Smith Scott Durbin is excited. He's sitting on a picnic table outside of Kehoe France Elementary School in Metairie waiting for his fellow band mates, the Imagination Movers. They're using the school's orchestra room to practice for an upcoming series of concerts in Disney World and while Durbin speaks, he gestures with his hands, his head nodding, and you can hear the astonishment in his voice.
You might think his animation results from discussing the Imagination Movers' incredible five-year run and its promising future. The local children's music powerhouse quartet is about to begin producing its own preschool national television show in October and join the lineup of Playhouse Disney, the Brahmin-elite in children's programming. The show will be filmed at an area studio and Disney is pouring resources " money, talent, staff, and promotion " into the project with the expectation that the Imagination Movers will become as popular with a national audience as they are in New Orleans.
But, no. Durbin, 37, is talking about his kids and his front yard as band mate, Scott 'Smitty" Smith, sits across from him munching a burger and listening to the story.
Durbin and his brood " 6-year-old son, Brewster, and 4-year-old daughter, Amelia " discovered spiders and a snake living on their lawn, but Durbin couldn't precisely identify the animals they had found. If they could somehow figure out how to ID the critters, they would know whom they were sharing their home with.
The situation called for imagination.
The kids and Durbin put their heads together and came up with a solution: photograph the wildlife, download the images to their computer, and then cross-reference the pictures on the Internet. Easy enough. Now they know that the Durbin family shares its homestead with at least one Yellow Orchid spider and a Texas rat snake.
Many more creatures are poised to become part of the Imagination Movers' world as well " Disney executives, writers, producers, directors and others. The band stands on the threshold of national, maybe even international stardom. Are they ready for this? Is there room for all these strangers to move in and share their world?
Their 'big idea" is steamrolling into certainty, the show is in production, and while spiders and snakes can still get the four pals from Lakeview excited, their fast-approaching show-biz reality sometimes still feels like something they imagined.
'It's surreal," Durbin says. 'Suddenly the kids down the street have a show on Disney."
The show will debut on the Disney Channel in March, but it's being shot locally at the Nims Center studios in Harahan. The studio is operated in cooperation with the University of New Orleans. Beth Gardiner, vice president of development and programming at Playhouse Disney, says economics played a part in deciding to produce the show in New Orleans (she declines to discuss financial details), but she adds that the Movers, co-executive producers of the show, lobbied hard to tape the show here.
'They've infected us all with a love of this city," Gardiner says. 'The history and Louisiana make it easier to produce down here."
Skot Bright, the show's executive producer, along with his partner, Sascha Penn, are ultimately responsible for producing a season's worth of episodes (26), and getting them completed on time and on budget. Bright notes that while 90 percent of children's shows are shot in New York City or Los Angeles, his experience shooting music videos in New Orleans made it easier for him to find an experienced film crew here. The show's months-long production schedule " from now until next April " also gives the crew a shot at steady employment without having to work late nights and weekends.
'It's absolutely not lost on them," Bright says. 'We've been talking to people and they were lucky if they were doing three or four movies a year, and we're saying, "Would you like to come work with us for six months " and you know what you're doing Monday through Friday?'"
Production requires a workforce of at least 100 people, Bright says. These skilled technicians and craftspeople " photographers, set dressers, camera operators, painters, carpenters, etc. " work and live here, bringing an economic boost to the area. The crew will be spread between the center's two stages, with the larger stage (20,000 square feet) serving as the show's main set. The Movers' 'warehouse," depicted on the main set, was initially created for the pilot earlier this year. In contrast to the drab, industrial building that adults normally associate with a warehouse, the Movers' headquarters is a brightly colored space designed to trigger the imaginations of band members as well as kids who are watching at home.
Most of the show's action unfolds in the warehouse. According to the story outline, the four friends have just opened their own business and they're anxiously waiting for their first customer. The Movers specialize in 'situations that need imagination," and they offer brainstorming services that are meant to stimulate kids to think through problems, not just identify component parts. 'There are multiple ways to get to your destination," says Durbin. '[We're] promoting that rather than, "What color is this?'"
That can be quite a departure from much of what's on television for preschoolers. For instance, Blues Clues, an award-winning children's show, uses an animated setting with a human host (Joe) and is aimed at a 2- to 5-year-old audience (the same target audience as the Movers' show). Each episode of Blues Clues begins with Joe asking Blue, a cartoon dog, a question, which Joe then proceeds to answer by getting clues from around his house and then sitting in his 'thinking chair" to piece together an answer to the original query. Joe talks directly to the audience, asking them questions and giving them plenty of time to respond. Kids participate by talking back to the TV and guessing at the answers.
