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Hit 'Roadshow' keeps on trucking for PBS

| Sunday, July 14, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

The items arrive by the thousands, borne on furniture dollies, in Radio Flyer wagons or nestled carefully in owners' arms. The hodge-podge parade consists of paintings, teapots, firearms, mannequins decked out in military uniforms and more. Much more.

Grade-schoolers have show-and-tell for their treasures. The adult counterpart is PBS' “Antiques Roadshow,” which has become an institution as it approaches its 18th season and holds fast as public television's highest-rated series.

That's right: It's No. 1. Not glamorous, romantic “Downton Abbey,” but homespun and earnest “Antiques Roadshow,” where Civil War firearms, Tiffany lamps and autographed baseball cards are the stars. Even Kevin Bacon watches it, which he admits in an on-air PBS promo.

As the show hopscotches from U.S. city to city, each stop draws some 6,000 people and the one or two possessions they believe are — or, wishful thinking, might be — worth a few minutes of TV airtime and a lot of money.

But what they're most eager for is background on their items and validation that their family heirloom or garage-sale find is special, said longtime executive producer Marsha Bemko. It's rare that any piece featured on “Roadshow,” no matter how valuable, ends up being sold.

“People are so excited about what they own and so eager to learn about it,” she said. “Most walk out knowing more than when they came in.”

And the audience gets to share in that enlightenment. “It's a very human and universal thing to understand ourselves and our objects help us to do that,” Bemko said.

As part of an eight-city tour for the new season that begins airing next January, “Roadshow” arrived recently in Anaheim, southeast of Los Angeles and home to Disneyland. For one busy day, the gray cement floor of a convention center became a field of dreams.

Maybe that black-and-white drawing discovered hiding behind granddad's painting will turn out to be a rare 16th-century century print of “The Crucifixion” by Tintoretto (It did, with an estimated post-restoration value of up to $15,000).

“I've always debated with mom whether it was real,” said its owner, 36-year-old Jason (PBS asked that last names be withheld for privacy and security). He figured it had to be a fake because a date, 1569, was carefully noted in one corner.

What did he expect to hear when he tells his mother the news? “I told you so,” he said, smiling.

Then there was the piece plucked from the trash in the 1970s. An appraiser sized it up as folk art by Joseph Cornell, one of his famed shadow-box displays, and worth up to $150,000 at auction if authenticated.

From the sublime to the cheerfully ridiculous, there was the stuffed duck that served as Groucho Marx's prop on his 1950s game show “You Bet Your Life.” Purchased for $250 in 1986, an appraiser gave it an auction value of up to $12,000.

The lucky Anaheim visitors were among those who sent in 24,278 requests for 3,000 pairs of tickets distributed through a random drawing. Local public TV stations have other tickets that serve as donation premiums.

Getting in is one thing; getting on TV requires more gantlet-running.

The action starts at the so-called “triage tables,” where visitors are directed to the best section and experts for their belongings: A 1930s Mickey Mouse wristwatch is sent to collectibles, for example, rather than timepieces.

Orderly lines form for the stations that include rugs and textiles, jewelry, firearms and furniture. Then comes a big hurdle: Will an appraiser consider an item or the story behind it intriguing enough to pitch to the show's producers for an on-camera segment?

It's not necessarily rarity or a big price tag that will guarantee success.

“We are not easy to impress. We've turned down $200,000 items where the guest knows everything. We want storytelling; we're a TV show. We want the drama of the guest learning something,” producer Bemko said.

That's done with viewers in mind. “If you're not excited by the object because you don't know what it is,” she said, you will be after you're schooled in its history.

The crowd is friendly, not competitive, with a fair amount of mutual oohing-and-ahhing. Autograph-seekers extend their admiration to host Mark L. Walberg and volunteer appraisers including twins Leigh and Leslie Keno, who are very familiar to hardcore fans.

Leslie Keno, a Sotheby's veteran, said he values the chance to use material goods as a jumping-off point for lessons in history and culture. Plus, he said, “Antiques Roadshow” is a treasure hunt “that comes to me.”

The series is based on the U.K. version that's in its fourth decade and has spawned versions in other countries. The U.S. one, produced by WGBH Boston and currently in “vintage” reruns, has visited all but a handful of states (hang in there, Maine, Wyoming and New Hampshire). This year's tour started in June with Detroit; Jacksonville, Fla., Boise, Idaho, and Anaheim, and moves on to Knoxville, Tenn., Baton Rouge, La., Kansas City, Mo., and Richmond, Va.

Although Bemko had expected the Southern California stop would draw a fair amount of Hollywood-related memorabilia, she was surprised at those toting it. Two pairs of Buddy Ebsen's shoes, one of them worn by the actor in “The Beverly Hillbillies,” were brought in by his widow. Appraised value for insurance purposes: $20,000.

Happy endings are not guaranteed. There was a collective intake of breath when the sound of china hitting cement echoed through the convention hall, and one visitor was left minus a teacup.

“At least it wasn't the teapot,” a friend offered, consolingly.

Lynn Elber is a staff writer for the Associated Press.

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