Genealogy Takes Center Stage on TV
Two shows help spark interest and shed light on researching family history
Curtis Bell has a bad case of “roots fever.” He developed symptoms of a genealogy addiction after watching every episode of two recent prime-time television shows: PBS’s Faces of America and Who Do You Think You Are? on NBC.
Bell picked up the basics watching celebrities explore their roots: Start with yourself and work backward, interview elderly relatives and use online databases to check vital records, the census, newspaper obituaries, ship-passenger lists and military documents. His first step was tracking down older family members, including a 74-year-old second cousin. “He’s like a living encyclopedia—he remembers names, dates and locations,” says Bell, 46, a pharmaceutical industry consultant from Nyack, N.Y.
Viewers paying close attention can pick up more complicated tools. In an episode featuring football star Emmitt Smith, Bell learned about the 1860 slave schedules available on Ancestry.com that he hopes will help him trace his large family. “One of my ancestors, way back, may have had 31 children by three sisters,” says Bell. “I want to verify the oral history.”
Already nearly 87 percent of Americans say they are interested in discovering more about their family history, according to Harris Interactive. Local societies and libraries have seen evidence of mounting interest. With the interest in the TV shows about genealogy, “we immediately got an upsurge of phone calls and people ringing the doorbell asking how to find their family history,” says Lauren Maehrlein, director of education at the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society (NYGBS).
Formats vary on the two shows; both are still available for online viewing. Faces is more of a “big reveal.” Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates presents detailed family trees to a diverse group of well-known names, such as Meryl Streep, Stephen Colbert and Mehmet Oz, M.D. Director Mike Nichols learns family lore is true—Albert Einstein was a cousin. Actress Eva Longoria finds out her roots on the Texas border reach back 10 generations. Cellist Yo-Yo Ma, who knew little about his family, is stunned to receive an 18th-century genealogy that survived China’s Cultural Revolution hidden in the wall of a house.
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.