The marketing genius behind “Thomas the Tank Engine” and those scandalous “Teletubbies” knows how to capture the hearts and minds of toddlers. Now he’s after their feet.
For his next project, “The Oogieloves in the Big Balloon Adventure,” Kenn Viselman is taking a new approach to the preschool audience. The movie opened Aug. 29 and has auditory and visual cues that prompt the children to sing and dance in the aisles.
“Why do we try to make children do what they’re naturally not able to do at the age?” Viselman asks of making them sit still and quiet.
“We looked at the experience from a child’s point of view, and instead of saying to the child, come to the movie and be an adult, we want them to come to the movies and be a child,” he says. “Let children be children.”
Sitting in Starbucks, you’d never know the bespectacled man with a wordy tattoo wrapped around his right arm was instrumental in creating some of the biggest movements in children’s television programming. Before embarking on a career for the preschool set, he worked in the garment industry.
A change in career came when “Thomas the Tank Engine” creator Britt Allcroft brought Viselman on board in 1990 to market merchandise from the show. At first, Viselman says he was “going through the motions” until a letter from the mother of a 6-year-old boy with autism changed everything.
“She tells me how he’s in a catatonic state all day and yet when the Thomas segments come on he seems to stop. Do you have anything to send him,” Viselman recalls. So he found some merchandise lying around the office, which included a T-shirt prototype.
A few weeks later he received a package.
“There’s a picture of this boy wearing this one and only shirt that I had in my stockroom. The note’s from the mother and the mother says, you don’t know how you’ve changed my life,” he said. “She opens it up, pulls out the thing, the kid looks at the mother, stops shaking and says, ‘Choo Choo.’ It’s the first word that he’s ever spoken – he grabs the shirt, puts it on, wears it for six days, she has to bathe him in it. In that moment I understand the power that children’s television has.”
Never one to buckle under conventional wisdom, Viselman was instrumental in bringing George Carlin onboard as Mr. Conductor when Ringo Starr left the show.
“To the kids he was just a sweet creature that was 9 inches tall,” Viselman says of the late comedian. “So making that choice meant that the child viewer had a character they loved, and at the same time the media could have something they could go crazy over; the guy that says the seven words you can’t say on TV is now on children’s programming.”
While the Carlin hire was controversial, his next stunt still resonates today. Back in 1999, his company, Itsy Bitsy Entertainment Co., which owned the rights to “Teletubbies” in the Western Hemisphere, was looking to gain an edge ahead of the New York Toy Fair. In his attempt to persuade a Wall Street Journal reporter to get what he called “the dot matrix image blurb on the front page,” Viselman made a joke that started a media storm over the sexual orientation of Teletubbies character Tinky Winky. He’s the purple one with the triangular antenna atop his head.
The Rev. Jerry Falwell then wrote that Tinky Winky may be a gay icon. “It becomes the second largest story in the world. Literally the only thing bigger was Monica Lewinsky and her blue dress. The only story that got more hits on a global basis than this ridiculous question of is Tinky Winky a heterosexual or a homosexual?”
Viselman admits he fabricated the story, but he’s still confused by the reaction.
“The Teletubbies have no genitalia. How could they have any sexuality?” he asks. “So, we didn’t intend to create that but then it did and then how fantastic that the gay community could have a character, have somebody that could be their mascot.”
After a long hiatus from the business, Viselman returns this month as the producer of the “Oogieloves” movie. And rather than create Computer Graphic Imagery to tell the story, he opted for live action, using a host of stars including Chazz Palminteri, Cary Elwes, Toni Braxton, Jaime Pressly and others. It’s something he describes as a blend of “Pee Wee’s Playhouse” for the kids and strong, well-known character actors for the adults.
Viselman is confident that “The Oogieloves in the Big Balloon Adventure” will change the movie experience for parents and children alike. And it better. He’s planning on showing on 3,200 screens.
Of course, if he has any doubts, all he has to do is read his arm. What does it say? “My life shall not be measured by the number of breaths I take, instead, by the moments that take my breath away.”