In the fall of 1999, a dream came true (as good ones do) when I had the opportunity
to interview my hero, Teddy's creator Ken Forsse. I conducted it at age 15. Here it is in it's entirety. Ken passed away in 2014, and this is one of the only times Ken ever spoke on the record to a public audience about Teddy. I'm thankful that his own words will continue to be available for those interested in Teddy's origins and the man behind them.
JOSH: When were the Teddy Ruxpin stories first written and how did they evolve as time went along?
KEN FORSSE: In 1958, while living with my parents in Burbank, California, I worked with two men, Larry Jackson and Jan Mitchell, who were producing a pilot for a children's television series, using hand puppets. The pilot was entitled "The Adventures of Sir Gazooks" and was written by Budd Bankson. Prior to that, Budd had written a successful book about his experiences in the Army. It was called "I Should Live So Long". My job on the pilot was to sculpt and cast the latex puppet characters and build the settings. The Gazooks pilot was never sold. Nor was a second pilot that the same group produced. That live action production was entitled "The Flying Dutchman". Budd Bankson had also written that science fiction story and I did the production design and set construction. The story centered around a submarine that could blast up out of the ocean and become an aircraft and a spacecraft. I had gone to Burbank High School with Ron Cobb, a very talented artist who did the character designs for the Gazooks project. Ron has since become a very successful production designer, working on films, such as: Conan The Barbarian, Star Wars and The Last Starfighter. While these early journeys into television pilots were unsuccessful, for me they were good training. I lost track of the other people involved in the pilots, but Budd Bankson and I became friends. We started talking about creating a puppet show of our own design that could be successful. That was the first suggestion of a property that would later evolve into "The Adventures of Teddy Ruxpin". The working title for the early idea and the main character was "Simeon Greep" The reason for the name was that at the time the United States was orbiting monkeys into space. Budd's thought was that the character would somehow be one of those monkeys. Obviously, the name of the central character was changed before there was anything resembling the Teddy Ruxpin property as it now exists. Efforts to work on this embryo project were infrequent. (Years later I had given the name Teddy Ruxpin to Princess Arusia's brother. But I liked the name so much that I borrowed it from Prince Arin and gave it to Teddy.) (During the early days with Worlds Of Wonder, their marketing people wondered if Teddy's name and his tunic outfit should be changed. As marketing experts sometimes like to do, they performed focus studies with children and parents. A long list of alternative names and outfits were suggested for the focus group to evaluate. The results indicated that everyone loved the original name and outfit and no changes were made.) In 1959, I was drafted and from 1959-1962 I was in the Army. After I got out of the Army I met Bob Anselmo. We later decided to try to do something with the project. Budd and I did brainstorming sessions and I encourage him to write the story line for the project. But he was having health problems and was never able to commit to producing anything. So I took a stab at writing the story myself. The main development of the property was in 1963 and 1964. Bob and I even went so far as to develop a prototype puppet stage of Tweeg's Tower. One time we almost started a fire in my kitchen making Tweeg's head out of hot-melt vinyl. For the most part Teddy waited patiently while I had other things to do. There were occasional attempts to do something with the property. But nothing was ever successful. Until, in the early 1980s, I developed the technology, which was the basis for animated talking toys. I also formed Alchemy II at that time. By then I had the Teddy Ruxpin property pretty much structured as it is today. I had written quite a few story lines. So, it was a natural process to combine the stories and characters with the technology. I believed that the combination would be very successful. Alchemy II started in my garage, with four other very dedicated Alchemists: Linda Piersen, Mary Becker, Leon Hefflin and Larry Larsen. Darwin Thompson later joined the company and with Larry Larsen did the original engineering on the toy technology. While I worked on the designs for the animation mechanism in the head, Larry and Darwin developed the engineering and programming. By 1984 Alchemy had produced working prototypes of the Teddy Ruxpin animated talking toy. The rest is history. The development of the story lines were really more for creating a television production than for children's books. So after the technology was developed, the scripted story lines still worked because of the ability of Teddy Ruxpin and other characters to act out the stories. "The Airship" and "The Missing Princess" stories were really the original story for a television production.
JOSH: How did you come up with such brilliant co-stars in Grubby, Leota, Wooly, Gimmick, etc. Were the characters based on any 'real-life' people you knew, and how did the character of Tweeg first form in your mind? Several Tweeg fanatics have asked me to ask you that one.
