Chico State profs go back in time for reality TV series
Thirteen/WNET, the production company that filmed Colonial House for PBS, wants all press inquiries to “cast members” to go through its New York office, but the News & Review and the Heinzes chose to disregard that.When some professors take time off, they travel to an exotic locale or enjoy some mind-easing down time. Don and Carolyn Heinz spent their “vacation” in 1628 colonial New England.
As participants in Colonial House, the sixth installment in PBS’s series that takes a couple of dozen people and thrusts them into a snapshot of history, the Heinzes spent nearly five months in rural Maine, on a “set” constructed to mimic the lives of settlers, right down to how they ate, slept and took care of bodily needs.
For the married Chico State professors, whose prior reality show experience was watching a couple of episodes of Survivor three years ago, it was all about the intellectual experience.
“What interested us as intellectuals was that we could actually enter a historical period that one reads about and lectures about but doesn’t live in,” said Don Heinz, who is partially retired from teaching religious studies. His wife teaches anthropology.
The trip back in time wasn’t even their idea; it was their daughter Susan’s.
“She applied for us, and we didn’t know anything about it,” said Carolyn Heinz. The producers were especially eager to get Don Heinz on board. As a real-life Lutheran pastor, he was cast as the colony’s lay preacher and assistant governor.
The series’ filming ended in October 2003, but before it was over the Heinzes had tried to pull out of the project more than once.
They were already forgoing professors’ wages to participate (PBS paid them $10,000 apiece), and the couple began worrying that they were the only ones in it for the historical experience. “We were afraid we would be the schmucks who were taking it seriously,” Carolyn Heinz said. “Nobody’s heads were in the 17th century.”
Also, the producers told the preacher they would allow him no books, even though his research of the time showed that someone in his position would have a large library. And they told Carolyn Heinz she couldn’t keep a journal.
“It was going to be five months with no books and nothing to write on,” she said, and that was a deal-breaker.
Eventually the producers relented, and the Heinzes were back in—Don with a copy of Pilgrim’s Progress and Carolyn with some sheets of period-correct paper and a feather quill for a pen.
The only other exceptions to historical accuracy were the addition of bug repellant, sunscreen and tampons. The producers allowed toothbrushes after participants threatened to sue if the flavored twigs they were using caused dental bills.
“There were endless discussions and arguments off camera with the production crew,” Don Heinz said.
Because of the head-butting and the close-quarters intensity that drives reality shows, the couple is somewhat worried about how the producers will portray them through editing. It may be PBS, but it’s still television.
The series will air May 17, 18, 24 and 25 from 8 to 10 p.m., and online synopses make frequent mention of the Heinzes, going so far as to derisively characterize Don Heinz, who has extensive knowledge of early religions, as “somewhat of a history buff.”
“We felt to some extent they trivialized us,” he said of the 20- and 30-something producers. “They were annoyed that we were always correcting them and challenging them. I think they probably thought we were something of a pain in the butt.”
The Heinzes are suspending judgment until they see what airs, and they’re not sure they even want friends and family over for their first viewing.
“It was a very intense social community,” Carolyn Heinz said. “But in the end, it is reality television, and what they want is a good show that is going to get a lot of people watching it.
“It was pretty clear the cameras were after the quarrels and the struggles among the [people] rather than authenticity.”
The show’s cast was primed for the experience by spending two weeks at the Plimouth Plantation, where actors, always in character, taught what it was like during the time of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. (The Colonial House residents weren’t supposed to play-act, but rather maintain their own personalities in the context of the time.)
In spite, or perhaps because of, the fact that the Heinzes, who are in their early 60s, were the most senior members of the “cast,” they had little trouble adjusting to the physical demands of colonial life. They didn’t mind washing their hair once a month, eating moldy meat or going without toilet paper.
“Half the world lives that way today,” said Carolyn Heinz, who has resided with less-developed cultures as part of her academic work.
The biggest surprise—and disappointment—for the Heinzes was that the environment stifled rather than piqued creative thought.
“It suppressed creativity,” Carolyn Heinz said. “I felt myself fading intellectually. There was no sharing of ideas. We were hunkered down to endure.”
Two months into the filming, they almost left again, sick of the sheer tedium of it all.
But even through the monotony, drama was unfolding among the colonists.
Don Heinz was irked that, even though it was the law of the time that everyone attend church services, he was forced to deal with a handful of modern-day atheists who refused to play along.
In the midst of what the preacher called “the Sabbath wars,” one participant skipped church to go skinny dipping—an historically unlikely escapade that earned her the punishment of being bound and paraded around by her husband.
It’s that type of clip that the Heinzes are sure will make it to the final edit as the producers condensed 700 hours of film into eight hours of air time.
The Heinzes also had an indentured servant, 24-year-old Jonathon Allen, who did chores by day and slept on a straw mat at the foot of their bed by night.
One day, at a church service, Allen revealed that he was gay—an emotional moment for him in part because he wasn’t “out” in real life.
The news didn’t faze the Heinzes. “You’re talking to two Northern California liberals here,” Don Heinz said. However, it did bother him from the perspective that “it’s not the way anything would have happened in the 17th century.”
Partway into the series, the colonists, all of whom were furnished with “back stories” about their lives in Europe, were joined by a man from the English homeland checking on the “investment.” (The colonists were supposed to be making money off their work on the land.)
That threw the settlement’s structure on its ear, and, when the governor’s family had to leave after a real-life emergency, Don Heinz became acting governor.
“I think I had been chaffing to be governor all along,” he admitted.
The PBS Web site also claims that Carolyn Heinz was “hell-bent on serving as de facto governor via her husband, an arrangement that would have been highly unlikely in the 17th century.”
“I simply had ideas about how things should work,” she countered. “There would have been strong-minded, opinionated women who had to live in patriarchal societies.”
When the cameras weren’t filming, the participants, who included several children, talked freely about the outside world. Many of them became friends.
The Heinzes have kept in touch with Allen, their indentured servant, via e-mail, even helping him get into graduate school. Recently, he drove to Chico from South Carolina for a visit.
At the end of the series’ filming, the cast members were asked if they’d do it again. "There weren’t many people who said yes," Don Heinz said. "I suppose we’re glad we did it, but we would not do it again."