The American Experience: The Great San Francisco Earthquake PBS, tonight, 9-10 o'clock. Check local listings. Premi`ere of new documentary series coproduced by WGBH, Boston; WNET, New York; KCET, Los Angeles. YOU have a bunch of documentaries - fine ones, in fact. Some were commissioned and some ``obtained,'' all with the idea of capturing a few of the nation's most resonant historical memories.
Now you want them to be a series. But what to call it. There's no obvious link. You can always say it's an anthology, of course - which is what they do in this case. But can you call it history?
No, the 16 independently produced films - ranging in subject from Eric Sevareid to Geronimo - do form a kind of boutique collection of historical looks. But they're too thematically isolated to be called history.
Then how about calling the series ``The American Experience''? It's an expansive phrase with a scholarly ring of self-assessment. And how about having it hosted by the excellent David McCulloch, that soft-spoken agent of the viewer's urge to know? He can say that collectively the programs represent the nation's ``search for the democratic ideal.'' Through phrases like these, the producers have managed to come up with a semi-logical packaging for this worthwhile and promising project.
It premi`eres tonight with a compelling study of the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906. The production has a photographic sweep and detail that are astonishing for so old an event. The terrible quake, and the even more terrible fire that followed, drew people to the streets to get photos, and this show uses hundreds of them.
It also tracks down a dozen elderly survivors who recall the memorable destruction and even more impressive urban rebirth with stirring clarity. There is artwork, lots of shaky movies, diary accounts, an intelligent narration delivered with refreshing coolness and understanding by F. Murray Abraham. And it's all been researched within an inch of its life.
But there's something else, a feeling that here is a different production technique. I'm a sucker for old stills and footage anyway, but this treatment, in particular, puts fast-moving elements in such purposeful harmony that you feel you're in a media time machine viewing the event with all-seeing electronic eyes. The adroit mix of sight and sound makes the old San Francisco a recaptured delight, ``The garden of the Lord,'' according to Teddy Roosevelt - whom we see visiting there - although its Barbary Coast is also called ``that sink of moral pollution.''
The city is a carefree but often corrupt and cruel place in this program, slightly defensive about its image, and you can feel its exuberance as shaky film figures walk its streets, the narrator reads well-chosen facts, and eyewitnesses intelligently corroborate them.
Through all the talk, the obligato of images supports the story rather than intrudes. You see the big City Hall and the little pub where the city's serious business was conducted by political bosses. You see fire engines, fairs, and lots of faces. Most of the time the show doesn't pretend to capture the sounds of the era, but it does supply soft, symbolic background sound - like voices and bells.
It all builds up to the great quake, perhaps with a bit too much foreboding, like the ominous rumbling sound that looms behind the narration at times.
There are no actual photos of the quake itself, but the show makes you feel the awful shaking with a stop-and-start movie sequence of people scurrying on the street, and with a trick or two like a wall falling after the fact. The scenes of desolation after the fire do not seem morbid but rather a serious-minded detailing of history. ``It remains the greatest natural disaster suffered by an American city,'' goes one statement, and the smoking rubble is truly a vision of perdition.
But those bleak sequences are more than offset by the joyous resurgence of the city after the disaster. The old Clark Gable movie ``San Francisco'' may not have been so hokey after all. And how about this: The new city rises, and the show doesn't once mention phoenix.
The spirit of rejuvenation - of fresh start and triumphant rebuilding - is caught beautifully, with the aid of a few additional production tricks. You cheer and exult with the people who throng the Panama Pacific International Exposition in 1915, eager to show off their reborn San Francisco.