Things To Do
Reality TV lets its hair down
OLDSMAR - Bruce Barry doesn't walk. He bounds. He leaps. He is incapable of following straight lines; think instead of a bumper car on speed. And there's the hair. It's long, blonde and flowing. Dashing through airports, Barry is a familiar blur. Strangers do a double take and stare. "Look, it's one of those famous wrestlers," they whisper. Or a country-western star. Or maybe a member of a heavy metal rock band? These days, they have good reason to think Barry, founder of Wacky World Studios, is celebrity material. For five months he has been shadowed by cameraman-producer Mark Allen of FamilyNet, an entertainment network available locally to Verizon FiOS, with negotiations under way with other providers. So far, Allen is up to 56 hours of footage, which will be pared down to 13 one-hour episodes of reality television set to debut at 9 p.m. Nov. 1."I've gone through three pairs of shoes following Bruce around, trying to figure out what he does for a living," Allen says. He's still not sure. The weekly series will be called "The Wacky World of Bruce Barry." Viewers will get an inside look at a design studio, following Barry and staff as they oversee a project from concept to completion. If that plot line sounds like a snoozer, consider that the focal point is the peripatetic Barry, a natural entertainer with infectious energy. Allen wasn't completely sold on the idea when FamilyNet sent him to Oldsmar in the spring from Atlanta. He was to spend a few days with Barry and put together a 15-minute pilot for the board's consideration. Within a few hours of his arrival, the video journalist didn't need convincing. "There's nothing normal about this place," he says. "It's wacky. It's fun. I think it's going to be a big hit." French fries and a steamy brain Tucked away in a nondescript office complex in Oldsmar, inside a nearly 20,000-square-foot warehouse, is a vibrant and ever-changing world. On this day, it's populated by a giant sculpture of French fries, a larger-than-life mechanical brain that spews steam, and a bright-yellow submarine. Colors explode. Residents are 8-foot-tall cartoon characters. Barry, a longtime animator and muralist, founded Wacky World Studios, a full-service design operation, in January 2001. He and his staff of more than two dozen create themed environments for museums, pediatric health-care facilities, restaurants and retailers. They design stage sets and amusement park rides. A project he took on several years ago in Springdale, Ark., led to the necessity of a crash-course in Bible stories - he grew up without religion - and a curiosity about Christianity. Much to his surprise, after a lot of discussion and reading, he embraced the faith. That opened a whole new market to him, as word of his work spread throughout the church community. He has built sprawling themed sets for Lutz's Idlewild Baptist and Joel Osteen's Lakewood Church in Houston, one of the largest in the country. He's now developing a video how-to series for constructing themed vacation Bible schools. But he remains equally comfortable in the secular market. He even cut a deal with Budweiser for a Super Bowl point-of-purchase promotion. "Churches and beer. Maybe not the best combo," Barry, 48, says with a laugh. "But listen, I don't push my faith on anyone out there. I just know God has blessed me with a gift, and I have to make sure to give my absolute best on everything I do. I honor what he's given me." Barry grew up in New Jersey, the son of a Disney cartoonist, and began drawing and designing as soon as he could hold a pencil. With his parents' approval, he decorated his bedroom walls with his own life-sized drawings of his favorite cartoon characters: Elmer Fudd, the Pink Panther, Scooby-Doo. He went on to paint window murals for small businesses and sold cartoon sketches for a buck apiece to Navy buddies during his military stint. When he got out of the service, he worked and lived out of his 1967 Cougar, picking up odd jobs as a muralist and animator. He built a following. Jobs got bigger and he needed help. Though he's an unqualified success today, with a real desk and a grown-up portfolio, success hasn't changed Barry. "It's got to be the hair!" he says dramatically, mimicking the Fantastic Sam's commercial catchphrase. "It's the Samson thing. The longer it gets, the more artistic I get. People come up and touch it all the time to see if it's real. Yes, it is." Staffers think they've got something special going on here. In a sagging economy, Wacky World is the antidepressant. And work is still steady: this week, shipping a coral reef to an Ohio church and constructing pieces for a Saturday morning television program. The atmosphere tends toward upbeat and goofy, as designers, artists, craftsmen, painters and administrators work in concert. "Amazing. Every day there's something new and wonderful and awesome going on," says seven-year veteran Karen Johnson, vice president of marketing and sales. "Just when I think there are no more new ideas, Bruce comes up with another one. He gets that creative stare, and I know something is brewing." 'It's never dull' A year ago, Barry and his wife, Vivian, headed to Las Vegas to renew their wedding vows. What better setting to celebrate their 10th year married than a cheesy Strip chapel? An Elvis impersonator officiated the quickie ceremony.Vivian, a decorator who's part of the Wacky workforce, is used to this. "Sure, sometimes he can drive me crazy. But that's why I love him," she says. "It's never dull. My main role is to keep everything organized and point him in the right direction so he can head out the door." She also handles the books. It's better that way. "He would give everything away if I didn't," she sighs. When FamilyNet proposed the reality series, she was conflicted. She knew it would give Wacky World priceless exposure. On the other hand, she's camera-shy and wasn't thrilled about inviting a cameraman into their personal and professional lives. "It's not that we argue a lot. Any disagreements we do have are work-related and at the office. But someone following us around and getting some of that personal stuff?" she says. At first, she'd stumble over her words and she was too self-conscious. But Allen was easygoing and she got more comfortable. Now, "he's family. He's welcome wherever we go. Everything feels natural now." The first few episodes capture the studio's mood, which jumps from casual-fun to fast-paced frenetic. Reps pitch a sale, artists engage in creative brainstorming and builders hunker down to bring the computerized graphics to 3-D reality. There's a little drama, some tension, and even a minor meltdown by the usually affable Barry when something goes awry. Most of all, there are a lot of laughs and energy. Barry's most memorable moment in the shooting process came when he was driving up Interstate 75 to Georgia, on a tight deadline for a project installation. "There was a camera mounted on the dash, a camera guy next to me and another one in the back, plus the director, plus my wife, and I've got Mark saying, 'Just act natural.' Yeah, right," he says. In two months, a national television audience will find out just how wacky Bruce Barry's world is. They'll see him crisscrossing the country to chat up clients, churning out long hours to complete projects and coming up with far-flung ideas that become concrete reality. "Even though he's surrounded by cartoons, he's a really good businessman," Allen observes. "He knows just how to move the elephant up a muddy hill and get a project finished right and on time." Barry smiles at the analogy. He's got that creative stare going. Maybe he's seeing an image of a pink Dumbo-like character mired in chocolate-colored muck. Or maybe he's thinking just how lucky he is, to get to come to work every day and play. His secret to happiness? Barry answers without hesitation. "I eat and breathe and love what I do."
Keyword: Wacky World, for a behind-the-scenes tour of the studio and other links. Bruce visits Michelle on her "Keeping the Faith" segment today at 9 a.m. She can be reached at (813) 259-7613.