- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 12, 2002

It took a big, hearty cry to put The Learning Channel's "Trading Spaces" on the pop culture map. The home improvement show with perky host Paige Davis had drawn a decent crowd during its first two years. Not MTV reality show "The Osbournes"-size numbers mind you, but enough to peek its head above the cable competition.

"Trading Spaces" features two couples who agree to decorate a room in each other's homes, aided and abetted by the show's creative team. All the work is done within a 48-hour span, and the couples never know what work is being done to their home until the time is up.

Last January's pivotal episode in which a Tacoma, Wash., woman dissolved into tears after seeing how her home had been remodeled changed everything, says "Trading Spaces" Executive Producer Denise Cramsey.

"It became a much-talked about thing," Miss Cramsey says of that tear-soaked "reveal," the term the show uses for the magic moment when the couples first see their modified homes.

Most homeowners love, or at least pretend to love, the results of each new episode's design work. Still, viewers tune in each week now to see if another on-camera breakdown might occur. And, of course, to pick up some chic decorating tips.

The budget for each remodeling job must fall below $1,000, a restraint that lets viewers feel they, too, could make such changes if the inspiration struck.

The hip home show, based upon a British redecorating program, shot three episodes around the D.C. area in September. An episode featuring two District families will air at 9 p.m. Saturday.

The crew visits the day before the shoot to set up the necessary lighting, blanket furniture with drop cloths and set up overhead cameras to catch all the action.

Those cameras, which run automatically, produce those speeded-up shots that collapse hours of work into easily digested visuals.

On-set secrecy is tight. Those moving from one house to the next must make sure they track no paint or other evidence along with them that might ruin part of the surprise for the other couple.

Miss Davis, a former Broadway performer, gives the couples tips on how to appear natural before the cameras. She also captures their efforts on her hand-held camera known as the "Paige Cam."

The show marks her first foray into television, she says during a break in the shooting. A friend with ties to Philadelphia-based Banyan Productions, which creates the show, suggested she try out for the hosting role when original host Alex McLeod stepped aside.

"When I joined the show, it had already garnered an underground cult following," Miss Davis says.

Now, evidence of the show's appeal is inescapable.

"Anywhere I go, in any kind of public arena, there's always somebody, or dozens of people, telling me how much they love the show," she says.

It helps that most of the "Trading Spaces" ensemble are rather pleasing to the eye. Ty Pennington, one of the show's two carpenters, once worked as a J Crew model.

It's up to the show's cast of designers to make each episode's "reveal" as eclectic and affordable as possible.

Designer Douglas Wilson doesn't mind being seen as the "bad boy" of the ensemble. The erstwhile actor, who has done design work for Brooke Astor and Liza Minnelli, can shake off viewer criticisms of his sardonic comments by blinking those camera-friendly blue eyes.

"I'm having a ball playing the villain, the bad guy. We have enough nice people on the show," Mr. Wilson says, before adding, "It's tongue and cheek with me. I try to have as much fun as I can. It is TV. It is entertainment."

Fellow designer Hilda "Hildi" Santo-Tomas says the show's rooms aren't meant to be mimicked down to the tiniest detail. The refurbished rooms should give ideas to viewers and let them expand their design horizons.

"It's more than the two homeowners you're doing it for," Miss Santo-Tomas says of her work.

"I'm trying to give America what it wants to see. There are so many different ways to view the things in front of us," says the striking brunette, lounging on a couch during a break in the action.

Sometimes, news spreads about where the show is shooting its next episode.

On a sunny September Sunday, a small but curious crowd greeted the cast as it set up shop alongside two Arlington homes.

Christina Manzo, 12, of Alexandria, marched along the sidelines, waving a "Paige Davis I Want Your Job" sign.

"You never know what you're gonna get," says Christina of the show. "[The couples] may love it or it may make them cry. It's the element of surprise."

Christina, who counts Laurie Hickson-Smith and Frank Bielec as her favorite designers, hopes to use the show's tips to remake part of her own home, parental permission pending.

"I'm gonna redesign my basement," she promises.

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