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Interview With Ken Forsse: Installment #2

If you have not yet seen Installment #1, Go There Now!

When did you, Alchemy and others first decide to produce the animatronic movie?

Teddy Ruxpin was really conceived as a concept for a puppet show. It was my intention to create mechanical effects that would make the characters look like complete figures, instead of partial figures behind scenic elements. I had also envisioned characters standing or sitting on apparently solid surfaces. I maintained that basic concept as the way to do Teddy Ruxpin, until 1982. At that time I had developed an animated head for a walk-around bear costume. It was ideal for television production and I realized it could provide an alternative to puppets for a Teddy Ruxpin production, if one were ever undertaken. The Disney Channel saw the bear head and wanted to give me the contract to develop costumes for their upcoming production of “Welcome to Pooh Corner”.

At that time Alchemy was just a brand new company. So, I had to quickly locate people to help produce the Welcome to Pooh Corner costumes. Just as I was trying to figure out who to call, I received a call from Leon Hefflin. I had worked with Leon at Disney’s WED (Walter Elias Disney) Enterprises and at the Entertainment Company of Sid and Marty Krofft. Leon had also worked on Universal Studio’s Florida project. Among his other talents, Leon was a superb model builder. To my surprise he was looking for work. So Leon Hefflin became an Alchemist.

I got the name of Linda Pierson from the personnel director at WED Enterprises. Linda had done costume design and fabrication for ballet companies, as well as for animated theme-park characters. I also learned about Mary Becker from the same person at WED. Mary had done soft sculpture and crafts projects. At Alchemy, Mary worked on costuming, and helped with administrative chores. She later managed the scripting of Teddy materials and eventually became Alchemy’s President. The fifth Alchemist was Larry Larsen. I had worked with Larry at Krofft Entertainment. When I called him he was working at the MGM carpenter shop. But he was excited about joining Alchemy. I was able to hand over to Larry many tasks, like managing the engineering efforts needed to make the talking-toy technology work and overseeing the programing that kept Teddy and Grubby in sync. Leon, Linda, Mary, Larry and I formed the original nucleus of Alchemy II.

The work on the Winnie the Pooh project overflowed out of my garage in Granada Hills, CA and into the game room. We covered my pool table with plywood to do costume fabrication. That table became known as the “Pooh Table”. But we still needed more space, so we moved into a facility in Chatsworth, CA.

After the initial success of the talking toy, we were able to sell a one-hour special to ABC. At that point, the costume animation technology was our preferred choice for a Teddy Ruxpin Television production. The Alchemy staff, which had grown to 200 people at that point, did an amazing job in producing the series. The settings, props and miniatures were works of art. The audio tracks were created first, as with cell animation. Animation programing signals were recorded on separate tracks and transmitted to each character costume. Each night the programing was done for the following day’s shooting. There were duplicates of each costume because of the hard use they received. Many of the actors inside the costumes were little people. Lenny Levitt at well over 6 feet was the tallest.

The Special allowed us to build many of the costumes and settings that could have also been used on a series. However, the production proved to be too expensive to be sustained as a syndicated series. So, when the 65-episode series was being proposed, it became more expedient to do cell animation. It was difficult for Alchemy to maintain the kind of hands on involvement with the series that we would have wished. But, we were able to maintain story supervision on the series and to utilize the key voice people who had worked on the talking toy as well as George Wilkins’ music supervision.

A critical aspect of both the costume special and the cell-animation series was the production design. Years earlier, I had designed Gimmick’s House, the Airship, Tweeg’s Tower and other elements. But the wonderful environments and background designs for the books were created by David High. David had worked at Hanna Barbera, Filmation and other animation studios, so the book designs translated really well into live-action sets and cartoon backgrounds. Today David works with animation studios and operates his own silk-screen business. His favorite subjects today are classic cars.

Russell Hicks worked with my original character designs and turned them into wonderful cartoon images for both the books and the television series. As the head of the Art Department, Russell oversaw the production of the Teddy Ruxpin and Talking Mother Goose books. At one point, the Alchemy staff was producing one new book each week.

Were there ever episodes or book and tape series created that were never aired or sold?

We developed a workout tape and preliminary content for a book & tape called “Teddy’s Workout”. The program would have had the child doing easy exercises and helping Teddy exercise by moving his arms and legs. The software was never released because of concerns by Worlds of Wonder about liability and insurance issues.

