Sunday July 7, 2013

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- 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.

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 is produced by WGBH Boston.

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.