Durbin thinks the show is effective, but he also believes that kids can handle more. Instead of, as he puts it, 'loading them with the most base answers," why not give many different answers?
'Kids are such sponges," he continues. 'Why not drench them with water? They're going to soak it up. If I expect them to only process such-and-such, then I'm not allowing them to participate fully in what we're doing."
If the pilot is any indication, the Movers will be doing plenty. Without spoiling the fun for any adult-sized fans, the show travels at hyperkinetic speed, at least for a 3-year-old, with plenty of sight gags, original Mover music, and an 'idea emergency." The show will challenge little ones, but when the network tested it, audiences of all ages loved it. And because the plots are fast and fun " with music that entertains a range of ages " the Movers are hoping for a crossover hit.
'The one thing we love about Playhouse Disney is that we have the opportunity, but we don't want to be compartmentalized," Durbin says. 'So that if a 7-year-old happens to be interested in our show, it's not "babyfied,' a natural turnoff for him or her."
Rick Gitelson, the show's head writer and a co-executive producer along with the Movers, wrote the pilot and conducted his own focus group on his 9-year-old son, who liked what he saw and showed it to his friends. Gitelson is a veteran of children's shows " he is the executive producer of the current Playhouse Disney cartoon Handy Manny " and he swears by the Disney approach to kids' TV: entertain first, educate second.
'That doesn't mean to imply that they don't want educational value to what they're putting on the air, but they know that the first job is to get the eyeballs in front of the screen," he says. 'If you don't do that, then whatever you deliver to them of educational value isn't going to go anywhere."
Gitelson adds that the scripts will be challenging not only for kids but also for the writers. 'The hardest part about the show " my writers and I go through this all the time " is that we have to be incredible problem solvers as writers, which I never really thought about when I went into the show originally. We have to do all the hard work because we have to come up with a problem and then come up with six different ways to solve it."
The storylines will offer a variety of solutions with lots of humorous and musical asides, showing people being creative and persevering through a problem. Rich Collins, one of the Imagination Movers, promises that this part of the show's message won't become overbearing.
'That's the fundamental purpose of it, but we're certainly never going to hit anyone over the head with it," Collins says, adding, 'But we might be hitting [one another] over the head with a fish."
While all four Movers " Durbin, Smith, Collins and Dave Poche " might enjoy knocking each other over the head with a fish, describing them as a bunch of overgrown kids is misleading. They bring an adult-level commitment and determination to this project.
As a new father in 2003, Durbin was disappointed with what was available on children's television. There were plenty of puppets and cartoon characters, but where were the 'real" people like Captain Kangaroo and Mister Rogers, who inspired Durbin when he was a kid?
'For me personally, there was a lack of humanity in television, especially for kids," he recalls. 'There's only so much a cartoon or a puppet can say to a child and be a model for a child."
Durbin thought about his own experience as an elementary school teacher. He taught the 'average" kids, but to him they were anything but average. He found that if he treated them as superior students, they rose to the occasion. And if he could entertain them " make them laugh " then he could spark them to learn. Durbin concluded that that's what children's television should do " treat the kids as if they were geniuses, give them as much as they could handle, and keep them laughing, moving and imagining. He realized that he might be on to something: If there weren't any kids' television shows with real people, he could start his own.
Durbin then made a crucial decision. He decided to share his inspiration at his son's second birthday party. He talked it over with three close friends " this part of the story is fast becoming Movers' lore " and they all agreed to begin working on the project. On weeknights, after putting their assorted kids to bed, the four friends would meet at Collins' house to brainstorm and create the world of the Imagination Movers. From the very beginning, Collins, 38, says they 'kept at it like bulldogs," convinced that they couldn't fail.
'We just acted like " where we are right now " was going to be inevitable," he says.
During those early sessions at Collins' home, the strengths of each Mover became clear, and that helped them develop their individual characters. Poche, an architect, liked to tinker and schematically plot out designs for his own stylized take on things the group might need. Collins calls him 'our McGyver." When the Movers needed a backdrop to project video, Poche drew up a plan, bought PVC pipe and built a screen. As Imagination Mover Dave, Poche retains his tinkering persona; in the warehouse, he has a 'Gadget Hat" that's also a storage device for all sorts of gizmos.
Because Durbin first saw the idea's potential, he's the big picture guy of the group. On the show, he uses 'Wobble Goggles" which enable him to see things from several perspectives.
