I took this photo early late Sunday afternoon, when I hoped to see the documentary The Central Park Five. Unfortunately, a ton of other people had already had the same idea at the Chautauqua Cinema. At least 30 people were ahead of me outside the theater—all of whom were told the house was already packed. All this despite the fact that this documentary has been shown on public television for awhile now, and that marketing materials distributed beforehand indicated that co-director Ken Burns would not appear at the screening to discuss the film.For thousands of visitors like me this week at the Chautauqua Institution, a charming lakeside community in southwestern New York State, Burns is more than just, in the words of the institution’s president, Thomas Becker, “journalist, documentarian and American conscience.” He might as well be Brad Pitt, the way he is regarded here.
The director of The Civil War, Baseball, Jazz, and other documentaries is appearing all week at the morning lectures at the psychic center of this complex, the Amphitheater. His presence sold out nearly every accommodation on the grounds for at least five months, maybe more, making him far and away the biggest attendance draw of this nine-week summer season.Yesterday morning, just before the Amphitheater filled to capacity, I snagged a seat to hear him discuss The Central Park Five with one of the defendants in the controversial 1989 “Central Park Jogger” case, Ray Santana. Today, when he introduced excerpts from his celebrated series The Civil War concerning 1864, the worst year of fighting in that conflict, I wasn't as lucky, settling for a spot next to the fence in back, unable to see the stage. The best way to get a seat, a friend advised me, was to come for the sermon earlier in the morning and simply stay.
“I got my book signed by him today!” another visitor marveled to me. “He kept signing books for two hours! He wouldn't go till everyone had theirs signed!”
I think there are going to be lots of stories like that this week…