KEN FORSSE: Long after they had become recognizable characters to me, I started to analyze the relationships of the characters. Teddy and Grubby fit what is probably an age-old tradition of the good guy and his loyal side kick, each having distinct personalities and abilities. The Lone Ranger & Tonto; Batman & Robin; Beany & Cecil; Mel Gibson & Danny Glover are among countless examples of this tradition, which allows for lots of story opportunities. The third leg of the stool provides balance and might be a character with an off-beat personality. Newton Gimmick fit the role perfectly. With attributes that the other two didn't have, Gimmick actually helped to define and establish the characters of Teddy and Grubby. Gimmick also became the Bumbling Professor type, who sometimes gets it just right. It seemed important to have the bad guys. Again the structure for them seemed pretty traditional, with the main bad guy being the boss and having an assistant and a group of henchmen. Of course L.B is much brighter than Tweeg, but without the ambition and single-mindedness of his boss. Budd provided the name Little Bounders, based on my drawings of the bouncy guys without arms. L.B. became the Lead Bounder. So Tweeg and L.B. rounded out the main five characters. The arrangement goes way back to when Budd Bankson and I first started talking about the project. The objective was not to have Tweeg be really bad. It was funnier to have him be inept and greedy. . . and for L.B. to be his main critic. Tweeg's outfit was partly designed to allow him, as a hand puppet, to be able to move about on the floor of his tower, with two puppeteers under the floor. The hand of one puppeteer would be the head of Tweeg. The other would use rod mechanisms to operate Tweegs arms and hands. The robe he wore covered rods and the flexible seam in the floor. But, the character of Tweeg emerged fully when Will Ryan gave him a voice. The real bad guys, like Quellor showed up for the television series, at the advice of the television decision makers. I was never convinced that the formula was necessary, but we tried to keep those characters as slap stick as possible. The original setting for the World of Teddy Ruxpin was a fantasy environment. be unique, but somehow familiar. It's usually hard to recall the initial origin of a character. The truth is there isn't always a single point of origin. Teddy has the clearest history of development. As an Illiop, his nose and jaw used to be larger. They were modified in order to allow for the mechanical animation. That change also made him look even more like a Bear. I don't believe I ever had anyone specific in mind in creating the characters. However, some people like to identify me in the characters, especially Newton Gimmick. But I see. . uh. . absolutely no. . uh. . resemblance. Prince Arin, Princess Aruzia, the Woolly What's-It, the Grunges, the Wizard, the Gutangs and the Mudblups were in the original story. The Fobs and Leota were added in 1984. Other characters such as Karen (Grubby's girl friend), the Bug characters, Snozos, Nothings and Anythings were added for the story book expansion and the TV series. The stories were expanded through TV-series story sessions with Phil Baron, Lenny Levitt and myself. Lenny had played the Woolly What's-It in the ABC costume special. Michelle Baron also submitted story lines and concepts. "The Sign of a Friend" about a deaf elf is a good example. Michelle, who is Phil's wife, had worked in deaf education, so she brought that wonderful story line to Alchemy. Larry Larsen, was my sidekick and was always ready to work all night on projects to meet deadlines, like programming the mechanical animation for Teddy and Grubby. Larry was a puppeteer that I had known since the days when we had both worked for Sid and Marty Krofft. He and Mary Becker were very involved in establishing and maintaining the integrity of the property. Linda Piersen designed and supervised the construction of the life-sized costume figures for the Teddy Ruxpin ABC Special. She also designed and produced the original outfits for the talking toy. There is a wonderful quality that Phil Baron brought to the voice of Teddy Ruxpin. Teddy would never have meant as much without Phil's depiction of the Illiop. In a very real sense, Phil Baron is Teddy Ruxpin. Will Ryan was equally important in bringing Grubby and Tweeg to life. And, Tony Pope was brilliant as L.B. and Gimmick. The amazing artists at Alchemy produced all of the stories, storybooks, illustrations, music and audio production. Don Riedel was director of audio production. The brilliant music of George Wilkins was a major part of the success of Teddy Ruxpin. So it was not just a group of characters who were balanced. It was also a wonderful group of people dedicated to making Teddy a friend to children of all ages. At a future date, I would like to mention other Alchemists who helped make Teddy Ruxpin a success. Alchemy employed over 200 people at its peak. It was like a big family. During the busiest days of 1985-1988, I was President of Alchemy and my door was always open. I awoke early about 4:00 a.m. each morning and wrote stories and song lyrics for several hours and then went into the office for a full day. Much of the work became administrative. I enjoyed the creative process. But, administration was not as much fun as guiding the exciting development of Teddy Ruxpin.
JOSH: How did the first Teddy Ruxpin television production, the 1986 animatronic movie, come to life?
KEN FORSSE: 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 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 days 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.
JOSH: Were there ever episodes or book and tape series created that were never aired or sold?
KEN FORSSE: 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.
JOSH: What was it like knowing that your creation, Teddy Ruxpin would no longer be produced after Worlds of Wonder went out of business?
KEN FORSSE: 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, and many others still remember Teddy so fondly indicates that there is a good chance that Teddy can come back.
JOSH: 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?
KEN FORSSE: 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, its 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 Whats 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. Its wonderful music. George wrote more than 100 hours of underscoring for the cartoon series.
JOSH: 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. Were more episodes of the show ever created? Were there plans for more?
KEN FORSSE: 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.
JOSH: What was it like being the creator of the most popular toy in 1985?
KEN FORSSE: 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 childrens writer is the greatest respect I could have ever gained.
JOSH: Have you always wanted to create childrens stories? And how did you first get started in the business? What advice would you give to aspiring writers who want to write for Children?
KEN FORSSE: 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 lose 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 masters 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 childrens 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.
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