Lee Dannacher profiles one of the hottest new childrens players on the Web and finds out that they are an even cooler company.
Meet Larry Schwarz: grade-school movie director, successful child actor, young stand-up comedian. Fast-forward to some years later, you will now find Schwarz nestled comfortably in his burgeoning New York studio, driving the locomotive of a uniquely modeled, on-line entertainment hub he's called rumpus.com. "The dictionary defines Rumpus as a wild noisy disturbance," he says, "and that's what we are doing in the children's entertainment industry. We're shaking things up and making a difference." With a flair for uncovering all things that tweak a child's curiosity and imagination, Schwarz has fashioned this rompish destination site around his award winning line of original characters and toys. Since its launch just 10 short months ago, the boisterous dot-com has expanded rapidly with an ever-widening array of weekly animated and live-action series. Incorporated in the site, as well, are all the bells, whistles and surprises children flock to: a kids' club, character based e-mails, games, puzzles, interactivity, downloadable art and more. Along the way, Rumpus Toys and its burgeoning on-line network have met with rave reviews, with Schwarz appearing on a variety of shows such as CNBC's The Edge, Regis and Kathy Lee, ABC News, the Tonight Showand the U.K.'s BBC. With less than a year under its Internet 'belt,' rumpus.com has been voted best new children's Web site by NetGuide and awarded the National Parenting Center's Seal of Approval. Whaddaya think -- they having fun yet?
Head Of The Line
Growing up in New York, Schwarz later enriched his early entertainment background with political science studies at the University of Pennsylvania, during which time he founded a seasonal lifestyle magazine for the Hampton resort area. Upon graduation, he ventured over to Ho Chi Minh City to found Vietnam's first Yellow Pages and the now influential Vietnamese Business Journal. He then took a short break from all this 'founding' and enrolled in Cardozo Law School where he "ended up spending more time doodling wacky toy ideas than listening to tort lectures." The day after he took the bar exam -- happily armed with 26 notebooks full of playful ideas -- he somersaulted again into the 'founding' business with his wildly successful launch of Rumpus Toys. The company's flagship line of three adorable and active characters (Gus Gutz, Monster In My Closet and Benny Blanket) premiered to industry acclaim at the New York Toy Fair in February of 1997.
Eggels and Puppies and Freaks, Oh My
The roller coaster ride to the Internet began soon thereafter when Schwarz put up an e-commerce site as a sales adjunct to their burgeoning international toy distribution. In early 1999, however, Schwarz made the bold Internet move to a more 'pure play' by announcing that Rumpus toys would only be available from that point forward through the company Web site. Schwarz explains, "We just wanted to really pull it back in to ourselves. Because, first of all, we think that we know our brand better than anyone else and we care about it better than anyone else... and we also wanted to kind of fuse it with the whole entertainment experience and be the first ones to really do that."
Dr. Freakenstein with the rest of the science freaks make experiments fun. © Rumpus.com. Space Puppies! They can't hear you bark in space! © Rumpus.com.
The first Rumpus program to go on-line in September of last year was the Flash animated Science Freaks starring Duey, Digby and Foothead as the colorful, chaotic mutations from 'Dr. Freakenstein's Laboratory.' This adventure series mixes goofy entertainment with true learning experiences, and includes an intermission that enables kids to participate in virtual science experiments. Space Puppies came next with popular storylines focusing on the animated exploration of the cold war's Space Race. A novel idea!
Then, appealing to the youngest demographic, came a series, The Eggels, based on a magical community of quirky, pint-sized creatures. Their rulers, the five Golden Eggels, suddenly and mysteriously disappear, which sets the stage for highly interactive programs where kids across the globe log on, become members of the Rumpus Kids' Club and join together in search of the Golden Eggels. Premiering soon, the fourth episode will give the audience its first glimpse of the missing rulers -- and we've been pre-warned to think 'The Rat Pack' (e.g. a Frank Sinatra Eggle, Sammy, etc... where else but from artists in New York?). Using Flash 4's expanded technology, the animation team is also excitedly experimenting with new ways to broaden the audience's participation in the next installments of the on-going hunt.
Gus & Harry's Comedy Club is a real hoot! © Rumpus.com.
