Wednesday, August 22, 2012

My Antiques Roadshow Experience

by Dan Cunneen

My gal-pal Fumiyo drives a Subaru Forrester and because Subaru is a corporate sponsor of PBS’s Antiques Roadshow, she received an offer for VIP tickets to the Seattle taping of the program. She kindly asked me if I’d like to go and since I’m a Roadshow fan, I enthusiastically said yes. The VIP tickets would get us a backstage tour, line skipping privileges, and access to the Subaru “Relaxation Station” with refreshments and massages at the end of the day.

When Fumiyo got the tickets there were instructions and tips for the attendees. The two most important things that stood out to me were that ticket holders could bring two items (no cars, fossils, coins, bicycles, explosives or glass fire extinguishers) and they advised wearing comfortable shoes.

Fumiyo had some difficulty choosing what to bring for appraisal. She had a neighbor that died years ago and left her some jewelry, so she finally decided on an old sterling silver ring. Since Fumiyo only chose one item, I was left with three. Now it was my turn to choose.

Being a bit of a record collector, I had several albums that I felt would be good contenders. But since it was so easy to use eBay or to find out their value, I didn’t see the point of getting them appraised on the Roadshow. I have an original From Russia with Love movie poster from 1964, but again, I already knew its approximate value. I had two 1947 vintage United Nations posters that I bought at a garage sale for a dollar that I thought could be options. (The UN posters extolled the virtues of world cooperation and one in particular was so cool that I had it framed.) I didn’t know their value, but I did know the Antiques Roadshow would be an all day affair, so I was apprehensive about carrying around large fragile items all day. I decided against the posters.

I have a first edition copy of Strength to Love by Martin Luther King, but it was a Book Club edition, so it had little value. My Mom heard Dave Sedaris on NPR reading Santaland Diaries in 1992 and sent him a fan letter. Sedaris wrote back and the two corresponded for over 10 years. My Mom gave me the letters (in one he describes meeting with a book publisher while he was still cleaning houses for a living). Since David Sedaris isn’t dead yet, I figured the value of the letters would be minimal. I’m still patiently waiting for the Mark Twain of our generation to die so I can cash in.

To be honest, my primary motivation for picking items was their ability to get me on the show and the more I inventoried my stuff, the more I kept coming back to the records.

I ended up choosing an early “Blank Back” pressing of Introducing The Beatles on Vee-Jay Records that I knew was worth around $500 and an RCA-Victor promotional compilation from 1957 with an Elvis Presley track on it that was going for about $300 on the web. My last choice was a LP on Capitol by country swinger Hank Thompson called Songs of the Brazos Valley. I made this choice because Hank and his entire band had signed it. Since he wasn’t really a collectable artist, it was difficult to find a reliable value of the Hank Thompson record, but I figured it was worth about $100. I got all these records from thrift stores, so my investment was minimal.

The day before the taping I heard a producer interviewed on the radio promoting the event. She advised bringing items to be appraised that were truly unusual and that you had difficulty finding information about on your own. Hearing this made me reconsider the records. I did another quick inventory of my stuff in my head, but I just couldn’t think of anything that fit the producer’s criteria, so I stuck with the three records. Because the Beatles’ record was the most valuable, I did a web search for “Antiques Roadshow, Beatles record” and found that the show had previously featured a still-sealed copy of the Yesterday…and Today “Butcher Cover” that was valued at $10,000. I hung on to the hope that since they were popular, the Roadshow would highlight another record by The Beatles.

The taping was to take place the Washington State Convention and Trade Center. During the mid-2000s I made a habit of slipping inside meetings and conventions in downtown Seattle, nabbing lunches and then writing about it. Since the WSCTC was one of my prime targets, I was quite familiar with the layout of the facility. One the big day, Fumiyo and I entered the building, strode through the huge concrete and glass atrium and headed up the escalator to the 4th floor. My old nemesis, “Lionel Ritchie” the green-jacked usher, was on guard at the doorway to the giant room, but this time I didn’t need to sneak in or use the fake convention badges I had made back in the day. I sensed a flash of recognition in Lionel’s eyes as I passed him by.

