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Ken Burns returns

“Ann Arbor was an oasis, this laboratory where it was all happening.” — Ken Burns

Ken Burns headshotFor more than 30 years filmmaker Ken Burns has been creating thoughtful, compelling documentaries that have defined American history for millions of television viewers. Today he ranks easily as the country’s preeminent popular historian. It has been said that more Americans get their history from his films than any other source.

The son of an anthropology professor, Burns lived an itinerant childhood until the family settled in Ann Arbor in 1963 when his father joined the faculty at the University of Michigan. While in Ann Arbor he attended Tappan Junior High (now Tappan Middle School) and graduated from Pioneer High in 1971.

Last month Burns brought his most recent film, the critically acclaimed Central Park Five, to the Ann Arbor Film Festival. His next project will be a 10-hour series on the Vietnam War, scheduled for release in 2016. For the film’s treatment of the anti-war protest movement Burns is hoping to include coverage of events that took place in Ann Arbor during the ’60s.

Recently he took time out from his publicity tour to reminisce about his youth in Tree Town.

Alan Glenn: What was it like growing up in Ann Arbor during the ’60s?

Ken Burns the schoolboy

Burns as a Tappan Junior High student.

Ken Burns: You know what? Everyone always feels that their hometown, the place where they grew up, is the greatest place on earth, and I accept that. There was a sense in Ann Arbor—given the war protests; given the Civil Rights movement that was happening elsewhere but was certainly supported on campus; given the kind of monolithic, huge size of the student body and their seeming singularity toward one purpose against the war in Vietnam; the Yippie sort of sense of anarchic counterculture; and the Blues and Jazz Festival and the Ann Arbor Film Festival, plus the Cinema Guild—that made it, one felt, like paradise. And the art fair—I mean, what other place suddenly gave over all its streets to something that celebrated art?

Incredible stuff was going on. You could be whatever you wanted to be. I can’t begin to describe it, the possibilities of the ’60s. In retrospect we dismiss them as this age of protest and then indulgence, the “me” generation. It’s the name given to the ’70s, coming out of what was considered the selfishness of the “tune in, drop out” crowd.

But it’s the exact opposite. That music is now the soundtrack of our country today. Our ad campaigns are what we were doing then. It’s a pretty amazing transformation, and you felt that Ann Arbor was this oasis, this laboratory where it was all happening. I haven’t even begun to talk about Hill Auditorium and who came through there, from bands to speakers like Dick Gregory, from comics like Victor Borge to Tom Lehrer and his humor. I mean, it was just great, just great. I can’t imagine a better place to grow up.

AG: It sounds pretty amazing.

KB: Yeah, it was incredible. I worked at the South U. Discount Records, and I remember a day when Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman and John Sinclair walked in. I’d serve John Sinclair all the time because [the White Panthers] had that house on Hill Street. There’d be these guys, speed freaks with their 22-inch Scarlett O’Hara waists and no girth, these bandoliers crisscrossed on their chests. They were trying to look like the infamous photo of Huey Newton and the Black Panthers.

I remember Discount Records anchored one of the stores. There was a corner store. Discount Records was the second one in University Towers, and then on the end was this place called Miller’s Dairy, which was a farm that served ice cream. I remember I took Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman over to Miller’s Dairy to get them an ice cream cone.

AG: With the arrival of John Sinclair and the White Panthers, the Ann Arbor scene started to get a little grittier. Being a kid, did that scare you?

KB: No, it was exciting. The anarchic spirit was a way of saying no, and we were in the middle of the Vietnam period. People were so angry at a government that had lied to them about it, and were killing Americans and were killing Vietnamese. So we got caught up with that.

You know, in ’69 when the city blew up and there were riots, I got personally whacked by the police. Somebody threw a garbage can through the door of Discount Records, and I remember how hurt I was because it meant that to them we represented—because it was a chain owned by CBS—that we represented not part of this fabric of Ann Arbor but some other imposed thing. Whereas they were just hippies trying to get the most music to the most people.

It was a different time, and I think people mistake this for naiveté, of which there was a tremendous amount. Any group of people that can blame the soldiers for the war, and not understand that they’re pawns, is naive. It’s so interesting, the perspectives we bring today. I’m working on a history of the Vietnam War, and it’s having to be a much more neutral thing. You find much to criticize in the behavior of the protestors, but much to admire in terms of their courage, and also much to disagree with because of the sometimes overwhelming naiveté of most of the people involved.

But the commitment of others was so strong. The lack of an ability to listen to the other side is of course a deficit, but the fact that we were able to bring the troops home from a war is a good thing, too.

AG: It seems like Ann Arbor was sort of a cauldron of creativity back then. There were a lot of incredibly talented people here: Bob Seger, Iggy Pop, Commander Cody, Larry Kasdan, Gilda Radner.

KB: Oh, absolutely. There was this band called Bob Sheff and His Really Great Band. They were all white, and they played sort of rhythm and blues, kind of Motown but also Delaney and Bonnie. It was fabulous, and I hung out with them. I was a kid. They let me—you know, they tolerated me. I was a high school kid, and I’d come to every concert I could. I fell in love with the female singers and was friends with the drummer for ages. It was really, really amazing.

