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American Experience, Ives to give New Orleans the Vegas treatment

Originally published in Current, Oct. 31, 2005
By Karen Everhart

By public TV standards, the green light came very quickly for the next American Experience biography of a city — a two-hour film about New Orleans to air next season. With its recent devastation, the city moved to the top of Executive Producer Mark Samels’ short list of candidates for AmEx treatment and won fast-track funding from WGBH and PBS.

“With passions running so high about New Orleans and it being on the edge right now, it’s a really good time to tap into people’s feelings about New Orleans and its future,” Samels said. He hopes a story of the city’s vibrant history will “play a role in getting people talking about what the future of New Orleans should be.”

AmEx skipped its typical R&D phase by funding the film from its budget and a supplementary grant from PBS, Samels said.

For quick turnaround, Samels went to Stephen Ives and Amanda Pollak of Insignia Films, producers of the most recent city bio undertaken by AmEx, Las Vegas: An Unconventional History, which airs Nov. 14 [2005]. Samels loved their blend of historic segments with vignettes about today’s residents (earlier article). “I think it could work really well for New Orleans,” he said.

Ives plans to focus on “the most remarkable period in the city’s history,” which he said stretches from the middle of the 19th century to the middle of the 20th. That time frame sends the film back “far enough to invoke the city’s origins and forward enough to send the audience into the modern era in a way that will make Katrina and all the issues it’s brought up historically grounded,” Ives said.

Hurricane Katrina will be the “tragic and emotional backdrop to the story” as producers explore how the geographic and racial issues illuminated by the catastrophe have played out over time, Ives said.

“If you look at its history, Katrina is ... a typical event in some ways,” Ives said. “Every time the city is buffeted by the river or rain, the stresses of the social fabric are almost always revealed.”

Before launching production, Ives’s staff made sure the city’s film archives hadn’t been wiped out by the flood. “Virtually all of the critical archival material this film needed still exists,” Ives said. The museums and historical societies that manage these archives were outside the flood zone.

It could be slow getting started, however, since the film archives have yet to reopen and the residents of New Orleans are dispersed. Finding contemporary New Orleanians to profile is proving problematic. “Their phones don’t work and they don’t have forwarding addresses,” Ives said. “It’s a huge challenge from a producer’s point of view.”

He still plans to film contemporary vignettes like those that worked so well in Las Vegas, possibly as meditative segments drawing on the personal memories of New Orleans natives.

“I love the idea of trying to understand the history of the place through a simultaneous exploration of a city’s present,” Ives said. “To me, it resonates and makes the history more dynamic.”

Web page posted Nov. 3, 2005
Copyright 2005 by Current Publishing Committee


With The West, Stephen Ives unreeled a complex saga of glory, shame and all the rest, 1996.

Ives is a second generation public broadcaster. David Ives, his father was WGBH president.

WGBH's American Experience began its series of city biographies with New York in 1999, followed by Chicago in 2003 and Las Vegas, scheduled for November 2005.


Current's Pipeline lists projects like this in preparation for public TV.


American Experience pages about its city bios New York: A Documentary Film, Chicago: City of the Century and Las Vegas: An Unconventional History.

Eight lectures about New Orleans on the WGBH Forum Network. (What is the Forum Network, anyway?)

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