Ken Burns, award-winning producer and director of documentary films such as “Baseball” and “The Civil War” came to Webster University on Sept. 19 for a special preview showing of his latest documentary, “Prohibition.” Burns’ longtime co-producer Lynn Novick accompanied him. Together they have directed and produced documentaries for over 20 years.
“It is always great coming to St. Louis,” Burns said. “St. Louis was the first station of the cross besides the editing room when we came to Webster Groves. The students here were always one of the first people to look at the (documentaries). It was always terrifying and thrilling.”
Burns said a friend invited him 25 years ago to show a film at Webster and he has been coming back ever since.
“I don’t go to universities as regularly as I used to in the ‘80s and ‘90s, but I really enjoy coming here,” Burns said.
Burns and Novick spoke before and after the preview. Conversation was kept light — they even joked about the projector malfunctioning.
When the film came on with only sound for the second time, the narrator said, “History as seen through the eyes of Kens Burns.” Burns said, “Some eyes” and had the packed crowd laughing.
This is Burns fifth visit to Webster. His last visit was in 1992. Previously, he previewed “Huey Long” (1987), “Thomas Hart Benton” (1988), “The Civil War” (1990) and “The Empire of the Air: The Men Who Made Radio” (1992).
The entire broadcast of his newest series will air in St. Louis on PBS station KETC channel 9 on Oct. 2 through 4. Channel 9 needed support to broadcast “Prohibition,” so Webster stepped up financially.
“Webster University is the sole local supporter for the premiere,” said Channel 9 Public Relations Manager Teri Gates. “As part of Webster’s underwriting policy Ken Burns spoke at the university and was happy to do it.”
Webster’s president Elizabeth Stroble kicked off the event.
“We have a proud tradition of welcoming speakers from all walks of life and particularly professionals who have established records of achievement,” Stroble said.
Burns has been nominated for two Academy Awards and received seven Emmy awards for his documentaries. “Baseball” was the most watched series in the history of public television.
His new film, “Prohibition,” is the story of the rise, role and the fall of the 18th Amendment and its impact on our society.
“Most of us have this kind of superficial notion of model T’s careening around rain-slick Chicago streets with machine guns blasting and we got all that,’” Burns said. “It’s very sexy and exciting but we found the story of prohibition was much deeper than that.”
Burns said alcohol was a significant social problem in 1920s American society. People drank considerably more than they do today, and alcohol was even thought to cure illnesses in society.
“The film is about what happens when you suddenly take away something that has been part of human beings,” Burns said. “It became apparent how hypocritical it was. The rich were able to stock pile all the alcohol they wanted. A working man could not go and even have a beer after a long day of work.”
Burns said it corrupted every aspect of government. Even President Warren G. Harding had a bootlegger deliver whiskey to The White House.
Freshman interactive digital media major Evan Luberda said he knew what prohibition was, but didn’t realize the impact it had.
“I figured that there was a lot of corruption with officials drinking but I did not realize how extensive it was,” Luberda said.
Novick said in the late 1920s, prohibition could not be changed.
“It was in the constitution and you were taking your political life into your hands if you dared to criticize it,” Novick said. “You could lose your seat or even your job.”
Burns said the startling, unintended consequences of prohibition are still with us today.
“Female alcoholism was nonexistent at the time of prohibition and organized crime did not exist and would not exist if not for prohibition,” Burns said.
The five and a half hour series portrays the time prohibition started in 1920 to its eventual downfall in 1933. It includes scenes with St. Louis native Adolphus Busch and the local Anheuser Busch Brewery.
All of Burns’ documentaries have been American history films.
“We are drawn to American history and interested in good stories and the challenge of trying to tell good stories,” Burns said.
“Ken Burns documentaries are still going strong and so is the Webster film series and we are proud of both,” Stroble said. “His documentaries tell stories from our past and reveal compelling stories within a larger story.”
Burns said he knows what he will do for the next 10 years. His upcoming works include topics such as The Dust Bowl, the Central Park Jogger Case, a history of the Roosevelts, a biography of Jackie Robinson, a history of Vietnam, a major series on country music and a biography of Ernest Hemingway.
“If we were given a thousand years to live, I am sure I speak for Lynn, we would not run out of topics in American history,” Burns said.