BRATTLEBORO -- Related as cousins and further linked by legacies of leadership, greatness and unshakeable optimism even in the face of darkest tragedy, three towering American historical figures find themselves caught in filmmaker Ken Burns' lens.
We know them familiarly, by nickname (Teddy), first name (Eleanor) and by initials (FDR), and in September 2014, we will come to know them closer still when PBS airs "The Roosevelts: An Intimate History," the latest documentary by Burns, whose Walpole, N.H.-based Florentine Films has also produced "The Civil War," "Baseball," "Jazz," "The War," "National Parks," "The Dust Bowl" and "The Central Park Five," among others.
Local audiences can get a jump on national viewers when Burns will screen Episode 5 1933-1939 "The Rising Road" of "The Roosevelts: An Intimate History" this Saturday, Oct. 19 at 7:30 p.m. at the Latchis Theatre.
Burns will be on hand to show the film and answer questions afterward.
In a night of first glimpses, the event also marks the Grand Reopening of the Latchis and the public's first chance to see the renovations to the ceiling and seats that have taken place since the Latchis closed for construction on Aug. 1.
The event is a benefit for Latchis Arts' Campaign for The Heavens and The Earth, which is nearing the finish line on raising $550,000 to transform the historic art deco theater with comfortable new seating, a refreshed zodiac array on a midnight blue sky, ADA and safety upgrades and enhanced lighting.
"I'm happy to help. That's what a good citizen does," said Burns in a telephone interview Tuesday.
Through his documentary filmmaking over the last three or more decades, Burns has been helping Americans understand themselves, warts and all. "The Roosevelts" is the latest chapter in that work.
"This family had more influence on other Americans than any other American family," said Burns. "The Roosevelts embrace really interesting themes: What is the role of government? What does government owe its people? What does the Constitution really intend? ... What is the nature of political and moral leadership?"
In light of our own times, with the government shutdown and the debt ceiling crisis dominating the news, the issues raised in "The Roosevelts" "speak exactly to the central questions of our day," said Burns.
The documentary focuses mainly on the lives of Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, three central figures in the continuum of American progressivism whose influence runs from the late-19th century all the way to Eleanor's death in 1962.
While Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor have been the subjects of countless biographies through the years, Burns' film takes a different approach in looking at all three. It didn't start out that way.
"It was always going to be FDR," said Burns.
But as he and writer and historian Geoffrey C. Ward began putting the film together, the focus shifted to encompass the whole, extraordinary family.
"What emerged about the Roosevelts is an extraordinary complex family drama," said Burns.
Though all three grew up amid the aristocratically wealthy in New York, all three faced shattering adversity and tragic circumstances.
Theodore overcame a childhood marred by severe bouts of asthma and searing tragedy in early adulthood when both his young wife and his mother died on the same day in the same house. He also grew up around family members touched by depression, alcoholism and mental illness. He learned to outrun the demons around him by living the strenuous life.
Franklin grew up in aristocratic Hyde Park, a pampered son who was eager to please. As he grew up, he faced social rejection at Groton and Harvard and nearly lost his marriage to infidelity, all while outwardly cheerfully following Theodore's footsteps as Assistant Secretary of the Navy and Vice Presidential candidate. Then, in 1920, he caught infantile paralysis. Somehow, that experience and his struggle thereafter to overcome life as a cripple, deepened his empathy. He returned to political life as governor of New York in 1928 and was elected president in 1933, serving 12 years until his death in April 1945.
"Franklin Roosevelt had on his watch two of the three greatest crises in American history in the Depression and World War II."
Both Theodore and Franklin not only led the nation, they seemed to enjoy doing it; ebullience was an important part of their success.
"Both of them loved leading the American people. That sense of the Politics of Joy is so absent in politics today," said Burns.
Eleanor had a childhood that you typically find in Dickens novels -- losing her alcoholic father and her distant but beautiful mother and growing up amid emotional hardship and loss. After marrying her fifth cousin, Franklin, that truly warm loving relationship was rocked by his infidelity. Over time, they forged what Burns called "one of the greatest president and first lady relationships," and Eleanor became, in her own right, the most influential woman in American political history.
Tickets to Saturday's Grand Reopening Celebration at the Latchis are $40 and are available at Brattleborotix.com and at the Latchis Hotel.