In 1987 Alchemy II was creating story concepts and graphics for a Teddy Ruxpin theatrical feature. The film was to use a combination of computer graphics for the backgrounds and cell animation for the characters. It was something of a unique concept at that time and we went so far as to create test footage for the project. But, problems at Worlds of Wonder were growing more serious and the film project had to be abandoned.

In 1990 when Worlds of Wonder II (in reorganization under bankruptcy law) had the Teddy license, I developed a story for Alchemy about Teddy Ruxpin and a number of forest animals. The story also introduced Teddy’s girlfriend. Again, that software was not released because of survival problems at Worlds of Wonder.

What was it like knowing that your creation, Teddy Ruxpin would no longer be made after Worlds of Wonder went out of business?

It was most disappointing to have to reduce the staff at Alchemy II after we had gathered such an amazing group of people. Alchemy could dream up and produce virtually anything for the toy and entertainment industries. Worlds Of Wonder never really appreciated the gift they had been given. It’s obvious, even now that Teddy Ruxpin had become a good friend to children and would have sustained for a long time if handled more wisely. So, it was disappointing when the adventure ended so quickly. The fact that you, Josh, the Octopede, and many others still remember Teddy so fondly indicates that there is a good chance that Teddy can come back.

How was the theme song of the Adventures of Teddy Ruxpin created? And how did you go about writing the lyrics to the wonderful songs that the show featured?

Mary Becker introduced me to George Wilkins who did a lot of music production for Walt Disney. We thought his style of music was perfect for Teddy Ruxpin. But we didn’t know who would write the lyrics. Then Russell Brower, a musician and artist working at Alchemy said to me. “Why don’t you write the lyrics?” I had never written any songs before. But he said “Hey, it’s just like writing a poem.” So I wrote my first song, “Come Dream With Me Tonight.” Then George composed the music and produced the music track and we had Teddy Ruxpin’s theme song. That bit of confidence convinced me that I could write more songs. So now I’ve written over 80 songs for Teddy Ruxpin and Mother Goose, twenty songs for Branson Bear and a song catalog of another 50 unpublished songs. Other Alchemists wrote many songs as well, including Phil and Michelle Baron, Will Ryan, Mary Becker, Margaret Hughes, Don Reidel and others.

I guess my approach to writing songs was to tell a story or create an image of some kind. The ability of George Wilkins to turn my lyrics into very moving songs is still miraculous to me. An interesting variation on that process was when George had written a theme melody for the “Woolly What’s It” and I later wrote the lyrics for the song. For the underscoring of the ABC Prime-Time Special George conducted a 40 piece orchestra. It’s wonderful music. George wrote more than 100 hours of underscoring for the cartoon series.

After the series ended (episode #65) it seemed as if it should have gone on. It ended the way many episodes did, leaving lots of room for a continuing plot. Did Worlds of Wonder, Alchemy II or you expect a new show to be created? And how would you feel about new episodes being created now or in the future, should that happen?

The entire series was structured as a daily show with 5 episodes airing Monday through Friday. Because of that format the 65-episode series would run 13 weeks or one quarter of a year. The daily episodes had to stand on their own, as mini stories. The five episodes from each Monday through Friday also formed complete stories. The intention behind this was to allow the compilation of weekly stories into longer videos. There was no deliberate attempt to conclude the series. Other than when Teddy met his father and they returned to Rillonia. But Teddy still has lots of things to do. And as I said before, he may be back.

What was it like being the creator of the most popular toy in 1985?

Well, it is definitely a feeling that everyone should have. Seeing something that I had created become as successful as Teddy Ruxpin was incredible. There is a long list of wonderful memories: watching so many talented people at Alchemy working on and adding to my creation; realizing that companies in Silicon Valley, Canada and many Asian countries were building a toy I had designed; witnessing the birth of a new toy category, (Electronic Plush); watching television commercials and segments on news broadcasts describing Teddy Ruxpin.

The most humbling experience was reading the many letters describing the reaction of children in all parts of the country to Teddy Ruxpin. There was a letter about a child who lapsed in and out of a coma and could only be awakened when Teddy Ruxpin sang to her.

Another letter described a little girl who knew she was dying of cancer. Teddy was her best friend and she wanted a specific Teddy Ruxpin Lullaby ” to be played at her funeral: “Will you go to sleep before I do? Will you close your eyes real tight? Will you go to sleep before I do and slumber all through the night?”

And the thrill remains when I see that many children of 1985, like you Josh, still have fond memories of their experiences with Teddy Ruxpin. Your desire to be a children’s writer is the greatest respect I could have ever gained.