The Movers knew music would be a great hook for the show, but they wanted their songs to stand apart from typically folk-sounding children's tunes. All four guys were influenced by the music they grew up with " New Wave and hip-hop sounds from the '80s and the alternative rock and retro-funk sounds of the '90s. They felt parents from their generation as well as their kids would enjoy songs pulled from those musical genres.
Durbin sang in a successful local band, Clones at Play, during the early '90s and Collins sang and played guitar for his own group. Smith, 38, could play guitar, and the 40-year-old Poche learned to play bass. Collins built a recording studio in his home, which enables the group to work on its sound.
It also allowed Collins, a father of four, to hone his talents as a writer " earlier in his career, he was managing editor of Gambit Weekly " and to sharpen the group's songs. Describing his process as similar to his earlier writing technique, Collins says his studio work enabled him to arrange, tinker and obsess. 'Basically, I can throw in tons and tons of stuff and then chop, chop, chop and change, change, change."
When he's in the Mover mode, instead of using a soundboard and editing tools, Rich, the artistic Mover, plays with his 'Scribble Sticks," drum sticks that can play a beat and draw pictures in the air.
Listening in at the Movers' recent rehearsal at Kehoe France, it's not hard to pick out familiar riffs. 'Seven Days A Week," with its Celtic chorus, brings to mind the band Big Country and the one-hit wonder, The Proclaimers, and the song, 'I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles)." Another Movers' song, 'Farm," is bound to get kids and adults grooving with its Galactic-like funk. And the catchphrase, 'The Roosters, the roosters, the roosters aren't tired" will have parents laughing and kids repeating. Equally important, the song plays on what's familiar to kids: animal sounds.
The song titles and themes often come from the Movers' experiences as parents. Sometimes a song can be born from parental advice ('Take Your Medicine") or completing a chore ('Clean My Room"). Other songs can help kids and parents deal with common fears such as sleeping alone ('I Want My Mommy") or the anxiety of starting school ('First Day of School"). The songs display a compassion and humor that let kids know it's okay to be scared and that somehow they'll get past the immediate crisis. 'If it's an important topic we're living it by interacting with our kids," Poche says.
Smith is the lone nonfather. But he makes up for that by being a New Orleans firefighter " what kid doesn't want to be a fireman at some point in his life? It also would be fair to say that Smith is a big curious kid in his own right. He likes to try new things " he studied late-Romantic poetry in college, has worked as a bartender, wine salesman, forklift operator and landscaper " and has a kid's knack for giving obvious, combined with not-so-obvious, answers to reporters' nettlesome questions, such as what motivated you to join the Movers?
'I'm a creative person, and it's always fun to have a creative outlet," Smith says. 'I carve duck decoys and stuff like that."
Smith studied duck-decoy carving under Cal Kingsmill, a world-class carver, and says he aspires to 'live up to his high standards" someday as a carver himself. In the Mover warehouse as Smitty, he is the outdoorsy type and the researcher. The other Movers often find Smith with his nose buried in The Book of Brilliant Things.
Even though most fans know the Movers through their music, the idea of a television show sparked the group's birth and kept it going. They wrote scripts, developed characters, designed the Movers' jumpsuit costumes, and kept to the overall notion of fusing together music with age-appropriate material for kids. 'Beastie Boys meet Mister Rogers," Durbin says.
While brainstorming an idea for a TV show might have provided the spark, the music and live shows got the Movers noticed. They started the usual way for children's performers " birthdays and private events " but the group quickly accelerated to larger public venues such as Jazz Fest, the Louisiana Children's Museum and traveling to regional outdoor children's events in places such as Birmingham, Ala., and Atlanta. In 2004, convinced that they should be playing arena events, the band booked, promoted and produced a show at the Lakefront Arena on Father's Day. The gamble paid off as more than 1,000 adoring parents and kids came to see them.
By this time, XM Radio was giving the Movers national airplay. For several years now, they have been on the verge of becoming America's answer to the kings of children's performers, Australia's The Wiggles, who have sold millions of CDs, have a show on Playhouse Disney and are almost as recognizable as Santa Claus to preschoolers. For the Movers' 2005 Jazz Fest show, executives from Disney Channel and Disney Records came to witness the Movers' phenomenon firsthand.
