‘Genealogy Roadshow’ samples Philly ancestry, sifting for drama

 Executive Producer Stuart Krasnow brings Genealogy Roadshow to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Executive Producer Stuart Krasnow brings Genealogy Roadshow to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

A new TV show about family histories just finished shooting in Philadelphia. “Genealogy Roadshow,” preparing for its second season, is similar to the popular “Antiques Roadshow,” which visits a different city each episode to find stories in the attics and closets of its residents. Instead of old vases and furniture, “Genealogy Roadshow” reveals discoveries about people’s anscestors.

“We live in a world where you can Google anything from your smartphone,” said executive producer Stuary Krasnow of the program to be broadcast on PBS. “I love that the answers that we give on this show, you can’t Google.”

The Philadelphia episodes were shot at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and the Franklin Institute. Months beforehand, people submitted questions related to their family tree. The show’s team of genealogical researchers go to work finding answers and, more importantly, dramatic surprises that play well on TV.

At the shoot, those discoveries are revealed to the participants.

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“We have the beginning. We have the middle. We know the ending, but we don’t know how it’s going to play in real time with somebody,’ said Krasnow. “It’s fun to throw the football in the air and see what’s going to happen.”

There are two other popular genealogy TV shows: “Know Your Roots” (PBS) and “Who Do You Think You Are”(NBC).  Both track the family histories of celebrities. “Genealogy Roadshow,” modeled after an Irish TV show of the same name, researches largely unknown people.

The stories are TV-ready, structured on a series of dramatic twists and revelations. Producers are cagey about revealing surprises in the upcoming broadcast; past shows featured a woman in Austin who learned she is both Jewish and a Daughter of the Replublic of Texas (her DNA shows Ashkenazi anscestry, and documents show a direct relative fought in the 1836 Texas Revolution); another participant had an African-American anscestor who was a free landowner who also owned African-American slaves.

Philadelphia is alluring to the show’s poducers for its historical richness as the birthplace of the nation, but it wasn’t Independence Hall and Valley Forge that offered the richest storytelling. The lower- and middle class neighborhoods contained the stories of soliders and immigrants passing through history.

“They were around when things were happening, whether the Revolutionary War, the war of 1812, or the civil war, or African Americans migrating from the south to the north,” said on-air geneologist Kenyatta Berry. “Looking into those stories, you have to know the history of it.”

The next season of Genealogy Road Show, which airs in January, will also visit St. Louis and New Orleans.

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