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
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
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
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
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
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
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?
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
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
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.