Larry's Lab is one of the many shows at Rumpus that make learning exciting. © Rumpus.com.
Turning Up The Noise
The vigorous growth of rumpus.com continued throughout the Fall with the addition of two more animation series based on other hugely popular characters from the toy line: The Gus and Harry Comedy Club, the first ever animated stand-up comedy show where kids can e-mail in jokes for the characters to perform; and Sally Satchel Sing-A-Long, a karaoke club for kids where they can pick a song to sing along with the animated Sally, and send in e-mail requests for future songs to be produced. On the live-action side, The Rumpus Road Rocket series went on air last November, utilizing streaming video to let kids follow the live Rumpus Rocketeers accompanied by a costumed Monster in My Closet as they travel across the country on a psychedelic polka-dotted 'rocket' (whose sleek exterior covers a reborn 1985 Chevy school bus). Each episode includes a map to show kids where the Rocketeers are and a 'fun fact' surrounding the cities they explore. The latest in live-action offerings was the launch this February of Larry's Lab, the first Net program where kids can learn how to make their own toys from a real expert: Larry Schwarz, himself. Shot on a blue screen at Rumpus' Manhattan headquarters -- with three episodes currently on-line and new segments airing bi-monthly -- Larry's Lab blends animation and live-action to help kids explore their own creativity while having a great time with objects found lying around the house. Overall, Schwarz encourages some type of interactivity in all Rumpus Web series, saying, "Our programming is very proactive, giving kids the opportunity to be participants rather than observers." He feels programming for the Internet should be approached very differently from traditionally passive television shows, but notes that from the kids' point-of-view, "They just want to have fun with it, whether interactively or simply being entertained by the story." He believes Rumpus succeeds in giving the audience a blend of both entertainment styles while echoing their goal "to make things that are compelling but also taking advantage of the format."
Reel Time Racket
A major milestone on the Internet stage was marked this Easter Sunday 2000 when Rumpus premiered the animated Herschel Hopper, New York Rabbit! The 38-minute Flash animated movie -- the first Web original movie for kids -- stars a varied cast of voices including Jason Priestley, Brendan Sexton III, former NY Mayor Ed Koch and famed columnist Liz Smith. Based on characters and story by Schwarz, this property was also the first of its kind for Rumpus in that the development of the movie and Herschel's plush toy went hand-in-hand from the starting line. The audience response has been so positive that the studio is charging forward with two other movies and has plans for longer-format character specials (such as a 10-minute Halloween story featuring Monster In My Closet). The Day I Saved America, Rumpus' next full-length movie, is slated for a September 9th premiere and will star the voice talent of Amanda Bynes (from Nickelodeon's comedy The Amanda Show) as a little girl who saves America before George Washington is inaugurated. Schwarz, dedicated to getting this right for his audience, says, "It takes place in colonial times so we're going on location to Williamsburg to get the animators to do some drawings. That'll be fun." Also on the drawing boards is their third feature entitled The Red Bison, a 40-minute adventure tale scheduled for a Christmas time release.
Underscoring their overall commitment to children and the ideas behind what entertainment can bring to their worlds, Schwarz organized the Rumpus Kids FUNdation, a charitable foundation dedicated to providing children and young adults with both human and financial support. By donating toys to various children's organizations and sending the Road Rocket troupe to dozens of hospitals, schools and charitable events, the company considers it not only an obligation but also a privilege to support and assist the children of their community. Building on FUNdation's belief in the importance of personal involvement, Rumpus has also adopted a formal in-house policy in which all Rumpus employees are required to take three FUNdays per year where they volunteer at a charity of their choice.
To shape this all-encompassing virtual world of programming, gaming and on-line shopping, Schwarz has gathered together a decidedly young-at-heart band of designers, writers, producers, directors and animators -- all thrilled to be part of a brave new medium. Beginning with only a handful of crew versed in entertainment production, the Rumpus gang has grown swiftly to a staff of around 38 -- with that number expected to double within the next month.
