to work out when it’s possible. If he ends up sick he heads home, but for just a little while.

Burns and Duncan zigzagged from park to station, big city to small, often 14 to 16 hours a day, powered by enthusiasm for the National Parks’s story.

“It’s really important to go out and meet people and look them in the eye and show them, I care about this,” he adds. “This is not a product, I’m not doing a commercial for sneakers or washing machines. I believe in this stuff.”

Update: On Oct. 8, DePlasco reported that Burns had finally ended his tour as the broadcast concluded and was “home sleeping.”


Ken Burns said in March 2009 that he’ll proceed with his films as planned despite General Motors’ withdrawal as a major sponsor. The contract covered about 35 percent of Burns’ production budgets.

Parks outreach as big as all outdoors, May 2009.

Parks preview plus live music, downlinked from Central Park, August 2009.


Click here for a slideshow of Ken Burns’ travels over the past 12 months.

PBS.org site for The National Parks: America’s Best Idea.

The premiere of National Parks: America’s Best Idea on Yom Kippur Sept. 27 disturbed some Jewish viewers, reports PBS Ombudsman Michael Getler. Other viewers objected to the repeated insertion of a PBS bug along with the line “Presents a Film by Ken Burns” on the lower third of the screen. Then the title of the series. Then another PBS logo. Every 15 minutes.

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