Can you name the Minneapolis company that has brought Bert, Ernie and the other "Sesame Street" characters to millions on live stages around the globe for 30 years, and put the Minnesota Timberwolves' "Crunch" in costume, along with many other mascots?
It's VEE Corp., born of founder Vincent E. Egan's inspiration and desperation after being fired from the "Ice Follies" in 1978.
"I said, 'That's OK, I want to go home to Minneapolis,' " recalled Egan, 67. "I had a big ego back then, but that dissipated over time. I had a dog and an old farmhouse on 2.5 acres in Dayton. I spent a lot of time with that dog. I couldn't find a job selling shoes. I had fewer and fewer friends. I didn't know I was an entrepreneur."
Egan is not the first entrepreneur born of desperation. Today, his Vee Corp. boasts revenue of more than $50 million and 250 employees at the downtown headquarters, a costume-and-prop shop in southeast Minneapolis, and globe-spanning tours of "Sesame Street," "Curious George" and other productions.
"I'm not that smart," confides Egan, majority owner of the privately held concern. "The greatest thrill I get is watching 8,500 people enjoying themselves for an hour and a half. Boy, the kids really love Dad after that."
Thirty years after Egan staged his first show, "Sesame Street Live" opens its 30th season in January at the Target Center.
Ernie, Elmo, Abby Cadabby, Big Bird and others head out on the "Good Ship Rubber Duckie" to see the world, dance in an African rain forest, assist an octopus who has the blues and otherwise demonstrate to kids and adults that imagination, attitude and effort can propel us toward great things.
Sesame Workshop -- the nonprofit once known as Children's Television Workshop which owns and licenses the "Sesame Street" characters to public television, VEE Corp. and others -- has taught those important lessons since the late Jim Henson invented the Muppets about 40 years ago.
Egan, who grew up on the North Side of Minneapolis, joined the "Ice Follies" in 1970 as a marketer and rose to vice president before he was fired because of differences with the boss. By the winter of 1979-80, after long months of unemployment, Egan and his dog were staying up late, putting pencil to paper and planning what would become "Sesame Street Live."
"I had watched families at the 'Ice Follies' react to those Henson characters," Egan said.
Jim Henson liked the idea
Egan approached Henson's production company and Sesame Workshop. They liked the idea and agreed to license the characters and "Sesame Street" theme to a touring production that would keep them in character and promote values-based themes of learning and caring in a fun, irreverent way.
Egan turned to a young investor named Gordon Stofer at Norwest Growth Fund for capital. Stofer, one of the legendary local venture capitalists of the last generation at Norwest and Cherry Tree Investments, knew of "Sesame Street" through his three young kids. Egan ceded half-interest in the company to Norwest and refinanced his house for $25,000 in exchange for a $500,000 investment.
"Sesame Street Live" debuted in September 1980 at the former Met Center in Bloomington, playing before nearly 120,000 people who paid as much as $10 to see one of eight shows over a five-day run.
Egan, flush with success, had cash flow and confidence as he hit the road for Ames, Iowa; Erie and Johnstown, Pa.; Syracuse, N.Y.; and Chicago.
But "Sesame Street Live" played to meager crowds in those towns.
"I was almost broke again," Egan recalled. "I realized too late that people in those other towns were confused ... and our marketing didn't say these were full-size 'Sesame Street' characters, live. People weren't sure if it was an ice show, a puppet show, or what."
With his career on the line, Egan begged his creditors to hold on while he brought the show to the Big Apple. Al Grant, whom Egan knew from the "Ice Follies," had booked "Sesame Street" at the 4,000-seat "Felt Forum" at Madison Square Garden for four weeks at Christmas 1980. The script was overhauled and the marketing was calibrated to focus on life-size characters in an all-new version of "Sesame Street."
Once you make it at MSG ...
"I did more than 100,000 people over 40 shows," Egan recalled. "I made money. And you do 100,000 people at Madison Square Garden, and every arena wants you. St. Louis, Kansas City ... Sioux Falls on Tuesday, Wednesday ... Sioux City on Friday, Saturday, Sunday."
Today, at a cost of about $3 million per production, Vee Corp.'s several "Sesame Street Live" companies tour the globe, including Russia, Mexico, Poland, Malaysia, Israel, Jordan and dozens of U.S. cities.
Each tour includes 28 people, including performers, crew members, managers and directors who cover 20,000 miles each season for as long as 46 weeks a year. The scenery and costumes, which are made in Minneapolis, are carried in two 48-foot semitrailers. When "Sesame Street Live" goes overseas, the equipment arrives via cargo jet on 10 air freight pallets weighing 40,000 pounds. In all, there have been thousands of "Sesame Street Live" performances over 29 years.
In a successful diversification move, Vee Corp. established Vee Costumes & Creatures and Vee Production Services, which design and build costumes and puppets for other stage productions, special events and sports teams, as well as making props, sets and exhibits for corporate and entertainment events and museums.
Egan bought out Norwest's interest several years ago, giving him majority control.
"I worked really hard to get this job and I don't intend to lose it," quipped Egan, a twice-divorced bachelor who spends as long as half the year on the road. "I have done well personally. We have entertained 150 million people. And I'm the luckiest guy in the world."
Neal St. Anthony • 612-673-7144 • email@example.com