Westerville's role in the Temperance movement spurred Ken Burns to visit the city Sept. 22 as he promotes the release of his documentary, "Prohibition," set to air on WOSU Oct. 2-4.
Westerville’s role in the Temperance movement spurred Ken Burns to visit the city Sept. 22 as he promotes the release of his documentary, “Prohibition,” set to air on WOSU Oct. 2-4.
Burns, along with director and producer Kim Novick, visited the Westerville Public Library for a luncheon with about 100 residents before heading to Otterbein University to teach a master class.
Materials from the library’s Anti-Saloon League Museum are used in the documentary.
While in central Ohio, Burns and Novick also attended events at The Ohio State University and WOSU.
At the luncheon, they answered questions about why they chose to do a documentary on Prohibition and about what goes into creating a three-episode, five-and-a-half hour documentary.
Americans tend to be ill-informed about their own history, Burns said, and Prohibition generally appears as one paragraph in high school textbooks, meaning much of the country’s youth doesn’t understand what the movement was about.
“Prohibition is É they don’t even know,” Burns said. “We don’t make films about stuff we know about. We make films about things we want to know about.”
Novick said she didn’t even know how Prohibition came about, the roll of the Westerville-based Anti-Saloon League in the movement or how big a problem alcoholism was in America at the time.
The Temperance movement is important to American history, she said, because citizens were able to band together to pass a Constitutional amendment.
“That’s an incredible moment in our history,” Novick said.
The Temperance movement also showed the attitudes of Americans toward the Constitution at that time, Burns said.
“It was so important to the movement that (Prohibition) be enshrined in the Constitution,” he said. “We really thought that the Constitution could be more perfect.”
The failure of Prohibition and its repeal also changed America, showing how laws can have unintended consequences — like the creation of organized crime and an increase in alcoholism that came from Prohibition — and by showing that society’s problems don’t have one simple fix.
“(The movement claimed) families would be better; there would be no more crime,” Burns said. “You could have a better community. The slums would empty. There would be no more poor people.”
In creating the documentary, he said, his team looked for individual people and stories that came from the movement in an attempt to humanize the era.
“We’re in the story business,” he said.
As with all of his documentaries, Burns said creating “Prohibition” was more about narrowing down the facts and stories rather than digging up information to include.
He said his challenge was to “select information out” to create an “emotional archeology” of the time period.
After the luncheon, which was attended by local officials and about 50 people given tickets through a lottery at the library, Burns was presented with a Westerville Temperance blanket from the Friends of the Library Gift Shop.
“On those cold winter nights in New Hampshire, I will wrap it around me as I enjoy my hot toddy,” Burns joked.