Behind the Scenes with CGS’ Their Roots Are Showing

Therese Hart-Pignotti

[Editor’s Note: Last week we conducted a “long distance” interview via email with Therese Hart-Pignotti, producer of Their Roots Are Showing, an event benefitting the California Genealogical Society and Library. Therese agreed to pull back the curtain a bit on the production and share with our readers here at Hack Genealogy what it takes to pull off a Who Do You Think You Are? type show on a local level.]

We’re excited about this new event produced by the California Genealogical Society and Library – Their Roots Are Showing on October 26, 2013 at the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek, California. Can you tell us a little more about the format of the show?

The show will take place in a 384-seat theater in Walnut Creek, California. The stage will be simple: only the celebrity, a genealogist to help guide us through the information which will be shown on a 12′ x 12′ projection screen overhead/behind them, and our MC, Gianna Suter-Franco, just off to stage right, to keep us moving down each celebrity’s genealogical road. The format will be very much like WDYTYA, but we won’t be able to take the celebrity to their ancestral past. Rather we will bring it to them through video, maps, documents and photos.

CGSL smartly went local when it came to celebrities: Billy Bean, Natalie Coughlin, and Tim “Herb” Alexander. How did you select these three celebrities?

Since we are in the San Francisco Bay Area, we have a large amount of celebrities from which to choose. I started out with a long list and made my first cut by eliminating those who did not have family here in the US prior to 1900. The reasoning behind this move: due to privacy issues it can be difficult to get access to more recent immigration and vital records. Also we wanted a challenge and to show how to research genealogy and family history prior to 1900. The list became shorter, but was still too large to manage. Next I did as much of a pedigree for those on the list and if I saw something that seemed intriguing, they made it to a shorter list. Then I made the calls, sent the letters/emails and then followed up with more emails and phone calls.

Billy Beane was actually my first call and surprisingly, my first confirmation to participate. He is fascinated with genealogy and was actually very eager to learn as much as he could. Tim Alexander was the next to come on board. His family has an interesting twist off the start and he was eager to get some clarity and direction backward. Natalie was the first female to respond with a confirmation. I was really pleased with the trio as I thought it sliced into all genres, interests, and age groups.

More on the selection process: did you recruit celebrities only to find out that their family history stories were “boring”? (if that is even possible!) Did you set out to cover specific areas such as sports, music, arts?

I wanted diversity and that could have been by ethnicity, sex, or other areas. I just didn’t want three football players, or a panel of musicians. I thought it would limit the audience. If we got something for everyone, a champion Olympian, a critically acclaimed and Grammy-nominated musician, and a former Major League Baseball player who just happened to have his adult life story portrayed by Brad Pitt in an Oscar nominated film, how could we go wrong?

What was the reaction of the three celebrities participating? Can you give us hint as to each of their family history finds?

None of the celebrities know the depth of what we are going to show on the night. is intentional so we could have a true and honest reaction. A brief outline giving nothing away has been approved by all three and here is what I can share:

Billy Beane has a very healthy interest in genealogy and was very eager to find out more, more, more. His father comes from North Carolina as do a long line of Beanes and other paternal surnames. Billy has lived most of his life in California and has no real connection to the south and he will be surprised and warmed by the stories and lives of his North Carolina roots. We will also be exploring his mother’s roots which represent early immigrants who came from over an ocean and north of our border.

Tim Alexander’s family on his mother’s side has deep Appalachian roots. Many of those areas didn’t have vital records during the research time period so we are using DNA to solve the riddles on that side of his family. This will be fascinating for him as it is very detailed and exciting in its findings. His father’s side has both early American as well as European immigration . . .  and he knows nothing about it. For him it will be a true discovery of who he is!

Natalie Coughlin’s family is as diverse as an American family can be. Her father is a true Irishman with Irish immigrants from the Chicago area and back to the Green Isle. Her mother’s side is Filipino mixed with American roots. The stories we plan to share during the event will be heart-warming and inspiring. The making of an American champion is shown in the stories of her family’s discipline, dedication and patriotism.

Can you divulge info on any other celebrities – local or national – that came close to the cut? Anyone we would know?

There was a lot of interest from many celebrities, but “the one that got away” and which stands out most for me turned out to be one of the most amazing days in my life. It was in early February and I was driving home for lunch when my phone rang. A gentleman asked if I could hold for his mother who would like to speak to me about a letter she received. Before I could get my head around who I was about to talk to, a friendly and sweet woman was on the phone thanking me for thinking of her, but telling me that she would be unable to participate due to health reasons. She wanted to make sure I knew she was a proud native Californian. It was Shirley Temple Black and it took days for me to come out of the “Shirley Temple just called me” cloud that I was on.

It seems like this type of event would be a major undertaking for even a for-profit concern, let alone a genealogy society. How long have you been working on the event? Do you have any tips for other genealogy societies that might want to hold a similar event in their own backyards?

We started in November 2012. We have a leadership team of five, and each member has their own area that they oversee. The research has been led by Linda Okazaki. She has managed at least a dozen researchers putting in hundreds of hours research and also developing script outlines. Shannon Reese and Kathy Jones are handling the video production and final script work. Richard Kehoe is organizing the ushers/volunteers, auction and set design for the event. In addition to this group we have the CGS volunteers that work in media relations and blog work (Kathryn Doyle being one of them), and education that have all pitched in and taken part in getting the word out. It truly is a collaborative effort.

For other genealogical societies who are endeavoring on a the same type of event my only suggestion would be to find an interesting group to have on stage; something for everyone was really the thought behind it and to use an “all hands on deck” approach. Tap into your best resources – the members of your group! CGS has the best and most talented people out there. We are all equally passionate about genealogy and with that great research happened which has turned into the stories which will unfold on the night.

Finally, after the event, when your feet are propped up and you’re relishing in the success . . . what do you think the impact of holding an event like Their Roots Are Showing will have on the local community?

The goal for us is to get people excited about looking backward and bring them into our society to see if their own roots are showing!

Anything else you’d like to add about Their Roots Are Showing?

Our tickets are on sale through the Lesher box office: http://www.lesherartscenter.org/california-genealogical-societys-their-roots-are-showing/ and we hope to see you there!

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