A pied-à-terre in Paris. A Manhattan penthouse. A forgotten savings account with a seven-figure balance. These are the things we daydream about inheriting. But the stuff that has made Strange Inheritance a runaway hit for Fox Business Network—it launched in January as the highest-rated debut in the network’s history and has already been renewed—is something else entirely.
For its first season, host Jamie Colby crisscrossed the United States over eight months meeting people who had been bequeathed unusual heirlooms, like the world’s tallest thermometer, the largest private collection of bugs, 200 rusting jalopies, a crocodile ranch or a bullet-riddled tree stump dating back to the Civil War.
Colby, who describes the show as a mix of Ancestry.com and Antiques Roadshow, has found herself tearing up on more than one episode. “Even if the inheritance is as strange as an insect collection,” she says, “these are real families struggling with figuring out what their loved ones would want them to do. Keep it, sell it, try to carry on?”
A former entertainment lawyer whose clients included the likes of Joan Rivers, Johnny Carson and John Travolta, Colby was a reporter for local New York news stations before she became a correspondent for CNN and then went on to join Fox News Channel in 2003. Last spring she gave up her co-anchor chair on America’s News Headquarters to host Strange Inheritance. After more than a decade covering major news stories, like the 9/11 terror attacks, the Southeast Asia tsunami and the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, she was eager for the chance to share the authentic stories of everyday people.
“When you think of a reality TV show, you think of hard-to-believe staged shenanigans,” she says, “but my experience was so pure and real, heartfelt and heartwarming. You’re watching families you would never have met otherwise, in places like Miles City, Montana, or Portales, New Mexico, going through emotional and sometimes financial upheaval, and being forthright and honest about it.”
Some of the inheritances even turn their benefactors into instant small-business owners.
In this week’s episode, 23-year-old Renee DiAugustine-Bower of Berwick, Pennsylvania (population, less than 11,000), inherits a nearly 150-year-old opera house turned movie theater from her grandfather. It’s in ill repair, with seats that have so little cushioning people bring their own pillows to sit on. But her grandfather’s dying words were, “Don’t let the theater close,” so DiAugustine-Bower is determined to keep it open.
When Colby asks her what she’ll do if she can’t make a go out of the theater, DiAugustine-Bower’s response is unequivocal: “Failure isn’t in my vocabulary and it’s just not an option.”
In the show, we see DiAugustine-Bower’s difficult next few months. The reel-to-reel projector needs to be replaced with a digital one, at a cost of $70,000. The furnace breaks down. And, then, in a turn worthy of a horror movie, people begin to fall ill and pass out in the theater. The staff struggles to cope as 17 theater patrons are taken to the local hospital.
Colby, whose father was one of the original Dale Carnegie speakers early in his career and who shared with his kids his belief in “the self-made man,” finds the stories of accidental entrepreneurs like DiAugustine-Bower refreshing.
“Some people are driven by money when they start a business,” she says, “some are driven by notoriety. But Renee and the other people who inherited businesses from parents or grandparents are driven by something more meaningful: legacy. And what often starts out feeling like a burden, becomes an opportunity.”
Strange Inheritance airs Mondays at 9 p.m. Eastern on Fox Business Network.