They’d always start their second set by doing the theme song to “I Love Lucy,” and whatever bar we were in, everyone would suddenly turn. Da-da-da da-da-dum da-da. They’d play it as if they were the studio orchestra playing it, and you’d just turn around and then all the sudden they’d go back and do rock and roll. It was fabulous. Yeah, I mean, everywhere you turned there was something to do.

AG: What about the film culture in Ann Arbor at that time?

Cinema Guild Poster

A poster from the Cinema Guild.

KB: It felt alive. You had these two first-run theaters, the State and Michigan. You had the Campus, which was foreign films and revivals and other things. You had the Architecture School and the Cinema Guild. You had the Ann Arbor Film Festival. It was just a sense of the possibility of film everywhere, and I grew up in a family that was of that. So it didn’t seem so strange to me that you would go to the Cinema Guild or you’d go to the Campus Theater or you’d go check in first runs. I can remember my brother and I walking back from the Michigan or State Theater after seeing a James Bond film, karate chopping each other all the way back, acting out the film.

That didn’t count what was on TV, and in those days there was an afternoon movie and then there was the “Late Show” and the “Late Late Show.” Sometimes my dad would let me even stay up for the “Late Late Show” on a school night because it was a good film. You’d have to sit through those godawful commercials—there were no DVRs—and see some phenomenal cinema. I mean, it was in the air. I was given a camera for my birthday in high school, a Super 8 camera. That was what you did. You made a film.

AG: I’ve read that you made a documentary about a factory.

KB: Well, first of all, we made a couple of films. I have no idea where they are. But we made one dramatic film. I can’t remember what it was about, but I remember people getting into long robes and beards. We’d all been in theater, so we had access to makeup and gum and glue and stuff like that. It was very hilarious and fun for teenagers.

But another one had a social conscience. It was looking at pollution and stuff like that, so I was going around to factories and filming exhaust pipes and litter on the ground.

I can remember lying awake dreaming up plots to Raymond Chandler-like movies that I would make, detective films that I would make.

AG: So you caught the filmmaking bug pretty early, then.

KB: When I was 12 I wanted to be a filmmaker. My dad had taken me to a movie, it was Odd Man Out, and he started to cry. He hadn’t cried when my mom died the year before, and I had never seen him cry. I instantaneously understood that it was the power of the medium that had given him this permission, and I sort of swore on the spot to myself that I would be a filmmaker.

AG: It seems like you were in a good place to learn the art of film. When you look at the schedules from the Cinema Guild in the ’60s—Eisenstein, Kurosawa, Hitchcock, John Ford, Buster Keaton—it reads like a film school education.

Burns with cameraKB: Oh, that’s exactly what I thought, and that’s a really good way to put it because I think we’ve always assumed that one was going to get film theory and film history from a course. It is possible, and lots of places teach it, and Michigan now teaches it. But I got it from reading and from watching. A lot of my education happened at the Architecture Auditorium [where the Cinema Guild showed films].

Those Cinema Guild schedules used to be on our refrigerator. I’ve checked off what I saw with my dad. In ’66 I saw Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, Birth of a Nation, Dracula, and M. Then in ’67 I saw Black Orpheus and Ten Days that Shook the World, and On the Waterfront.

In ’68 I’ve got something like 10 films checked: Sunset Boulevard, Seven Samurai, Paths of Glory, Los Olvidados by Luis Bunuel, Birth of a Nation, Intolerance, Third Man, East of Eden, and The Lavender Hill Mob. It was great, and only 50 cents.

And let’s not forget the Ann Arbor Film Festival, with the countless experimental shorts and animation shorts that you might watch 20 or 30 of in a day, parking yourself all afternoon there. I remember seeing Stan Brakhage stuff there. I remember seeing weird, amazing stuff, sexual things, and exposure to sexuality that I had never had any other place, except for stealing a Playboy magazine here and there as a kid. But this was much more sophisticated and much more unsettling and questioning. It was a huge education.


  1. Sue Green Henderson - 1975

    I attended Tappan and Pioneer with “Kenny”. We had an American Studies class together with Mrs. Sontagg. The article didn’t mention his time in JLO, Junior Light Opera, where he performed and worked crew. In addition to Ken, JLO also was an early theatrical home actor/producer/director Tom Hulce. I am a history teacher and when I use Ken Burns’ materials with my students, I proudly tell them I went to school with Ken Burns. Our generation of Tappan students also produced MacArthur genius Keith Heffner, and many authors, doctors, professors and engaged citizens. It was a great time to grow up in such an exciting place as Ann Arbor.


    • Lorel Janiszewski - 1980

      Thanks for mentioning “Kenny”‘s connection to JLO, Sue. Ann Arbor Junior Light Opera was a special group the instilled a sense of unity, creativity, responsibility, and work ethics among kids who were able to find their own talents and grow with them. This was during an era where kids needed a sense of direction and community that was sometimes not offered by their family or school.
      I’d like to mention that David Manis, who has appeared on Broadway a number of times (and is now in “The Curious Incident…” was also in JLO. (After you left, Sue. And I do remember you!)
      The accomplishments of the JLO alumni go beyond theatre or even the arts, but I can tell you that this group has a special bond, a history, a support system, and a lot of fun as we communicate and even meet on occasion.


