In an era when Nickelodeon, Disney and PBS rule children's TV programming, there's a local option, too. "Choo Choo Bob" is chugging its way to the top.
The brains behind a local children's television show aren't who you might expect: a group of Twin Cities creative professionals who have traded their day jobs working on Prince's music videos and luxury car commercials to tinker with toy trains and talk to puppets.
Even halfway through an exhausting 10-hour shoot, the cast and crew of "The Choo Choo Bob Show" say their St. Paul workspace -- a set elaborately staged with a clubhouse and model railroad -- rivals Disneyland as the "happiest place on Earth."
"This is a dream job," said director Andy Grund, despite his making a fraction of what he does as a local video producer. "I've never worked on a project that's had so much enthusiasm behind it and immediate positive feedback."
On its surface, "Choo Choo Bob" is a kids' show about trains, but there are clever references for parents, too. Although the first episode was produced five years ago and sold on DVD, the show only recently picked up momentum. "Choo Choo Bob" now airs in six TV markets, including the Twin Cities.
The show centers around its main character, Choo Choo Bob (actor Sam Heyn), who hangs out with friends in his clubhouse, plays songs and visits real working railroads nationwide. The focal point of the clubhouse is Tinyland, a detailed train set where when the "Shrinkatron" is used, characters become tiny and can explore the train layout on foot.
Kids are drawn to the goofy characters, witty jokes and songs, and of course the trains. Parents appreciate the live-action nature of the show, a break from the cartoon and computer animation of Disney and Nickelodeon. It reminds them of their own childhood favorites: "Pee-wee's Playhouse," "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood," "Captain Kangaroo."
"'Choo Choo Bob' fills a hole in kids' television today," said St. Paul dad David Vessel, whose 7-year-old son, Ben, watches every Saturday morning. "The characters go to real places and see real things. That it's local makes it even better."
Fulfilling a niche
During filming of the upcoming "Spooktacular" episode, Bob Medcraft, the show's creator, peered up from Tinytown after touching up some of the trees and grass with green paint.
"Let's hear your best pirate's 'Arrr!'" Grund says. "Action!"
Medcraft steps back, smiling at the cast of costumed kids in front of the camera.
"I've turned away a lot of work to keep doing this," he said. "I've put everything I have into this show, because I really believe in what we're doing."
Medcraft's passion for trains started as a kid. In the 1990s he started building his own layouts and frequenting train hobby stores in the Twin Cities and Los Angeles. The trains were memorable, he said, but the unwelcoming atmosphere was vivid.
"They were always run by these serious, quiet, crabby guys who didn't have kids or forgot what it was like to be a kid," Medcraft said, recalling signs posted in the stores: "We are not Toys 'R' Us"; "Do not allow your children to harass the paying customers."
Being a father, Medcraft, 49, thought there ought to be a train place where kids could get a hands-on experience. So in 2005, after a 20-year career in film, and having worked on commercials, movies like "Joe Somebody" and videos for Prince, Barenaked Ladies and others, Medcraft opened the Choo Choo Bob train store in St. Paul.
The show came a few years later, merely by accident. What started out as a promotion for the hobby shop turned into a mission for Medcraft to fill a niche in local kids' programming. He called on his old film industry pals for help. After a few episodes, however, the train came to a screeching halt -- the show ran out of money. Medcraft was ready to call it quits when an unlikely sponsor came to the rescue.
Show finds success
Bob Vince was busy overseeing the Center for Drug Design at the University of Minnesota when he heard about the show's struggles. His invention of a leading AIDS drug in the 1980s earned him royalties and worldwide fame, but the busy scientist always found time for trains.
"He could be a Nobel Prize winner with what he and his team have created," Medcraft said. "He's just kind of this shy, unassuming scientist, but without him, we wouldn't be doing the show."
The financial backing from Vince allowed the show to resume filming and buy airtime in six markets. The goal is to eventually become self-sufficient by attracting sponsors, advertisers and building the brand.
If "Choo Choo Bob" were produced somewhere like PBS, Medcraft said, it would cost about $50,000 an episode. Because everyone on the show is working for reduced rates, Medcraft says the actual per-cost episode is closer to $10,000. Vince has fronted enough money for 52 shows. So far, about 30 have been shot.
"It's given me another part of my life that I didn't have before," said Vince, 71. "I'm not interested in making any money from it, but I am proud of it, so I do want it to be successful."
So far, it is. Fans are turning up in droves to see "Choo Choo Bob" characters at live events. The next one is Saturday at the Riverview Theater in Minneapolis. In Fargo, "Choo Choo Bob" is rated No. 4, beating "Two and a Half Men," "The Big Bang Theory" and "'Til Death."
The numbers pale in comparison with the actual feedback the show gets from kids and their parents. Medcraft got an e-mail from a woman in Columbus, Ohio, whose autistic son became verbal for the first time while watching the show.
Karen Hart of Austin, Minn., grew up in Iowa watching "The Floppy Show," about a man and his dog puppet, Floppy. Everyone Hart knew during the show's 30-year run deeply loved the show and Floppy.
"I haven't seen a kids' show of that caliber again until now," said Hart, whose son Stirling is a fan. "There's warmth and friendly humor on the show, and kind of the same sense of celebrity around the characters that I remember experiencing as a kid."
The show is now driving more business to the store, which has become a local destination for kids to play and wonder. Medcraft even has his sights set on opening another Choo Choo Bob location, perhaps in the Mall of America, he said.
While the show's staff wants it to be successful, no one is in a hurry to sell out to the behemoths of the industry -- not even Medcraft, who's turned down higher-paying jobs and whose own family has had to put up with him working 60 hours a week.
"You give up so much time and financial stability to do something like this, so it's nice to know you're touching lives in a positive way," he said of the show's growing fan base. "Hopefully when I get to the pearly gates, God will look at me and say, 'You were kind of a jerk, but you did have the Choo Choo Bob store and show, so we'll go ahead and let you in.'"
Aimée Blanchette • 612-673-1715