Have you always wanted to create childrens stories? And how did you first get started in the business? What advise would you give to aspiring writers who want to write for Children? KF:
I was not good in school and I had never imagined being a writer. But, from a very young age, I loved to draw, paint and build things. I later learned to sculpt and cast figures, props and art objects in fiberglass, latex and other materials. I also liked to dream up characters and the stories about them. With the Teddy Ruxpin Project, I was initially more interested in designing and building the characters than in writing the stories. I began writing only when I had no other choice. Once I started to write, I loved it. But I was also a little insecure about writing, because I had no formal training. So, any advise I have about anyone becoming a writer will not be from any level of formal knowledge or training.

As I look back at the writing I’ve done, I now see it as only one of the many needs in devising or inventing a project of some kind. Just as important to me are the needs of designing a project, presenting it through a visual method, such as illustrations, or prototypes, making it unique in a technical way or figuring out a method of marketing it and getting it into the world. If I had to describe what I do in a single word, it would be “Invention”. Whether inventing the text of a story, inventing the look of a character or inventing a patented technology, the process is very much the same.

This approach is rewarding, because the various disciplines assist in and feed the inspiration of writing. The broad exposure may also allow a writer to focus on a specific area of writing. The idea of seeing writing as only one of many needs for arriving at an objective is different than simply declaring, ”I want to be a writer!” That declaration must sooner or later be accompanied by another statement, “The thing I like to do best is. . . .” Write about what you love most of all and you’ll become good at it. . . and you will establish your own style. The journey is to devise something which is new and which may be needed by someone. The vehicle is creative imagination.

A list of advice for aspiring writers could be endless. Things that I would add to that list would include:

• Write every day. Write letters, write emails, write poetry, just write, write, write. Correspond with other people. Establish an audience. Give your work to anyone who will read it, especially those who will comment honestly on what you have written, whether or not they have the credentials to do so.

• Keep a detailed journal. It’s something I regret not doing.

• Our limited alphabet makes it difficult for everyone to be a good speller, unless they’re good at memorization. Use a good spell checker. The more you write the better speller you will become.

• Find a good editor.

• Spend lots of time thinking and observing. If you see something in the world that is not working the way you think it could, then reinvent it. Write about how you think it should be.

• Keep what you write and keep going over it and rewriting until it’s perfect. Yet, don’t loose the spontaneity of your original thought.

• Use your own experiences and write about what you know. But also use your imagination to expand your world. My wife quotes the psychologist Carl Rogers as saying, “When we talk about those things that are most personal, we talk about those things that are most universal.” If you write about things which are the most meaningful to you, then you can create an adventure that will be meaningful to others.
• Most importantly, don’t follow the fads. . . .Instead, Create them.

I usually find that I have not left myself enough time to read. It seems that I’ve always loaded my plate with too many other things to do. In a strange way, this may provide something of a hidden benefit. I don’t ever want to ever feel that I have borrowed an idea from somewhere else. I always want my work to be as unique as possible. The sacrifice of not being a constant reader may not work for everyone. But, it has worked well for me, mostly because of my wife Jan.

Jan is a teacher and the researcher in the family. We laughingly say that she is the ”R” and I am the ”D” in research and development. Jan teaches teachers at the master’s degree level at a University. She loves children’s literature and loves to read the classics. She has a two inch thick book called “Children’s Books and Their Creators”, edited by Anita Silvey, Houghton Mifflin, 1995. Some of her favorite children’s authors are: Laura Ingalls Wilder, Maurice Sendak, Ezra Jack Keats, E.B. White, Steven Kellogg, Allen Say, Laurence Yep, Taro Yashima, Mark Twain, Rudyard Kipling, Jean Fritz, Leo Politi, Beatrix Potter, Carl Sandburg for his “Rutabaga Stories”; C.S. Lewis and Shel Silverstein among others.

So, if you like to read children’s literature then read the classics. Read the very best and most beautiful literature for children that you can find. If you write for children, then respect them, don’t talk down to them. Write things that are uplifting and might in some way make a difference. The most rewarding part of writing is discovering that something you’ve created has had a positive effect on the life of a child.

Jan and I have many filing cabinets, filled with projects in various stages of development. So, writer’s block is something I’ve never experienced. Whether a story, a poem, a song, a game, the description of a technology, or how the world might be a better place, there is always something to write about. Every day that passes, I create two more days of work to be done. . . so, I will never be finished.

Installment #1