When the four sat down with the Disney folks, the conversation moved quickly from Mover music to Mover show. 'Yeah, it's kind of ironic that Disney came to see us at Jazz Fest because of what had happened with the music," Poche says. 'When it came time that they said they wanted to explore this as a TV concept, we said, "Oh yeah, here's a giant stack of information. Here's a treatment, ancillary characters, education justification, and here's a sample script.'"
Disney's interest didn't guarantee a contract or a show. With the exception of Collins, who took out a second mortgage to become a full-time Mover and who candidly admits that he's currently 'broker than broke," the guys held on to their day jobs while contract negotiations sputtered and stalled. Who knows how long talks with Disney might have gone on if Hurricane Katrina hadn't struck in August 2005?
After evacuating his family to Jackson, Miss., Collins rallied his friends with cell phone text messages to get them to a show booked in Dallas for the following weekend. Before the storm, the Movers all lived within in a half-mile of each other in Lakeview (Smith had moved to Algiers just prior to Katrina). Now they were separated, with three of the four losing their homes to the flood. Smith stayed in New Orleans as a first responder, but the three family guys went to Texas, borrowed instruments and temporary Movers' suits and played the Dallas show.
Choosing to play that show was the first sign for the Movers that Katrina had not only changed their lives in New Orleans but also their dream. They would have to find new homes for their families, new jobs and, like everyone else in the area, the Movers would have to recover from the devastation. But, as Collins explains, the disaster provided them a now-or-never impetus: 'When the storm came, we made a decision to make it happen and they (Disney) started paying more attention to us. Both parties had increased interest."
Durbin had been ready from the beginning to quit teaching to pursue his vision. After Katrina, he did just that. Perhaps one of the biggest signs that the Movers were completely dedicated came in the spring of 2006, when Poche determined it was time to quit his day job as an architect. A self-described 'weigh-all-my-options kind of guy," Poche deliberated painfully on the subject and concluded that his dreamy friends were right " their dream was a good investment.
By April 2006, the Movers hammered out a preliminary contract with Walt Disney Records and Playhouse Disney. The latter was to develop the show, and the music deal put the Movers in the studio with music producer Patrick Dillett, who produces Mary J. Blige and has worked with They Might Be Giants, David Byrne and others. Although the first CD with Disney was recorded in the summer of '06, it has been held until February to drum up momentum for the TV show, which will begin broadcasting in March.
'Walt Disney Records will use all of their considerable resources to make Movers available across the country," Collins says. 'In other words, walk into a Target or Wal-Mart, and there we are."
One of the keys to problem solving, of course, is the ability to work with others. That's a constant for the Imagination Movers these days. The concept that they developed into a children's warehouse world is no longer theirs alone; now it involves hundreds of others, and soon it could include millions of television viewers.
Gone are the days when the players masterminded the project at Collins' house. Nowadays, decisions are contemplated in Disney's Burbank offices, Penn-Bright Entertainment in Hollywood, Rick Gitelson's Los Angeles office and in a studio in suburban New Orleans. Disney execs such as Gardiner look at Gitelson's scripts, as do executive producers Penn-Bright and the Movers as co-executive producers. Gitelson says that although one writer primarily writes each episode, the others have input, which can be a juggling act.
'It's trying to give everybody a voice and filtering," Gitelson explains.
The Movers are pleased with the results so far because they feel the writers get their sense of humor and are open to their suggestions. Durbin is satisfied that the scripts don't underestimate a preschooler's intelligence and that the writing hasn't put the brakes on the Movers' typical headfirst, break-neck pace.
'One of the best parts of this whole process for me personally has been how heady the show scripts " how heady the writing has been," Durbin says. 'We really participated in it."
The production crew has been assembling the set and preparing for the Movers since August. Taping starts this week. Bright says that although the ideas won't stop flowing, right now time and money are his primary concerns as the show's producer.
'We stand at that gate between the series and the network," says Bright. 'It's our responsibility to manage the product, creatively and fiscally."
The words 'product" and 'fiscally" aren't normally part of Smith's vocabulary. But, as he did with Durbin's tale of the nature expedition on his front lawn, he has paid close attention to how Durbin's idea has unfolded. He takes his time with things " such as when he sits down to carve a duck decoy " and it was only slightly more than a month ago that he took a leave of absence from the Fire Department. He's confident but realistic about the show's future " and already glad that he has been along for the ride.
'I don't feel that if it doesn't work out, it's the end of the world," Smith concludes. 'We started all this, literally, from grassroots. It wasn't a contrived Frankenstein monster made in Hollywood. This came from four guys who kind of dreamed it up."
In that sense, the Imagination Movers' first 'customers" were themselves.