TCA: Ken Burns takes on ‘The Dust Bowl’

Filmmaker Ken Burns.
(Matt Sayles / Invision/AP)

Ken Burns came to the summer TV press tour Sunday afternoon bearing clips from his latest PBS documentary, “The Dust Bowl,” a four-hour, two-part film that will air in mid-November.

On a panel that also included writer and producer Dayton Duncan and Dust Bowl survivor Cal Crabill, Burns called the event that led to an exodus from Oklahoma to California during the 1930s “the greatest manmade ecological disaster in U.S. history.”

“This is a cautionary tale,” said Burns of the disaster, which coincided with much of the Great Depression, adding the documentary is not “inspirational.”


In one of the clips, a survivor talked about the huge clouds of dust that would blacken the skies for as long as 24 hours. Others recalled wearing makeshift air masks made from discarded flour bags to keep from inhaling dust.

Crabill told members of the Television Critics Assn. that he can remember being let out early from elementary school because of an approaching dust storm. Before seeking shelter in his home, he had to round up the cattle first, he said. The task, not uncommon for boys of his age at the time, took two to three hours, he added.

He narrowly survived. To the young Crabillm who was younger than 10 at the time, it seemed like “the end of the world.”

“We went from childhood to adulthood,” said Crabill, whose family later moved to Burbank to escape the Dust Bowl. “We didn’t get teenage years.”

Burns has a number of other projects in the works for PBS. The subjects include the Roosevelt family, the Vietnam War, baseball player Jackie Robinson, country-western music and author Ernest Hemingway.


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