On the road again
On a sultry July morning at BREC’s Magnolia Mound Plantation, Mark Walberg’s head is bowed, eyes fixed on his smartphone, fingers changing what is on the screen. He notices someone approaching and looks up.
“What can you tell me about Lafayette?” Walberg asked.
Pause. Blink. The Revolutionary War general?
It’s a question rarely asked anywhere but a history class. But, for the host of “Antiques Roadshow,” it’s just another bit of last-minute show prep.
When public broadcasting’s popular show came to Baton Rouge for the first time, most attention fell on the appraisal event at the Baton Rouge River Center, where 3,000 people brought artifacts in hopes of learning they were priceless. For Walberg, the production crew and some of the show’s experts, the visit also meant preparing three short segments that feature aspects of the host city’s history. One will be included in each of the three hourlong shows that will be produced from the local visit.
“We do most of our shows from a convention center, you look around and, ‘Where am I?’” said Executive Producer Marsha Bemko. “We want you to know we’re in Baton Rouge, and that’s one of the reasons we chose this place and the two other segments.”
Other segment topics include the Port Hudson State Historic Site, where Walberg and appraiser Rafael Eledge discuss the Civil War siege and a rare hand grenade from that era, and the LSU Museum of Art, where Walberg and appraiser Kathleen Harwood discuss artist Clementine Hunter.
The focus at Magnolia Mound, in addition to the 18th-century home and grounds, are two American Campeche chairs. Before taping began, Pat Bacot, curator emeritus for Friends of Magnolia Mound, spoke with appraiser Leigh Keno about the chairs, which have curved seats and reclining backs. Thomas Jefferson referred in his letters to such chairs.
“Jefferson would have really liked it because this form had a classical look,” Keno said.
“He was a classicist, but I think the real thing is when he refers to it as his siesta chair,” Bacot said. “It’s comfy.”
As was everyone on this day, much to the surprise of Walberg, who lives in California, and the “Antiques Roadshow” crew, who are based in Boston.
“This is a first that we come to an antebellum home that’s air-conditioned,” said Walberg, in his ninth year as host of the show, which is in its 18th season. “I was all prepared for hot and muggy today.
“We went out to dinner last night. I joke that my friends from Boston have a seven-degree swing of comfort zone. If it’s anywhere between 72 and 78 or so, they’re OK, but if it’s 80 they’re going to wilt.”
Raised in Florence, S.C., Walberg is made of sterner stuff, and he enjoys it when the show ventures into sweet-tea country.
“There is absolutely a flavor specific to where we go, and the southern cities where we go — Knoxville, Baton Rouge, Corpus Christi — have their own flavor,” he said. “We try to feature the things that are indicative of the area.
“Normally, a city has, ‘Well, you’ve got to see this, this and this.’ We don’t go to those places. We go to places that you probably wouldn’t normally go, but it can be quintessential, and today will be quintessential. This is something I think all our viewers will get a kick out of. It’s a setting that has to be shown if you come to Louisiana.
“I live in California, but my heart is in the South,” Walberg said.
And in these segments. The appraisers, the artifacts and their owners are stars of the show, but Walberg is more involved in the segments about the host city’s past.
“This is a majority of my work, getting out in the field and doing these rolling pieces,” Walberg said. “The appraisers and the people collect items, and I collect memories, because mine are all the people I meet and the places I go. It’s not as much about the artifacts, although I love it. It’s really more about the memory of the experience.”
But even in the middle of taping one of these segments, the appraisal event is always on everyone’s mind.
“You never know what’s going to turn up,” Keno said. “We’re out there looking for treasures. … You just never know.”