In general, podcasts gravitate to one end of the order and chaos spectrum. You either have the freewheeling, roundtable discussion style of many interview and comedy podcasts, or the carefully crafted, edited and produced shows that walk you through the story. The Past and the Curious, one of my favorite shows for families, neatly rejects that polarity, making a show that feels at both once carefully planned and produced and like a session around the backyard firepit. Produced by Mick Sullivan, the Manager of Youth and Family Programs at the Frazier History Museum in Louisville, Kentucky, each show shares a couple stories from America’s idiosyncratic past, and ends with a song—typically also pulled from the margins of America’s history—from Sullivan.
It’s a ton of fun, and I was happy to chat with Mick about his work with kids, how he picks his stories, and what happened to a Revolutionary War also-ran.
So to start off, let's start with The Past & the Curious origin story? You work as a museum educator. Could you tell me a little bit about that work, and how it (or if it) informed your starting of the show?
I work at the Frazier History Museum in Louisville, KY. Before that I managed my family’s music store and taught music lessons. After being at the museum for a while I wound up in a position where I was responsible for creating and delivering lots of history lessons to kids on all sorts of subjects – middle ages to American Revolution, slavery to prohibition. Though I’ve worked with young folks for most of my life, I didn’t really have much training in this, exactly. But I think that was a good thing, in a way.
I just love learning and sharing and I’ve been able to build on that passion every day. Our summer camps, which I oversee, are some of the most successful and beloved in our city and we have so much fun it’s unbelievable. Parents are flabbergasted that their kids enjoy the history experience so much. We’ve changed a lot of perspectives. And I have an incredible amount of fun!
Working at the museum must have really influenced your approach to storytelling.
Through the years I’ve collected so many stories that have been tested on elementary-age kids that it seemed a shame not to share them with a broader audience. I truly, truly believe that when people learn about figures like Nelly Bly, or Henry “Box” Brown, they are affected positively. We need to know where we’ve come from, how people of the past lived and coped, learned and hoped.
Likewise, I love sharing music from the past, which I wanted to do with every episode. Everyone should hear songs from what we call the American Songbook. It’s part of our collective heritage! And good stuff never goes out of style.
How do you decide what stories to take on? "History" obviously has more than a couple of stories to tell. What is it about a particular story that sparks something in you where it feels like a Past and the Curious story?
There are several types of stories that I love and feel are a perfect fit for The Past and The Curious. "Firsts" are always great—and that can apply to something huge and intangible like the first Americans to take a boat through the Grand Canyon (it's awesome, the leader only had one arm!), or to something we can all identify with, like the first time regular people rode a ferris wheel or ate an ice cream cone. It's important to realize that the world has always been changing, and people have always been hungry for the next big new thing—and if you go back in time that next big thing might be something we take for granted, like a subway train or potato chips. Those were huge events for people at the time. It makes us wonder what people will look back on from our time.
I also love stories of people defying convention and achieving beyond the people around them, or their own circumstances. Journalist Nelly Bly's bravery and confidence is inspiring. And it so happens, the tale we'll tell about her in a few months is really fun. We'll pair that with the tale of Henry Box Brown, an enslaved man who escaped by mailing himself in a crate out of the south. He went on to be a world-famous magician and performer. How awesome is that? Stories like this are inspiring and illustrate the resiliency and capability of the human spirit.
But you also have these kind of funny, quirky stories.
I am a sucker for funny stuff, as listeners may figure out. I work with kids everyday and I love to laugh at the things kids laugh at. What's funnier than underwear? We've got an episode in the pipeline on that theme. But what we try to do with that is get people hooked with the humor and also hit them with some valid history. Case in point: we just recorded a story about Charles Lee, a Revolutionary War general who did not like George Washington—in fact he wanted his job. Can you imagine? George Washington! He's an icon now, but it's important to realize not everyone was on board at the time. Long story short, Charles Lee's hubris wound up leading to him getting caught by the British in his underwear, before he could even get dressed. But there's a lot of great substance that comes across in the telling—or so we hope.
Your show is one of the true "adults and kids" shows, meaning we all get into it. How do you calibrate a story to appeal to both?
I'm thrilled we've found avid listeners in both groups—that was a huge goal. Who doesn't love a good story, right? I think Victoria Reibel and Jason Lawrence, the folks who read most of the stories, have a lot to do with that. Their delivery is reverent, but also engaging, inviting and humorous. I'm slowly learning to tailor a story's narrative to their delivery. How it comes across is lot of their doing—and it has appeal to lots of different ears.
A lot of people think history is boring. I'm not a "historian;" I see myself as a history advocate. It's my job to pique curiosity and awareness of the past. That knows no age limits. So when I decide to include a story in The Past and The Curious, I really try to cut to the quick, and provide just the right amount of historical context. An adult, most likely, could fill in more around the story from their pool of knowledge, but it's not necessary. The story can stand on it's own, without a deep knowledge of the time period or cast of characters.
I'm a big proponent of Cultural Literacy, and in the end, my goal is to be an aid for listeners in that pursuit. That's why I love to include traditional American Music, and why the chosen stories bounce from presidents to magicians, and tightrope walkers to newspaper reporters.
Fans of history, music, and Vin Diesel should subscribe to The Past and the Curious today.