Go behind-the-scenes of TV's longest-running, most-watched history series, and get to know the filmmakers, producers, historians, and series staff that make history come alive.
If you had asked me in 2006 where I saw myself in seven years, I wouldn't have said "working for a television history series".
In 2006, I was a student at the University of Arizona in Tucson, majoring in nutrition science with the goal of becoming a registered dietitian. That summer, I was taking the first of two Organic Chemistry classes I would have to take to complete my degree.
During extended periods of procrastination - which were frequent - I would go to the local video rental store and scan the documentary aisle for anything that would further distract me from my studies. One day I came across American Experience's "The Kennedys". I didn't know much about the Kennedy family aside from what was taught in school and what I had read in People Magazine, so I decided to rent it.
I sat through all four hours, riveted by the history of the family and the personal stories told by close friends and colleagues. The use of the family's home movies showed happy, leisurely moments that added a human element to this iconic American family. I also enjoyed watching young JFK trying to make the most of television in outtakes from his 1952 senate campaign commercials. I watched the film a few more times before I returned it and loved it so much that I eventually bought the DVD.
At the end of that summer, I decided to leave the University of Arizona and take a year off to figure out what I wanted to do. I ended up in Boston, studying film at Suffolk University -- a minor deviation from my original plan! I landed an internship with American Experience, and was hired as a research assistant after I graduated. I have worked for American Experience ever since.
A year ago, our series manager asked me if I would be interested in being the production assistant for a biographical documentary being produced here in our office (most of our films are produced by small outside production companies). He described the details of the job and everything it would entail, and I said "yes." Only later did I think to ask the subject of the biography; it turned out to be an in-depth biography of JFK.
Now I find myself screening footage for our film that was used in "The Kennedys" and smiling when I see familiar shots. I can still remember sitting on my bed, chemistry textbooks strewn around me, eyes glued to the television screen.
In a way, "The Kennedys" changed my life. That is why it is my favorite American Experience film.
Lauren Noyes is the Production Coordinator for AMERICAN EXPERIENCE and is an Associate Producer for our upcoming film "JFK," premiering November 11 & 12 on PBS.
It all started with the Great San Francisco Earthquake. On October 4, 1988 PBS broadcast The American Experience’s first documentary, looking back at the 1906 natural disaster that destroyed most of the city and killed nearly 3000 people. Twenty-five years and 287 films later, AMERICAN EXPERIENCE has grown to become the country’s most-watched history series, setting the standard for intelligent, critical and compelling review of America's history.
Along the way we’ve explored issues of Social Justice and War, Exploration and Innovation, Natural disasters and National treasures — and, we have so many more stories to tell.
This fall, AMERICAN EXPERIENCE celebrates its 25th anniversary by observing the anniversaries of some of the moments in 20th century American history, including the 75th anniversary of the infamous War of the Worlds radio broadcast, and the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy's death in a four-hour biopic, JFK.
October 29, 9-10pm ET: War of the Worlds
Shortly after 8 p.m. on the Halloween Eve, 1938, the voice of a panicked radio announcer broke in with a news bulletin reporting strange explosions taking place on the planet Mars, followed minutes later by a report that Martians had landed in the tiny town of Grovers Mill, New Jersey. Although most listeners understood that the program was a radio drama, thousands of others plunged into panic, convinced that America was under a deadly Martian attack. It turned out to be H.G. Wells' classic The War of the Worlds, performed by 23-year-old Orson Welles.
Seventy-five years after the original radio broadcast, War of the Worlds explores this legendary but misunderstood event. The documentary examines the elements that came together to create one of the biggest mass hysteria events in U.S. history: our longtime fascination with life on Mars; the emergence of radio as a powerful, pervasive medium; the shocking live recording of the Hindenburg explosion of 1937; and the brilliant Orson Welles, the director of the drama and mischief-maker supreme. Forever immortalized in thousands of letters written to CBS, the Federal Communications Commission and Mr. Welles himself, the public's reaction is dramatized with on-camera interviews, bringing to life the people who listened that night to the broadcast and thought it was rip-roaring entertainment... or the end of the world.
November 11, 9-11pm ET: JFK, Part 1
November 12, 9-11pm ET: JFK, Part 2
Scheduled for broadcast on the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy's assassination, this biography provides a fresh look at an enigmatic man who has become one of the nation's most beloved and most mourned leaders. The newest addition to The Presidents collection, the documentary explores Kennedy's childhood years as the overlooked second son of a multimillionaire exploding with ambition, his early political career as a lackluster congressman, his subsequent successful run for senate, and the election victory that turned him into the youngest elected president in U.S. history.
With the benefit of newly opened archives and recently released documents, the film re-evaluates JFK's strengths and weaknesses in the Oval Office and looks at how he navigated some of the most explosive events of the mid-20th century: the Cuban missile crisis, the escalating conflict in Southeast Asia, and the urgent demands of an increasingly impatient civil rights movement. It also provides new insights into his private life -- his relationship with his beautiful, accomplished wife, his obsessive womanizing, his inappropriate friendships, his reliance on his younger brothers, and his deference to the all-powerful father who had helped make him who he was.
