In January, documentarian Ken Burns was in Pasadena for a few reasons.
One was to serve as the 2016 Tournament of Roses grand marshal, promoting both the Rose Parade’s theme of “Find Your Adventure” and the April re-broadcast of his Emmy Award-winning 2009 series “National Parks: America’s Best Idea.”
Another reason Burns was here was to promote his new two-part special focusing on one of Pasadena’s favorite sons, “Jackie Robinson,” which aired this week on PBS SoCal.
Burns said that the complex Robinson — a military veteran who smashed baseball’s pernicious color line, then championed civil rights and supported Martin Luther King Jr. — was “so smothered in mythology” that he and his team had to “dig down” in order “to add complexity to the superficiality of that mythology.”
Also this week, Robinson’s daughter, Sharon Robinson, will be in town further humanizing her father for local children attending one of two Pasadena Unified School District campuses today, April 14.
At 1:30 p.m. Sharon Robinson will visit Norma Coombs Elementary School to present and sign copies of her book, “The Hero Two Doors Down,” about the true story of a boy in Brooklyn who became neighbors and friends with his hero, her dad.
Then, at 7 p.m., at Robinson’s alma mater John Muir High School, excerpts of the film will be shown during a panel discussion about Robinson’s legacy called “Pasadena’s MVP: ‘Jackie Robinson’ Screening and Conversation, co-presented by KPCC and PBS SoCal. To RSVP for this event, visit scpr.org/events
Although Robinson was born in Cairo, Georgia, he was raised in Pasadena, attending John Muir High School and what is now Pasadena City College. From there he attended UCLA where he lettered in four sports (baseball, basketball, football and track) and met his future wife, Rachel Isum.
Neither he nor his Olympic silver medalist older brother would serve as a Rose Parade grand marshal while they lived. But Jackie Robinson was the event’s first posthumous grand marshal in 1999. What you won’t find in Pasadena is the 121 Pepper St. home where Mack and Jackie were raised, said Burns.
Jackie Robinson died in 1972 at age 53. Mack Robinson died in 200o at the age of 85.
“I’m sad that the city fathers in their infinite wisdom let an important landmark disappear,” the filmmaker lamented.
Directed by Ken Burns, his daughter Sarah Burns and David McMahon, “Jackie Robinson” is, according to Ken Burns, “an extraordinary love story.”
“After we interviewed Rachel in 1992 (for his ‘Baseball’ series), I felt this was the moral center of gravity,” Burns explains.
In turn, Rachel believes Burns “got it right.”
“I went into it quaking because I didn’t know how Ken would interpret Jack’s life. I was very nervous. Right from the beginning, I saw that Ken was trying to understand him and his place in history. By the middle of the film I was very pleased and I didn’t find anything wrong with it."
As she explains, Rachel had reservations when she first met Jackie. “I was a freshman and he was a senior. I heard he was big man on campus. I thought he’d be this egotistical man. He had a beautiful smile. His manner was so quiet and respectful. I think I fell in love with him on the first day."
When Jackie and Rachel finally committed to each other what followed was a five-year engagement.
“We would not get married until I had graduated from college and he had a job,” Rachel says. “We had a partnership going before we were married.”
Rachel remembered how she would be the only player’s wife allowed at spring training and the racism they both faced.
“The hotels would not let us room in the same place where the team was in. We had a little tiny room at the top of the staircase. We decided we would keep our living place a haven.”
She recalled that things were not easy for them due to strict segregation in the 1950s and 60s, especially in the South.
“We went to three different restaurants in the neighborhood and they wouldn’t have us,” she recalls. “We fell across the bed laughing. Those who are torturing you are the enemy. The only triumph we had was we didn’t go hungry and we didn’t get angry at each other."
While Jamie Foxx serves as the voice of Jackie, Burns noted, “The best thing of the film, we have this extraordinary person as herself.”
Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images