  2. Michael Breyer, D.D.S.

    What a wonderful reprise of Ann Arbor during the years I was there, 1966-1973. I took the film course and watching the Cinema Guild films was required for the course. Thank you and it is great to know Ken Burns was a refugee from A2.


  3. Gerald Rosenblatt

    I remember all those movie theatres and even a theatre for Gilbert and Sullivan shows. Hill was a great place to see the classic performers—opera singers and every major orchestra. Plus original Kingston Trio and so many other “pop” acts. Oh, yes—a great education too! As a long-time entertainment attorney, I can see the influence on Ken Burns in Ann Arbor.


  4. rex hauser - 1978,1980,1988

    Townies often have a grounded view of what happened in a2 in the late 60s, early 70s. Thanks, Ken, for your memories of Cinema Guild. I too was ‘raised’ there, in film. It was one of my ways out of suburbia. A2 was definitely an intersection for much that was happening in the world, and for me a jumping off place to adventures in Europe, Latin America and the rest of the country.


  5. Patricia Bernardi

    Wonderful insight into the life of Ken Burns. Makes one see where the seed of film-making was planted and made me wish I had been in Ann Arbor during the 60’s to share the experience.


  6. Art Rovner

    I lived in A2 from 1961-1971, went to HS in E. Lansing from 1971-1975, then came back down the road to A2 for my undergrad degree at U of M from 75-79. Reading Mr. Burns’ interview here brings back intense and happy memories: concerts at Hill Aud., “Rocky Horror Picture Show” after midnight at the State Theatre, sitting on the Diag during anti-War protests, Art Fair on a warm summer afternoon on S. University, and numerous other exotic and interesting events. I agree with him that it was a gift to grow up in that wonderful cauldron of energy and change during a truly remarkable time in American history!!


  7. Gary Coover - 1964

    I hope Mr. Burns, in his Vietnam documentary, goes back to the SDS foundation. My wife and I learned about the Vietnam situation in Spring 1964, and carried the message to U. of Oregon where we demonstrated in Fall of ’64, and had the 3rd U.S. all-nite protest in Feb. ’65 (with Senator Wayne Morse predicting the worst – correctly)- it was highlighted in the Sunday New York Times that winter.


  8. douglas McMahon - 1988

    Graduated from Community High School in 1979 and we spent many friday and saturday nights watching all those great old black+white films on campus…went on to UofM Art School partly because of the influence they had on me. Favorite hangouts…Schoolkid’s (Run by Michael Lang who ran Discount Records before that) Drakes, Fleetwood Diner, Central Cafe and of course, (still) the Old Town…


  9. Beverly (Aseltine) Sisler - 1969

    I graduated from Pioneer High in 1969 and now teach high school in Jacksonville, FL. There is a teacher at our school, also from Michigan, who teaches a class on the Vietnam War. He is a FABULOUS teacher and VERY knowledgeable about the subject! His class is a favorite class of all students. It’s fascinating to me that students today would be so engrossed in that subject since they usually have a “whatever” attitude. I think the teacher is so passionate that he instills that passion in his students. Thanks, Ken, for a walk down memory lane. Loved the ice cream at Miller’s!!


  10. Dave Hills -

    Great memories of those years in A2. Have a minor correction to make though, at the tme Ken attended Tappan it was a Junior High School (grades 7 through 9) as was Slauson and Forsythe, not a Middle school as it is now.
    Sports side note: Cazie Russell did his student teaching at Tappan while Ken was there and gave a memorable speech at a special assembly before leaving at the end of the semester.


  11. Stephen Spitz - 1968

    I was a student at u of m from 1964 to 1968 and returned in 1972-73 when I taught in the law school. Ken Burns’ description of John Sinclair reminds me of the following. I first became familiar with John Sinclair in January 1967 when he spoke at the drug teach-in describing how he had been arrested for giving away two joints to a narc. (I also went to the first teach-in ever in Ann arbor on war in Vietnam in March of 1965 and many others). After John was freed from prison by the Michigan Supreme court declaring he was the victim of cruel and unusual punishment, I was at the Ann arbor Blues and Jazz festival in 1972 where he was the emcee. Fast forward many years and I was in new Orleans looking for some music on a slow Monday night. I saw a listing for John Sinclair and the blues something. I thought no it can’t be the same guy all those years later. But there he was doing a talking Robert Johnson reading to a blues beat. I had the pleasure of talking with him for more than one hour then about the 60s in Ann arbor. When I was at the Michigan Union in 2010 for the 50th anniversary of then Senator John Kennedy’s endorsement of the idea of a Peace Corps, I read some back issues of e Michigan daily. There was an article about John Sinclair being on campus e previous Saturday – advocating the legalization of marijuana! BTW, a correction to a comment above – cazzie russell (not Cazie), did a radio program in South Quad where I lived as a freshman in 1964-1965. I saw him many times in South Quad and on the basketball court. What a great shooter he was!


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