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Family Roots

Genealogy Takes Center Stage on TV

Two shows help spark interest and shed light on researching family history

The NBC show is more of a global scavenger hunt as celebrities follow clues leading them across the country and around the world. Executive producer Lisa Kudrow (of Friends fame) saw the original British series while working in Ireland and vowed to bring it stateside.

“This show works on so many levels,” she says. “The stories are really compelling and connect you to historical events that still impact us all.” She says celebrities have no idea what they are about to discover or where their next destination lies. “You’re learning what they’re learning when they examine those faded old documents,” says Kudrow, “and their reactions are genuine.”

Sarah Jessica Parker, who thought she came from recent immigrant stock, is shocked to discover an ancestor who survived the Salem witch trials. Brooke Shields is equally amazed to learn she descends from French kings. Kudrow, herself, traveled to Ilja in modern-day Belarus and weeps when she hears horrifying details of her great-grandmother’s death at the hands of the Nazis. The first season’s seven celebrities were all grateful to have gone on their journeys, Kudrow adds. “It’s such a powerful experience, you just can’t shake it off.”

Not so easy

But in an hourlong program with commercial breaks, it’s impossible to show the long, painstaking process that is genealogical research. Some grumble that the shows make genealogy look effortless. “The trouble is television viewers see librarians handing celebrities a folder with their family tree and that’s what they think genealogy is all about,” says Maehrlein of the NYGBS. “I’ve been at it for 35 years, and nobody’s ever rolled out a red carpet for me. ”

What viewers don’t see is the small army of genealogists employed to churn out complete family trees to uncover the most interesting story line during a hectic TV production schedule. For Who Do You Think You Are? more than 30 genealogy specialists spent over nine months researching the family trees, sometimes working seven days a week.

“Some trees were easier than others,” says Anastasia Tyler, a lead researcher at Ancestry.com. “Documents fell into place for Matthew Broderick’s Civil War ancestors and for Brooke Shields, even though her roots go back centuries.”

Others were more difficult, like actress Susan Sarandon’s grandmother who abandoned her family to become a showgirl. “Her grandmother did not want to be found in life, so it was much harder to find her in death,” says Tyler. Holocaust and slavery records pose special challenges but are not impossible to find, she adds. “It’s a myth that you can’t research back into slave records,” she says. “Most African Americans can trace their roots at least as far as the 1870 census.”

But will the rest of us—the non-celebrities—discover equally fascinating tales in our family trees? Yes, says Megan Smolenyak, an expert genealogist who cocaptained the research team on Faces and wrote the Who Do You Think You Are? companion guide to the NBC series. “There’s no such thing as a boring family,” she says. “It’s our job to dig deep enough to find the intriguing stories.”

And for fans like Curtis Bell, the good news is that Who Do You Think You Are? is casting for the second season now. There’s no air date yet, but amateur genealogists can look forward to more inspiration as they watch celebrities on a journey to discovery.

Elizabeth Pope is a writer in Portland, Maine.

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