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Niskayuna native’s Streisand film featured in concerts

Friday, October 12, 2012
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Kevin Burns looks through a camera during the filming of his documentary
“I Remember Barbra” in 1978.
Kevin Burns looks through a camera during the filming of his documentary “I Remember Barbra” in 1978.

— Barbra Streisand has finally returned home to Brooklyn.

The singer and actress has brought her distinctive looks and extensive catalog of pop songs to the new Barclays Center arena, where she performed Thursday night and will sing again Saturday.

Streisand has also packed a little bit of cinema from former Niskayuna resident Kevin Burns for her time in Brooklyn. Clips from Burns’ 1981 film, “I Remember Barbra,” will be shown during the concert.

Burns, who runs his own television production company in Los Angeles, made the documentary as a film student at Boston University. He has gladly approved the encore showing — and is glad to talk about the film’s funky history.

“What drew me to make the film was the unique relationship Brooklyn has to Barbra Streisand,” Burns said in a telephone interview from New York City. “I was working with a professor of mine at Boston University on another

little film he was doing. I was on his crew and he knew I liked Barbra. She was really popular after ‘A Star Is Born’ and the movie ‘The Main Event’ had come out, and he was from Brooklyn so he kept teasing me the whole time I was in Brooklyn with him.

“I had never been to Brooklyn before. This was 1978,” Burns added. “He said, ‘This is where Barbra grew up, these are her people, this is where she would have gone, this is where she would have eaten, this is where she went to high school.’ ”

The small film crew began asking people on the street what they thought about Barbra, who before this week had never appeared on a Brooklyn stage during her professional career. Guys in restaurants and women on the beach all offered advice and opinions as the camera rolled. Brooklyn accents and 1970s hairstyles and fashions became part of the film.

“Make more musicals,” said one brunette woman in a beach chair, cigarette in her right hand. “Sing more in the movies and come back to Brooklyn and give us a concert.”

Another woman, a Streisand classmate at the former Erasmus Hall High School, asks Barbra for a favor. “Come back and sign my yearbook so people will stop pestering me,” she said.

Hometown ties

Burns, who graduated from St. Helen’s School in 1969, Niskayuna High School in 1973 and Hamilton College in 1977, began production on “Barbra” during the summer of 1979.

“I was working four jobs to basically finance the film. The initial cost was about $16,000, which was a fortune to me in those days,” Burns said.

The project was more than just a requirement for a master’s degree in filmmaking. Burns had long admired Streisand’s work because his sister, Jo-An, frequently played her records around the house.

“And ‘The Way We Were’ was made in Schenectady,” Burns said. “That was a big deal in 1972. That’s when they shot it. I had a teacher who was in the film. My sister made some of the prom dresses for the film. When the film came out, everybody in Schenectady went to see it, mostly to look and see who they knew who was in the shoot. That really got me fascinated about Streisand and her career.”

The 23-minute documentary features Streisand only as the absent subject of discussion. Burns said the real story was the unique relationship a celebrity can have to his or her hometown.

“The people in Brooklyn have an enormous amount of pride in where they come from,” Burns said, “but in a weird way, the measure of success is how far from Brooklyn you go. You have to be from Brooklyn to be worth anything, but to be really worth anything, you have to go to Manhattan, you have to go to California, you have to have traveled somewhere.”

Burns, working with a sound man, camera man and production assistant, finished “Barbra” in March 1981. Later that year, the movie won a student Oscar from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

The novice director wondered what kind of review Streisand would have given the movie. He decided to send his subject a copy.

“This was in the days, and I hate to make myself sound too old, but this was in the days before VHS [tapes], DVDs, Blu-ray,” Burns said. “You had to make a 16-millimeter print, which cost $400, and that was four times what I made in a week. I made a print and I sent it to her and I never knew if she had seen it until it won the student Academy Award. I ran into a judge who said, ‘I think she’s seen it. I’ll ask her what she thinks of it.’ ”

Burns didn’t get an answer for 10 years.

Well-received

In 1991, he was working as a producer at 20th Century Fox. One day he was in the commissary, which frequently served celebrities, and seated two tables away was Streisand.

The producer introduced himself and asked Streisand about his film. She had seen it.

“She was very gracious,” Burns said. “It was clear to me she was fascinated by the film but couldn’t believe that as a documentary — she initially looked at it like, ‘Well, if this is supposed to be about me, why did you interview all these people who I don’t really know?’ I said to her, ‘Well, that’s the point. The point is they feel they know you even though they don’t.’ ”

The story could have ended there. But this summer, Burns received a call from Streisand’s longtime manager, Marty Erlichman. Streisand’s people requested copies of the film; they later asked for permission to license clips from the movie for Barbra’s Brooklyn shows. Burns was happy to oblige and said the clips could be used free of charge.

He did receive some perks — six tickets to the Thursday show and a film credit in the concert program.

“It couldn’t be a more incredible journey for this film,” Burns said. “Very rarely does a student film ever get seen by anybody, let alone get seen again 32 years later.”

The film had earlier runs. As an Academy Award winner, it was seen in schools and libraries all over the country. When the Bravo cable television channel began operations, “I Remember Barbra” was shown several times. The movie was also part of an “Artists Come Home” film festival at Proctors in 1981.

Burns said his Prometheus Entertainment is in the process of adding the film to the Amazon.com sales catalog.

He has other projects, too. Burns and his company have produced more than 700 hours of entertainment for cable channels E!, History, A&E, Travel Channel and National Geographic, to name a few.

“I was just in Schenectady last week,” he said. “I just drove around the city over and over. I do a television series for the Travel Channel called ‘Food Paradise’ and just picked two Schenectady restaurants for this season. One is Morrette’s; the other is New Way Lunch.”

 
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