Vice president of entertainment Jeff Roda came to Rumpus after producing and developing independent films, as well as agenting at The Writers and Artists Agency in New York. Joining Schwarz in January of 1999, Roda says, "I thought it was really a great place to build a studio -- a real entertainment entity -- from a completely different angle than where I was before." Instead of targeting traditional broadcast programming based on their toys, he cites: "We really decided that the Internet was the way we wanted to go because it gave us the platform to do our own stuff in-house... create a network where we were totally self-sufficient and 100% in control of our character and creative properties." Roda is terrifically proud of Rumpus' Davey & Goliath progress in an Internet field now populated by mega-corporations pouring millions of dollars into their sites. Judging from the feedback they receive, he feels they've succeeded in solidifying valuable Web territory by "building, in a short period of time, a reputation of quality and consistency" surrounding their brand.
Sean Lahey, one of the earliest Rumpus pioneers and now its creative director, has been with Schwarz since the spring of 1998. After graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design with a Bachelors in Film and Animation, Lahey was an assistant to film director Gus Van Sant, and worked film production in Boston before moving to New York to illustrate book covers and logo imprints for publishing giant Simon & Schuster. His first jobs with Rumpus included early box designs (which have been lauded for being as playable as other people's toys), ad layout, branding design and character development. Lahey has been ignited by Schwarz' creative drive, saying, "Larry is unbelievable how much he can come in with. The simplest idea can have a huge back story before it's even a sketch... it's really easy for us to go tap into what he's done and make something really cool out of it." In the process now of completing a style guide to help plunge all new recruits into the broad-stroked, thick black line of Rumpus' retro-hip '50s technique, Lahey feels, "The biggest challenge for me has been the company's growth." He's confident about their upcoming slate, though, saying, "We have a very quick learning curve here at Rumpus." His eagerness in leading the swelling artistic crew is palpable. He believes, "It's going to become a really neat, well-oiled children's on-line machine."
Justin Dike, director of animation, actually began his career with Rumpus prior to his graduating from the School of Visual Arts (SVA). The Atlanta native came onboard full time in July 1999 but stays close to the action at SVA since that is where the bulk of Rumpus' new talent is found. Dike acknowledges the rapid changes their studio has gone through. "When we were hiring, we used to look for the all-purpose person who could illustrate and who could also animate," he says, but facing the sharp increase in production output, he and Lahey have had to delineate artistic responsibilities into a more traditional studio system of departments to keep the work flowing. "Everyone's finding their little niche right now," he explains, with the caveat that it's still a company where flexibility is key. Although they have a separate writing department (headed by a Harvard Lampoon alumnae), two full-time game designers, a range of 'toy people' and innovative executives, everyone has an opportunity to contribute in a variety of creative areas anywhere along the route of script, illustration, layout, storyboarding, animating, voice recording and posting. Dike gets a lot of his motivation from the versatility and immediacy of working in Flash animation. "My favorite part is by far, just how quick we can do things. We can turnaround 3 four-minute cartoons in a week. It's amazing and it doesn't wear you out," he says. "Then on Monday, you're fresh for something else!"
The Path Ahead
Highlighting the sense of adventure surrounding everything going on at Rumpus these days is their recently premiered anthology show called Crazy Sports. A few months ago, when taking on additional space in an old boxing gym next door, they discovered thousands of feet of old film footage left behind by a previous tenant. Justin Dike describes their treasure find: "It's all sorts of crazy stuff from the 1950's... old NASA footage... really wild stuff. You think you're going to find out who killed Kennedy in these old films!" Weeding through the materials, what they did happily uncover were some nutty sporting segments on goofy things like bicycle polo and monkeys building race cars -- which they've edited together with some cool interface and animation into a series of mixed-media shorts sure to tickle any age group booting up and tuning in.
Together with this new series, fresh episodes for their existing programs and the upcoming movies and specials, Rumpus also plans to unveil one more animated series and three more live-action shows later this year. A study in entertainment motion, indeed!
We can expect they'll take every opportunity to create wacky amusement for kids and adults with every comic turn they take. It's easy to see having fun is what Rumpus is all about -- inside and out -- as they lead the forward swing with creative and original fare on the children's digital frontier.
Lee Dannacher, currently based in New York, is a Supervising Producer and Sound Track Director of over 350 half hours of television animated series, along with numerous home video and film productions.