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Ken Burns on Mayo Clinic: 'One of the most amazing medical places on Earth'

LOS ANGELES -- Ever since a Mayo Clinic newsletter mentioned this past October that Ken Burns' production company was spending time on the Rochester campus for an upcoming documentary, details have been sketchy.

So why not ask Burns himself?

Publicists had warned that their boss wouldn't spill many details about the project, so expectations were low when I sat down with the four-time Emmy winner last week to chat on more immediate matters, most notably "Vietnam," his much anticipated exploration of the divisive war. But he ended up freely expounding on his role on the Minnesota-based film, which is more prominent than initially expected.

"I'm way more involved than I'd thought I'd be," Burns said.

On a website for the Better Angels Society, the foundation that supports Burns' work and raises funds for them, it categorizes "The Mayo Clinic" under "Ken Burns Presents: The Next Generation," a division dedicated to a new generation of filmmakers with their boss lending his reputation and guidance as an executive producer.

But Burns says he's spending so much time on the project, he may end up with a co-directing credit.

The filmmaker behind "The Civil War," "Jazz" and "The Roosevelts" said the spark was set after a lunch with Mayo Clinic CEO John Noseworthy in 2010 when he was in the Twin Cities promoting a "10th inning" episode of "Baseball." Burns also noted that the Mayo is where he gets his annual checkup.

"I think it's certainly one of the most amazing medical places on earth and its story is unbelievable," said Burns who expects to deliver a fine cut by the end of the year with a PBS broadcast premiere in late 2018.

Burns' most high-profile priority over the next few months will be promoting "Vietnam," an 18-hour opus slated to air in fall 2017. That, too, has a Minnesota connection. One of the featured soldiers hails from Worthington, and Burns teased that the town opens up one episode "in a phenomenal way."

Burns said it's just coincidence that Worthington is so close to Luverne, Minn., one of the four cities that played major roles in 2007's "The War."

A critic remembers: A proposal over a cup of tea with Maggie Roche

Maggie, Suzzy and Terre Roche in 1979

Maggie, Suzzy and Terre Roche in 1979

The first time I heard “The Roches” album I wanted to marry all three of the singing sisters. The record proved they have almost everything I’ve dreamed of: spirit, intelligence, humor, creativity, warmth, charm and personality.

I wrote that in 1979 when “The Roches,” a brilliant and witty collection of harmony-loving originals produced by Robert Fripp, was released, and I went to New York City to meet the three sisters – and propose.

It was a sunny day in Manhattan, well, as sunny as it seems amid grey skyscrapers. The Roches had a couple of weeks off. Suzzy, the youngest sister, was vacationing in Europe.  Maggie was talking about having a friend over to dinner that evening. And Terre was a bit hungerover but managed to find her way down the block to Maggie’s second-floor Greenwich Village apartment.

Coffee and tea were served. The two Roche sisters settled into opposite ends of an old couch. Maggie caressed a pillow. Terre slurped her coffee. I sipped my tea, Red Zinger, the first time I’d ever experienced that seemingly exotic herbal flavor. Why not be adventurous? After all, I was about to try something bold.

I cleared my throat. Then I popped the big one.

“I fell in love with the album and thought about marring all three of you.”

Maggie looked up at me with her expressive, big brown eyes. She seemed contemplative, as she usually does. But Terre jumped right in, as she usually does.

“How would it work?” she asked.

“You see, I have a three-bedroom house…”

“But where would you sleep?” Terre interrupted.

“In the basement, of course, with your record,” I wisecracked.

Maggie finally smiled. She suggested that we wait and consult Suzzy.

We never did connect with Suzzy.

Postscript: Maggie Roche died Saturday of breast cancer. She was 65.

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