'Civil War' series winning on all fronts

August 12, 1991|By Susan King | Susan King,Los Angeles Times

Eleven months after PBS first aired Ken Burns' 11-hour documentary series "The Civil War," the nation is still caught up in that chapter of U.S. history, supporting a Civil War cottage industry of sorts.

The award-winning series, currently in repeats on many PBS stations (it concludes Wednesday at 9 p.m. on Maryland Public Television, channels 22 and 67), has spawned a best-selling gift book (by Geoffrey Ward with Ric and Ken Burns; Alfred Knopf; $50), an audio book, a soundtrack and a video set. Civil War books, long out of print, have been reissued by publishers. This weekend PBS presents a new Burns-produced special, "Songs of the Civil War" (at 9:45 p.m. Saturday on MPT), and on Tuesday, Columbia Records and Sony Music Video are releasing the soundtrack and video of that special.

"It's awesome," Burns said. "Apparently, 'The Civil War' is the best-selling gift book of all time. It shouldn't have done that. And we got a soundtrack that hit the Billboard chart."

Burns said he has enjoyed the best kind of celebrity.

"Celebrity is something you want to take with a grain of salt," he said. "It's like chocolate cake. It will make you sick. But I am not that type of celebrity. I am not above [the general public]. I'm equal.

"It's so nice for them to stop you on the street, whether it is Manhattan, New York, or Manhattan, Kansas. They want to talk about their feelings, emotions and ancestors. It's like they knew me. That is great to be an intelligent kind of celebrity -- of the mind and the heart, not the libido."

When it was published in September, "The Civil War" book had an initial printing of 150,000. "We [eventually] printed more than 700,000 copies," said the book's editor, Ashbel Green. "It was on the best-seller list for 28 weeks. It is amazing."

"It is a complete phenomenon," said Random House Audio spokeswoman Lynda Sheldon. Random House Audio approached Burns about narrating an abridged version after the book hit the best-seller list.

"He helped us with the selection of the particular excerpts he wanted included. We released it in February and it has done very well. Now we are getting the redo of the series and the hoopla is starting all over again."

Orion Books recently published "All for the Union: The Civil War Diary and Letters of Elisha Hunt Rhodes," based on the Union soldier whose memoirs play a pivotal part in the series.

"That had been published as kind of a vanity publication by a very small press in Rhode Island," Burns said. "And I got [Orion] to reissue it and they have sold 30,000 copies."

The Rhodes diary has been the History Book Club's best-selling Civil War title. "It outsold anything in the first month," director Nancy Whitin said. "We sold 8,500 copies in the first month. The Civil War has always been our best-selling topic, but now we're picking up people who were surprised how little they knew and they wanted to learn more."

The PBS series also has made a star of novelist and historian Shelby Foote, its principal on-screen historian.

"We have made Shelby Foote a rich man," Burns said, laughing. Vantage Books recently published two of his books, which have long been out of print: "Shiloh" and "September, September." His acclaimed trilogy "The Civil War: A Narrative" (Vantage) also has been selling well.

"The Songs of the Civil War," which Burns co-produced with filmmaker Jim Brown, features such artists as Hoyt Axton, Richie Havens and John Hartford performing songs from that period.

Said Brown: "I thought it would be wonderful to follow up [the series] with a music entertainment that gave people a taste of the songs they only heard the instrumental of in the background of the show. Ken was a great help and we tried to emulate his style."

PBS Video and Time-Life Home Video are distributing the "Civil War" series on tape. PBS offers the videos to schools and libraries; Time-Life to the general public (at a cost of $179.99). "It has sold more videocassettes for a public TV series than any other series," said Laura Brouse, associate director of marketing for PBS Video. "At last count, I think around 50,000 -- that's 6,000 sets. It has been a quite wonderful experience."

The last year, Burns said, has been a wonderful experience for him. He still is receiving letters. He even had dinner with the Queen of England. Hollywood has come knocking with offers to direct, but Burns said has no plans to leave PBS ("there are no commercials"). He's busy working on a five-hour documentary for PBS on baseball for airing in 1994.

Burns has even been approached to endorse various products, including a soft drink, which he turned down. He did agree to a possible line of Civil War-themed lunch boxes, but on his terms. All profits will go to the National Council of History Education, of which he is a member. And, Burns added, "I have complete editorial control."

And why, in retrospect, has America embraced the series?

"History is the present-day consideration of past events," Burns said. "They [the events] illuminate today, not the past. We are defined by the things in the past we find meaningful. It tells us who we are."

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