The instructions that came with our tickets said to check in at the VIP table where a representative would guide us though our “line skipping privileges”. Unfortunately the person at the check-in table didn’t recognize our VIP tickets, so she directed us to another table with a long line of people. During my lunch stealing adventures I learned very quickly that if I acted like I knew where I was going, I was usually allowed to go there. With that in mind, I grabbed Fumiyo’s hand and we made a determined dash for the next room, passing hundreds of people and thereby instituting our own line skipping privileges.

We rushed into the next giant 40,000 square foot room and were met by a long snaking line of perhaps 500 or more people. We settled in for a long wait.

I was struck by the overwhelming colorless nature of the crowd. Everywhere I looked there were Caucasian people with gray hair and khaki shorts. (Oh, those khaki shorts! They were far and wide.) I shouldn’t judge with my white skin and graying hair, but I will anyway.

Of course I had watched the Antiques Roadshow before and the casual-bordering-on-shabby clothes people wore on the show always bugged me. It looked to me like the typical person featured on the program had been sitting around in their backyard at a barbeque and then suddenly looked at their watch and said, “Oh my gosh Mable, we’re late for the Roadshow! Let’s go!” I swear I even saw a guy with a mustard stain on his shirt once.

As I looked around the room I noticed a few people had obviously planned their outfits in anticipation of being picked to be on the show. One stylish couple in their late 30s had kind of a hipster patrician look that stood out. The guy had a vintage straw hat, a summery seersucker suit and tie along with a pair of Keds sneakers for a dash of lighthearted flair. His lady wore a vintage flowery sundress, leather sandals and a wide brimmed summer hat. The dressed-up people were in the extreme minority though. It was mostly a vast sea of oldsters in shorts, running shoes, American flag t-shirts and baseball hats. (I wore gray suede euro-high-tops, Diesel jeans, a vintage powder blue and white-striped Le Tigre polo shirt and a sky blue Faconnable Harrington-style jacket. I call it the “contrived casual” look.)

Despite the standard American fashion tragedies, the overall vibe in the room was very friendly. It was a new adventure for everybody, so people were talking to each other and excitedly showing what they had brought for appraisal. It kind of reminded me of the sociable communal feeling one gets when experiencing a power outage with a large group of people or September 11, 2001.

The couple behind us had a woven hat made out of wood branches and straw that looked at least a hundred years old. The guy told us he had found it at a swap meet and despite doing a lot of research; they couldn’t find any information on it. The hat looked Native American and seemed like the real deal to me. I told him that he just might end up on television. He and his wife both said they only wanted to find out how much it was worth and they had no interest in going on the show. I just thought, “If you don’t want to be on the show, why are you here?”

They asked what I had, so I pulled the records out of my backpack. They and a few other people around us seemed impressed with The Beatles record, so I felt like I might actually have a chance to make the cut. Most of the items people brought for appraisal were hidden away inside bags, boxes or carts, but there was some bigger stuff you could see like vintage wagons, lamps, paintings and old signs. One unlucky fellow brought a glass fire extinguisher, so he was tackled by security and hauled away screaming through an unmarked door.

As we all know, Public Television in the U.S. is not really public. There are corporate underwriters for most, if not all PBS programs. That said, the corporate presence inside the giant space was refreshingly minimal, consisting of just two large signs hung high on the wall. I was a bit surprised that the corporate sponsors of the Roadshow were Subaru and Liberty Mutual Insurance. Judging from the crowd, I would've thought Lipitor and Depends Undergarments would be more appropriate.

After about an hour of waiting, we finally got to the head of the line. Here there were several tables each with an appraiser that determined which category your item belonged. We were given three cards that said “Collectibles” and a “Jewelry” card for Fumiyo’s silver ring.

The next room was as big as the first, but this one had the Antiques Roadshow set up smack dab in the middle. The set consisted of dozens of television lights hanging above a dozen or so 15 foot tall partitions standing in a circle about 30 yards across. The partitions were spaced with room for people to enter the unseen inner sanctum. The backside of each partition had a sign with the name of an appraisal category. Long lines of people stretched out from each entryway, so it would be another long wait.

