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Greenbelt turns out for “The Roosevelts”

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pp1Greenbelters are rightly excited about the new Ken Burns documentary about The Roosevelts that will start its 7-night airing this Sunday night at 8 (and repeating at 10) and follow for the next 6 nights.  The entire 14 hours will also be available streaming beginning Monday the 15th. Reviews are calling it Ken Burns’ best yet!

Ken Burns' "The Roosevelts" premiere event in Greenbelt, Maryland


To get us all in the mood, Maryland Public TV sponsored an event about the documentary in the Community Center last weekend, in conjunction with the city and Museum. Following a preview of the series there was a Q&A with (from left, in photo) David Thompson, WETA producer and long-time collaborator of Burns; Cathy Knepper, author of Greenbelt, Maryland A Living Legacy of the New Deal and Dear Mrs. Roosevelt; and moderator Karen Gibbs of Maryland Public Television.

Topics covered, with my best fast-notes:

Ken Burns 

Thompson told us that “The Roosevelts” was for Burns an “engagement in emotional archeology” that took seven years to make.  He called Burns “the hardest working man in show business.” 

Ken Burns’ production company, Florentine Films, started as a filmmaking collective at Hampshire College back in the ’70s with “a bunch of hippies.”  The filmmaking style is very communal, “all about collaboration.”

Asked about Burns’ politics, Thompson (who shares Burns’ lefty politics), said that politics aren’t evident in the films themselves. He gave one example – the frequent appearance of conservative columnist George Will in Burns’ films, “sounding so reasonable.  Then you read his column and you want to kill someone!”

Speaking of politics, he added that Burns believes that with Teddy’s manic-depression and Franklin’s polio, neither could be elected today.

Ken Burns documentaries in the works include the Story of Cancer, the Jackie Robinson Story, a History of the Vietnam War, an Ernest Hemingway biography, and a History of Country Music.

Eleanor Roosevelt  

On December 9, 1937 Eleanor Roosevelt visited Greenbelt, which was then a “sea of mud,” and wrote about the visit in her newspaper column. We have her to thank for Greenbelt getting the funds to finish many of its important features, like its recreation facilities, because Eleanor brought media attention to Greenbelt and made a personal appeal to FDR for full funding.

From that day forward, Greenbelters have loved Eleanor, whose “half-day visit saved this community.”  That was evident when the new high school was slated to be named for FDR and Greenbelters protested, asking that it be named after Eleanor instead, and indeed it was.

Knepper, an “ER scholar,” said that Eleanor had a “horrific childhood” and later got herself out of a depression by working for other people.  Eleanor did “First Lady stuff” until about 10 pm, after which she went through her mail and worked on her book. Knepper cited the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” as Eleanor’s greatest accomplishment, which she worked on as a member of the U.S. delegation to the United Nations.  It’s a “magnificent legacy.”

Thompson opined that “Eleanor was great on every issue except Prohibition,” which she supported.  With her alcoholic father and brother, Eleanor was anti-alcohol, and also anti-gambling.

Ken Burns' "The Roosevelts" premiere event in Greenbelt, Maryland
Sylvia and Robert Lewis being interviewed after the event.


More about Greenbelt

Asked how Greenbelt had survived so well all these years, Knepper credited two factors: people passing on its history and their personal experiences here, and the Greenbelt News Review, which she said “holds Greenbelt together,” adding that the Review “always needs more volunteers.” Editor Mary Lou Williamson, sitting next to me, whooped her agreement.

Knepper called the frequent early criticism of Greenbelt’s cooperatives an “irrational fear of our tiny businesses.”

Follow Susan Harris:
“Susan started blogging about Greenbelt soon after moving here in 2012, and that first blog has grown into this nonprofit community website. Retired from garden writing and teaching, she continues to blog at GardenRant.com. In 2021 Susan joined the Board of Directors of Greenbelt Access TV.

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