On the last day of July, Ken Burns had his first drink of the year.
Sitting in Trader Vic's at the Beverly Hilton hotel and talking about his upcoming documentary "Prohibition," the filmmaker bypassed the bar's traditional mai tai and instead went for a pour of prosecco. Not unlike the nation itself when Prohibition was repealed in 1933, Burns seemed pleased at his transition from "dry" to "wet."
But while Burns' decision to order a drink was quickly made, Americans debated for more than a century about whether to ban the sale of alcohol. Apart from slavery and the role of African Americans in American life, no social issue in our history took so long to play out, nor was there a similar conflict that generated so many unintended consequences — most notably, sparking the drive for women's suffrage.
And yet as Daniel Okrent, author of "Last Call," a 2010 book about Prohibition, notes: "Look in any American history textbook of today and you may barely find a paragraph about Prohibition. It's sort of written off as this bizarre side issue to our lives."
Okrent is one of the expert voices in Burns' new three-part, six-hour series, which he co-directed and produced with Lynn Novick and which premieres Oct. 2 on PBS. The project is visually similar to the filmmaker's other enterprises, interspersing photos and early film footage with an overlay of narration — by Peter Coyote — and interviews with historians and social commentators.
The saga features a panorama of familiar historical figures, with hatchet-toting, saloon-busting Carrie Nation and Chicago crime czar Al Capone among those making their striking presences felt.
Burns undertook the project six years ago after a chance encounter with Okrent, who was then researching his book. If nothing else, the sheer perversity of trying to mandate sobriety on a national level struck Burns as a curious part of America's past.
"Human beings for millenia have been fermenting and then distilling alcohol, and anthropologically it's found in every culture in some way, shape or form," said Burns. "This was the first and only time any nonreligious government of a large population attempted to ban its use, and the results were at the least inept and at the most a wrongheaded understanding of our society.
"You know, the thinking that Prohibition was going to work … you have to wonder, what were the sponsors drinking?"
Southern California was a fervent hotbed of that sponsorship.
"Not counting a couple towns in the South, L.A. may have been the driest big city in the country," said Okrent. "Keep in mind the population then — largely Midwest transplants, Presbyterians, Methodists and Baptists, the bedrock of Prohibition support."
During the 1910s, the Los Angeles Times' editorial pages led the charge, routinely thundering against the sale of demon alcohol.
Underscoring that local fervor, Okrent noted that Los Angeles elected the only member of the national Prohibition Party to reach Congress. Charles H. Randall served three terms, from 1915 to 1921, before eventually assuming charge of the Los Angeles City Council.
Mind you, there was plenty of illegal imbibing going on locally between 1920 and 1933. Bootlegging busts — particularly in San Pedro and Santa Monica, where alcohol was routinely sneaked in by boat — were a constant. A review of news coverage from the time finds a flourishing market of booze selling, from downtown hole-in-the-wall saloons to swank, upscale speak-easies.
The site of one of the toniest top-end spots is passed each day unknowingly by Hollywood tourists. The corner of Hollywood and Highland, in the building where the Stella Adler Theatre now sits, was the 1920s and early '30s home of the Montmarte restaurant and the star-driven — Douglas Fairbanks Jr. was a regular — Embassy Club. With a rooftop garden, a ballroom and a "bachelor's table" of gigolos available to dance, the establishment had a bootlegger on the premises, though, reportedly, patrons complained about his high prices.
Though the L.A. area avoided most of the high-profile, gangster-driven violence that dominated big city headlines in the Midwest and the East, perhaps the most bizarre event nationally in the enforcement of Prohibition occurred in then-agricultural and -unincorporated but booming Inglewood.
One night in April 1922, a terrified woman tried phoning her local constable. Unable to summon him, she contacted other police and reported a swarm of masked men creeping across her property to a neighboring farm. A motorcycle policeman arrived, and in the dark ran into armed men; an exchange of gunfire led to one assailant being shot and killed.
It turned out this was a raid to shut down a nearby Basque family believed to be bootleggers. But authorities were not cracking down — instead, it was a burgeoning chapter of the vehemently dry Ku Klux Klan. And the slain "night rider" was none other than the constable who hadn't been able to come to the phone.
The Klan episode isn't recounted in the film, but both Burns and Okrent, in separate interviews, marveled in general at the unlikely twists and turns that constantly emerged in their research.
The long path to Prohibition led to a much more important achievement: women's right to vote. In the mid-1800s, Midwestern women rallied against drink and its negative effect on rural and small-town family life. As the decades passed, the growing temperance movement helped expand women's political consciousness and helped give birth to the suffragette movement. In 1920, women finally won the franchise via a constitutional amendment only a year after Prohibition was enacted using the same legislative method.
"The whole thing has such a strange timeline," said Okrent. "All the decades of energy getting it established and then close to 15 years where Prohibition creates a climate of violence and lawlessness that touches the middle classes who flout it. And then, with the Depression and World War II, it's largely forgotten.
"There's nothing else quite like it in our history."