We walked a few feet and were met by a wall of KCTS volunteer guides. We approached a genial looking lady and she asked which category we had. As she escorted us, the volunteer said the two longest lines were for our items, collectibles and jewelry. We chose to wait in the collectibles line first.

After we got in line I noticed that there was no one waiting in the sports memorabilia line. It must have been a Seattle thing, because I can’t believe that would happen in Boston or New York. The Seattle Storm notwithstanding, there hasn’t been a major championship team in these parts for over 30 years. So it comes as no surprise that one could strut right to the head of the sports memorabilia line with a Roger Clemmons steroid syringe and autographed blood-stained jersey and get it quickly appraised.

After another hour waiting in the queue (which of course seemed to move more slowly the closer we got to the beginning), we were finally ushered into the judgment chamber. We were immediately directed to wait in still another line.

The inside of the set had long rectangular tables ringing all the way around the outside of the perimeter. There were large signs with the appraisal categories hanging on each partition. In the center of the Stonehenge-like circle there were more hanging lights and four large television cameras pointed at the spot where the filmed appraisals took place. The collectibles table where we were waiting was to the left of the cameras, about 30 feet away from us, so we could only see the back of the guest and appraiser as they discussed a large painting.

Thankfully our time in this line was much shorter, but when we got to the front of the latest line, the guy took one look at my records and sent us to still another line nearby. As we were waiting, a woman came over to our line and stood in an awkward position that was neither in front of us nor behind. She had seen a different appraiser in the collectibles line that had given her a card with her name handwritten on it. The guy that sent us to this last appraiser didn’t give me a card and the lady plainly noticed. When another couple was sent over to our line, they were quite logically confused where the actual end of the line was. I spoke up right away and told them that the end was behind her and I pointed to the first lady. The lady smacked her lips and started to say something about the card, but I politely, but firmly cut her off, “A different guy sent us over here and he didn’t give us a card.” That shut her up.

I recognized several of the appraisers from the show working at the tables near us. There was the tomboyish sports lady, Leila Dunbar (not very busy), the pony-tailed vintage toy guy, Noel Barrett, and the shorthaired collectibles lady with glasses, Kathleen Guzman. I looked around, but the Keno Brothers were nowhere in sight.

I was next in line and the guy currently being appraised had a stack of movie stills that was about a foot high. My knees were really starting to hurt from all the standing, so I was worried that he and the appraiser were going to discuss each picture one by one. Mercifully, they finished quickly and it was my turn.

I stepped up to the table and was met by a pretty brunette in her early 30s with gorgeous eyes. It was Laura Woolley. Laura had a Joyce DeWitt cum Dawn Wells thing going on that was quite fetching. (I have always preferred the Janet Wood/Mary-Ann type to the Chrissy Snow/Ginger Grant type. I like both Marcia and Jan Brady though.)

We shook hands and I handed her my records. She was most interested in The Beatles LP of course. Laura looked over the record and when she turned it over I needlessly pointed out that the back cover was completely blank. She went to the iPad sitting in front of her, typed in a few words and then turned the device toward me. She had navigated to the site and the record’s average sales price was... get this, $500! She did the same with RCA compilation ($300, as I already knew). She told me that Hank Thompson album wasn’t as collectible as the other two, but since it was signed by the whole band, it could be worth as much as $150 to the right person. Again, just about what I had figured.

Laura asked where I got the records and I told her I got them at thrift stores. She was surprised and said that she loved the look of old records like the Whipped Cream and Other Delights album by Herb Alpert. What? Whipped Cream and Other Delights? Herb Alpert? Did she really just say that? I couldn’t believe my ears. Right away I told her I had 40 copies of the album hanging on the wall of my basement music room. (Translation: “I’m a musician, baby”) She told me Herb Alpert has a restaurant in Bel Air, California called Vibrato that she loved. I told her that Delores Erickson, the model from the Whipped Cream cover, lived in Washington State and was just in Seattle signing copies of the iconic record a couple days before. We really bonded on the Herb, so that was very unexpected and cool for me. Before I left, Laura told me they were the best records she had seen all day. I was happy about that, but where was the confetti dropping from the ceiling? Where was the excited producer ushering me into the green room for the make-up session and pre-interview before my taping? Sadly, it was all nowhere.

