Monday night at the Tennessee Theatre was maybe the closest Tennessee’s national-park system will come to having a world premiere. The near-capacity crowd included more than a dozen park dignitaries, some in uniform, from as far away as Fort Donelson to view excerpts of the new Ken Burns marathon documentary, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea. The 12-hour film will be shown in its entirety on national PBS, across several nights in September. Burns himself wasn’t on hand, but his chief writer, Dayton Duncan, was.
Duncan seems sincerely emotional about the park system and what it means to Americans; several times, in talking about our national parks, he got choked up, mentioning at one point that his kids call him “the waterworks.” He showed a little more than an hour of the documentary, with clips from the introduction, from a section about Teddy Roosevelt, and the episode concerning the founding of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The film’s surprisingly short bit about the Smokies mentioned Knoxville only three or four times. It was an improvement on getting blanked in the Civil War series, to be sure, but some expected maybe this film would be the erstwhile Gateway to the Smokies’ big chance at PBS immortality. The park effort began among citizens, mainly in this city. However, the doc’s emphasis on one unquestionably interesting Tarheel duo associated with the early promotion of the park effort—writer Horace Kephart and his photographer, the Japanese-born George Masa—apparently didn’t leave room for a wink at all the local heroes associated with the park’s founding: David Chapman, Annie Davis and her husband Willis, Carlos Campbell, Jim Thompson, and all the other Knoxvillians some had expected to see finally get their due.
Note to philanthropists: for PBS immortality, it’s not good enough to do good. You have to do good and be really quirky.