Friday, March 12, 2010

The "New" Celebrity Craze

When I started this genealogy blog, I thought it would be unique, different, interesting and informative to many.  As a professional genealogist, I had tons of knowledge and tips to share.  But I soon realized that while I had been researching for thirty years, the face of genealogy had changed. 

Thirty years ago, genealogy seemed to be a Bastion of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.  The Mormons had been microfilming church and civil records all over the world since World War II ended.  They had the largest genealogical library in the world and had collected more family records than any other organization. The church encouraged research, not just to its own members, but to all interested.

That has not changed. The LDS Church continues in its commitment to family history.

What has changed is the advent of the Internet and the huge influx of people interested in their ancestors.

Personally, I can't imagine growing up without knowing who my grandparents and great-grandparents were--where they lived and how they died, what they looked like, what they did, what they said.  It was ingrained in me from as early as I can remember.  It's always astonishing to me when someone can't give me the names of their grandparents.

The "new" craze in celebrity ancestry right now doesn't surprise me and it really isn't new at all. It seems new to the public because of the hit TV series currently being broadcast, one on PBS (Faces of America) and the other on NBC (Who Do You Think You Are?).  Americans have always been obsessed with stars and here is the most important reason:

America has never had Royalty!

The royal families of Europe, Russia and Asia have always been well documented with massive quantities written on their histories, their families and descendants. It is obviously one reason most Americans want to trace their family back to royalty--because then the work is done--and they have a claim to fame.

For centuries the commoners of Europe have been preoccupied with the lives of their royals and their aristocracy.  How did they dress?  It set the standards for fashion.  How did they recreate? Polo, grambling, glamorous balls--all amusements of the rich and famous.  What about their personal lives?  Okay, I won't go there.

Celebrities in America--Movie and TV stars, pro athletes, music personalities, politicans--these people are America's Royals.  We buy magazines and tabloids by the millions, watch ET (Entertainment Tonight) and talk shows, all to find out more about our  Royals.  Their names are always in the headlines.

It is not surprising that we also want to learn about their ancestors!

Furthermore, it isn't surprising to me that the series Who Do You Think Your Are? actually started in the U.K. in 2004.  Americans are not very original.

Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr. of Faces of America and his earlier African American Lives, seems to have invented the celebrity genealogy trend.  But, pardon me, I beg to differ. 

I work for a genealogy company which did genealogy for the "Stars" clear back in the late 1970s after Roots gave African-Americas a sense of their heritage.  Soon after Roots aired, music producer Quincy Jones approached my boss about having his own roots traced.  Thus began his remarkable journey, as well as ours. 

A wall chart in our office charts Jones's ancestors and all the descendants of his ancestores (his cousins) who descend from his common ancestors.  People such as Johnny Carson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Prince Charles, Lady Diana, George Bush, etc.--all cousins to Quincy.

Quincy was so enthralled, he encouraged his friends to explore their lineages and even paid for many relucant participants.  Our company researched Bill Cosby, Michael Jackson, Oprah Winfrey, Jane Fonda, Ted Turner among numbers of other celebrities.  This was way back in the days before the Internet!

I have heard Henry Louis Gates, Jr. interviewed several times.  He has yet to acknowledge the role of my former boss in the research on his productions.  He was not once recognized the role of the LDS Church in collecting, microfilming and preserving family records.  It miffs me a little.  He seems to claim all the glory and accolates.  In my humble opinion, the man has an ego.

I admit to anxiously awaiting each new episode of Who Do You Think You Are?  I am glad this program (sponsored by is concentrating on only one star per installment.  It leads to more continuity than was seen in Faces of America which jumped from one person to the next. 

What do you like about the two series I mentioned?  Which one do/did you like better?  Please tell me your opinion.


Travelin'Oma said...

I haven't watched Faces of America, but I'm fascinated by your story. It is very annoying when credit is not given, especially after so much research. I'm sure you feel a connection to the people you found and connected. I'm certain they know who you are.

Olive's Granddaughter said...

Marty, I knew you'd be the only one to read and respond to my blog. It's obvious I didn't make myself very clear. The Co. I work for USED to do research on the stars back in the '80s and '90s. My former boss (she left the Co.) worked on the PBS series for Dr. Gates. I didn't have anything to do with the series and have never met any of the celebrities! Sorry for the misunderstanding. (I'm a terrible writer.)

Nancy said...

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Judith Richards Shubert said...

I think you have said it very well. The face of genealogy has changed dramatically over the years. I enjoy watching the series on NBC and have not seen the one on PBS. But like you, I enjoy the fact that each episode is dedicated to only one individual's search. Thanks for writing this article and reminding everyone of the role the company took in tracing Quincy's heritage. I believe with each new generation there is a segment that seems to think they are the first ones to think of something, the first ones to accomplish something, or the first ones to enlighten us all!