As Fumiyo and I headed toward the exit, I asked her if she wanted to go back out to wait in the jewelry line. I have to admit I was relieved when she said no. In retrospect, I wish we had walked around the set while we had the chance. We could have annoyingly wandered back and forth in the background while they were filming a segment or we could have bugged one of the star appraisers for their autograph.

We still had one more ride at the end of the Antiques Roadshow experience though: The Feedback Room.

While the credits run at the end of the show, participants stand in front of a camera and tell where they’re from and give a short description of their experience on the show. After signing my release, I waited in my final line of the day. (Fumiyo is a shy girl, so she adamantly refused to even go near the Feedback Room) The guy in the large tent-sized booth took my release form and gave me the drill. He said, “Action” and I looked in the camera and said, “I’m Dan from Seattle and I brought this record I got a thrift store by The Beatles - which I heard is Ringo Starr’s first band. Today I found out it’s worth $500!” The cameraman stopped taping and seemed to be amazed by the value of the record. “Wow man, that’s cool!” he said.

Fumiyo and I had been waiting in line for about 4 hours at this point and we were quite hungry, so we were looking forward to Subaru’s Relaxation Station hospitality room. We were greeted by excessively friendly Subaru staff and then given wristband and a questionnaire that asked for personal information along with several questions about our car buying habits. Not wanting to be bothered by Subaru in the future, I put down a fake name and email address. We turned in the questionnaires and then the lady asked, “Are you both Subaru owners?” I pointed to Fumiyo, disavowing ownership of the brand. Fumiyo said proudly, “I have a 2005 Forrester XT.”

“Oh wow, the turbo! Great!” she replied and then reached under the table and brought out a large canvas bag fairly brimming with swag. She reached under the table again and brought up a much smaller plastic bag and handed it to me. “And this is for the non-Subaru owner.”

We asked about the VIP tour and the lady said she would look into it for us. The tours were supposed to take place in the morning and it was afternoon by now, so it wasn’t looking very likely.

The Relaxation Station had about 10 round tables with about 15 or 20 other Subaru VIPs scattered around chatting away. There were also two massage chairs with a masseuse working at each one. There was a large television quietly playing an endless loop of Subaru commercials in the corner and a couple rectangular tables against the opposite wall with the food. We found a couple open chairs and went straight for the snacks. There was coffee, tea and bottled water, cheese and crackers and sliced bread with various savory spreads. Not great, but not bad either. We ate and dug into our gift bags. Fumiyo got a nice t-shirt, a flashlight, a keychain, coffee mug, poster and some brochures. I got a keychain and brochures.

After about 15 minutes, a gray haired and serious WSCTC staffer wearing a black waiter-type uniform and white shirt appeared through a service door pulling a cart laden with trays of cookies, brownies and cupcakes. He leisurely took all the trays off the cart, carefully set them on the table and arranged, and then rearranged them. The man was clearly aware that we were all salivating over the baked goods and there was no question that he was taking his own sweet time placing the sugary snacks on the table. His actions were so obvious that I got into a conversation about his bizarre behavior with a middle-aged woman sharing our table. We were watching with amusement as the man impotently asserted the only means of control he had over his pitiless situation when a couple of our fellow sweet-toothed Subaru snackers attempted to grab a treat from the table. They were swiftly and sternly shushed away by the power hungry man in the penguin suit. Finally, after about five minutes of dawdling, Penguin-man disappeared and we all dove in.

Fumiyo was quite excited about getting a massage, but I wasn’t interested in being poked and prodded in public by a stranger. When Fumiyo saw that one of the chairs was free, she started to leave the table. Before she left, I told her to ask the masseuse if they provide happy endings. She laughed.

Although Fumiyo was a little disappointed that we never got the VIP tour and I was bummed that I didn’t get to be filmed, it was totally worth the time spent. The 2012 Seattle Antiques Roadshow will air in January 2013. You can bet where I’ll be the night it airs.


The Seattle episodes aired in the spring of 2013 and, much to my chagrin, I was  not featured on the Feedback Room portion of the show.