October 4, 2009
By Dan Maley
Filmmaker Ken Burns follows ‘National Parks’
with a visit to Macon
It was a heroic effort by the hero of public television.
Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns had just watched his latest effort
come to fruition. The six segments of “The National Parks: America’s
Greatest Idea” aired Sunday through Friday on PBS.
On Saturday, Burns flew to Macon.
“I’m exhausted, I’ve been on the road for 200 days this year,” Burns
told an audience of about 250 people Saturday afternoon at the
Museum of Arts and Sciences. “Last night, was the last night of the
show and I deserved to sleep in, and I got up at four and came here.”
The 56-year-old Burns, who lives in New Hampshire, was anything
but cranky about the situation. That’s because his trip to Macon was
a labor of love. He had come for the opening of an exhibit on the art
and life of the late William Segal, his spiritual mentor.
Segal was born in Macon in 1904 but moved away at age 8 or 9, first
to Pennsylvania and then to New York. He made a fortune as a
magazine publisher and devoted the latter portion of his life to Asian
religions, mysticism and painting. Segal died in 2000. His widow,
French-born Marielle Bancou-Segal, was the driving force behind the
creation of a Segal museum exhibition in his hometown.
In the 1990s Burns made three short films about Segal, which the
museum showed Saturday at an event called An Afternoon With Ken
Burns. Tickets to the event cost $10-$20. In introducing the films
Burns talked about their origins.
“I first met William Segal in the early 1970s in the church basement of
a church either in Dorchester or Boston, Massachusetts, I don’t
remember which,” Burns said. “There was some workshop going on.
... At some point this man with an eye patch and nearly bald head,
very short, 5-foot-2 or three, walked by and sort of engaged with me
for a moment and it was such a transformative moment I can’t
describe it. Those of you who have faith know that there are moments
in your life when that faith has been exponentially multiplied by
sometimes the smallest event.”
Burns, the man behind the PBS epics “The Civil War,” “Baseball” and
“Jazz,” said Segal’s “life force” impressed him every time he
encountered him, He befriended Segal and Bancou-Segal and often
visited their New York apartment, which he considered a “salon” of
Unfortunately, Bancou-Segal could not attend the opening of the
exhibition she worked so hard to bring about.
“Two minutes before I walked into this auditorium I called Marielle in
New York, who was just devastated that because of health reasons
she could not be with you this afternoon to celebrate the life of her
husband,” Burns said. “She was sad, she wanted me to tell you that
she wished she could be here. She asked me every detail about the
exhibition and it means everything to her.”
In the films Segal, with a deliberate tone and a thick New York
accent, explains his approach to painting, meditating in a French
cathedral and observing people in Paris.
The overarching theme of each film is the meaning of life.
“Thank you for your attention,” Burns told the packed auditorium
following the 73-minute screening. “These are dense films that
require a great deal of your attention in a virtual age where so many
of us are reduced to the YouTube couple of minutes.”
With his over-the-ears hairstyle, blue jeans and black sports jacket,
Burns looked every inch the progressive college professor. He
sounded even more like one, speaking in elaborate sentences in a
soft, earnest voice and sprinkling in references to Ralph Waldo
Emerson and John Muir.
If Burns was exhausted, he didn’t show it. He cheerfully agreed to
record a fundraising plea for Georgia Public Broadcasting and
helpfully offered his directorial expertise to local news reporters who
came to record interviews with him. After the film screening he sat
behind a table in the museum lobby and signed copies of “The
National Parks,” a coffee-table book he co-wrote,
“I think he is a national treasure,” said Harriet Wallace, who attended
the event. “What a nice thing to have him here.”
About 20 of Segal’s friends and relatives from New York flew to
Macon for the opening, including writer Mark Magill.
“I’m floored,” Magill said of the exhibition, which includes artifacts
from Segal’s life and more than 100 of Segal’s paintings, drawings
and lithographs. “I’m astonished by the depth and quality of it. It’s a
very impressive show.”
The exhibition will be on display through Jan. 4.