Just a little background - I love horror movies. I've seen every classic horror movie and then some. So I was completely mesmerized by The Donner Party when I watched it in 2009. It's a tragic story about pioneers looking to start new lives outWest. They put their faith in a new route across Utah and Nevada - Hastings Cutoff. Little did they know that the man who created the map, Lansford Hastings, had never taken the trail by wagons.
The group set off in May 1846 with the plan to settle in the Sacramento Valley by September. But they found themselves struggling to make the journey and they ended up stuck in the Sierra Nevada mountain range during the winter of 1846. That winter led to starvation and cannabalism. The group of 81 American pioneers had dwindled to 45; they had starved and cannibalized before they were finally rescued in February 1847.
My favorite AMERICAN EXPERIENCE film premiered in 1993. However, I didn't discover The Donner Party until I had to update the film for a PBS repeat. My colleagues had raved about this film, calling it both gruesome and heartbreaking, so I was incredibly eager to see for myself. I watched the entire film in a dark editing room, completely shocked by the horrifying history I had just witnessed.
Vanessa Ezersky is the Post Production Supervisor for AMERICAN EXPERIENCE.
When my colleagues asked me to write about my favorite AMERICAN EXPERIENCE, I was kind of shocked. I mean, I'm sort of the new kid on the team, having joined the production in March as the marketing account manager. Before March, I was more like most of you — longtime viewer and living room commenter. Over the years, this series has blown my mind and tugged at my heart strings, raised my blood pressure and caused me to sob uncontrollably with stories that I never knew, or knew enough of. None had moved me more than the 2010 film Freedom Riders.
Freedom Riders tells the story of the 1961 Freedom Rides, an integrated, non-violent campaign to end segregation of interstate transit stations in the American South. For six months, over 400 Black and White Americans, most of them college-age young adults, risked their lives by traveling by Greyhound bus through the Deep South, bringing national and international attention to the racism that had long been an intrinsic part of Southern life. As an African American, I'd long known the history of segregation and racism that the South had been notorious for, but this film helped me understand that so many things about the onset of the Civil Rights Movement of Sixties. I had no idea how much of a political hot potato enforcing civil rights in the South was for President Kennedy's administration. I had no idea how defiant the states could be and were once the Federal Government felt compelled to protect the Freedom Riders on their dangerous crusade. More than anything, though, I was completely moved by these brave teenagers and young adults, who SIGNED DEATH WAIVERS to participate in these rides. Seeing the images of the severe beatings, the angry mobs laying in wait with dogs and gasoline, and hearing the first hand accounts of the riders who survived scared me in a way that I'd never be scared before. I could see myself, my brothers, sister and friends in their faces. They could have been me…
Or could it? Could I have gotten on the bus? I don't think so. My self-preservation gene would have kicked in once that clipboard with a death waiver got passed to me at an orientation meeting. Yet, here I am, fifty years later living a life where I've been free to live as I want because they were brave enough to do what I feel I could not. I'm thankful for what they did, and I'm even more thankful that AMERICAN EXPERIENCE told this story. I needed to know that young people — people younger than me -- recognized their power in their country and chose to act. I needed to be reminded that I have power as an American, and I can have an impact.
Chika Offurum is the Marketing Account Manager for AMERICAN EXPERIENCE.
AMERICAN EXPERIENCE has been honored with two nominations for the 65th annual Primetime Emmy Awards. Announced this morning, the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences nominated the series' films Death and the Civil War for "Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Special," and The Abolitionists for "Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Series."
Death and the Civil War examines the many ways the staggering death tolls of the Civil War permanently altered the character of the republic, and the psyche of the American people. The work of contending with death on an unprecedented scale propelled extraordinary changes in the inner and outer life of Americans – posing challenges for which there were no ready answers when the war began – challenges that called forth remarkable and eventually heroic efforts as Americans worked to improvise new solutions, new institutions, new ways of coping with death on an unimaginable scale.
Bringing to life the intertwined stories of Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, Angelina Grimké, Harriet Beecher Stowe and John Brown, The Abolitionists takes place during some of the most violent and contentious decades in American history, amid white-hot religious passions that set souls on fire, and bitter debates over the meaning of the Constitution and the nature of race. The documentary reveals how ordinary individuals with extraordinary passion turned a despised fringe movement against chattel slavery into a force that literally changed the nation.
AMERICAN EXPERIENCE is currently in its 25th season and has received over 290 awards including recognition from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science, International Documentary Association, Organization of American Historians, Writers Guild, Television Critics Association, National Education Association, Sundance Film Festival and Tribeca Film Festival.
The Emmy Awards will air live from the Nokia Theatre in Los Angeles on Sunday, September 22nd at 8pm ET on NBC.
Casey Davis is the Special Projects Assistant for AMERICAN EXPERIENCE.