Documentary is a nod to Columbia's past — and its future

Ken Day set out to tell the behind-the-scenes story of Columbia’s genesis as an open community when integration was the law of the land by weaving together a tapestry of rarely seen archival video footage and vintage photographs.

But the senior executive producer at Maryland Public Television also wanted his new hour-long documentary to dip a toe into the waters of the city’s future.


Those treated to private screenings of the final cut of “Columbia’s Promise” — which will be shown to ticket holders April 24 at Howard Community College and air April 28 on MPT — say Day achieved his goals.

The film delves into the planning that went into making the vision of Columbia founder James W. Rouse a reality, but it also goes on to speculate — through interviews with Columbia insiders interspersed with current scenes of city life — on whether the late developer’s blueprint for a better city will hold up in years to come.


After being the first to get a private showing, Robert Tennenbaum, retired chief architect and planner for the Rouse Co. who still lives in Columbia, told Day, “Don’t change anything.”

Joshua Olsen, author of a 2003 biography of Rouse, remarked after his personal screening two months ago, “You nailed it.”

Bob Tennenbaum organized and edited essays of 63 former and current Columbia residents who’ve watched their town transform since its formation in 1967.

And after a Tuesday showing for Columbia Association, Marlys East, a former Rouse Co. marketing director who oversaw Columbia’s yearlong 50th birthday celebration in 2017, called the film “authentic and very touching.”

Day, a Reisterstown resident, said there are MPT producers from Columbia “who would’ve loved to take this on,” but they were involved in other projects and so it fell in his lap.


“I had no dog in this fight,” he said. “I started with a clean slate.”

After reading Olsen’s book, “Better Places, Better Lives: A Biography of James Rouse” and a dozen others, Day became enthralled with Rouse’s genius and his impact on the world.

It didn’t take long for Day, who’s worked at Owings Mills-based MPT since 1985, to determine that 30 minutes of running time wouldn’t be enough. He was given 60 minutes “to do the topic justice.”

“I realized the history [behind Columbia’s creation] would be fascinating to someone in Cumberland or someone in Ocean City – not just the people of Columbia,” he said of his focus on Rouse, who died in 1996.

Day said he worked on the documentary as a “one-man band” instead of utilizing a team approach, and created the film by editing down 20 to 30 hours of footage, “which is not atypical.”

One of his best decisions, he said, was to hire Keith David as the film’s narrator.

The 50th milestone comes at a pivotal time for Columbia, which is old enough that some of its earliest neighborhoods are fraying and need uplift, and young enough that it is only now undertaking the task of creating a true downtown.

David is an Emmy-winning voice actor who has narrated such documentaries as “The War” and “Unforgiveable Blackness” for filmmaker Ken Burns. He’s also a movie actor who’s appeared in “Platoon” and “The Thing.”

David has a rich, full baritone that embodies the sense of history being made, Day said.

But the linchpin of the documentary, Day said, is the 1987 interview videotaped by Scott Kramer, a multimedia specialist with the Howard County government.

Kramer had persisted for years in asking the camera-shy Rouse to sit down with him and talk about Columbia before Rouse finally relented.

“That video was a godsend,” Day said of the 90 minutes of footage. “I used a lot of it in the film because I wanted [the story] to come out of Rouse’s mouth.”

Kramer, who collaborated on the video with Deborah Hurley, dubbed their video — with its tight shot of Rouse’s lined face, round glasses and bushy eyebrows — “the Holy Grail of interviews.”

“Jim was a very humble person who didn’t like to toot his own horn,” he said. “We just started out by asking him, ‘Can you just tell us stories?’

“He was very sharp and he was at his peak, and we were both in awe of everything he talked about,” said Kramer, who’s grateful portions of the interview appear in the film. “That video is priceless to us.”

Though Columbia won't officially celebrate its 50th birthday until June 21, the party's about to get started. Event planners opted for a 27-week schedule crammed with nearly 100 events that will kick off with an opening ceremony and all-day festivities March 19 at the Mall in Columbia and culminate in a week-long finale in September.

Day also tracked down — in what he described as “a grand scavenger hunt” — a 1966 public TV documentary called “Rise of the New Towns” that was made by the National Education Radio and TV Network, which eventually became WNET.

“The footage of Rouse and his lieutenants discussing how the city would be wasn’t in their vaults,” he said. “I found it at the University of Indiana at Bloomington in a queue waiting to be digitized.”

Robin Emrich, archivist with the Columbia Archives since 1998, viewed the film Tuesday with her Columbia Association colleagues and was impressed with Day’s approach and tenacity.

“I was over-the-top about it,” she said hours later, adding it was “very emotional” to watch.

“The documentary is a wonderful tool that uses primary-source materials to convey how unique this place was and is,” she said. “This film is for people who think they know Columbia history and for people who don’t.”

Olsen, who grew up in Laurel, agreed.

The Rouse biographer, who is now a Washington real estate executive, pointed out that in the 1960s a number of new towns were being started in the United States with varying degrees of success.

“Columbia is certainly interesting in the broader context of Maryland history since it’s the state’s second-largest city — nowhere as big as Baltimore, but bigger than Annapolis or Frederick.

“It’s remarkable how much ground Ken was able to cover in one hour and how the film goes beyond the physical planning and gets into the social institutions of Columbia,” he said.

Tennenbaum, an original Rouse Co. lieutenant who appears in the vintage video incorporated into the documentary, pointed out that Columbia didn’t become financially successful until the 1980s.

“It’s very difficult to the tell the story of Columbia without the context of history and the economic times, but Ken did a terrific job on that,” he said.

East, who now works for Columbia Association in community services, was equally impressed with the final product.

“It was very touching to hear Jim’s voice and so powerful to listen to him articulate his dream,” she said.

“But it’s what he embedded in our hearts and souls about what cities can be” that stands out in Rouse’s legacy, East said. “At the end of the documentary you can’t help but think about the value of creating better places to live.”