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Author Topic: Author now grateful for hit from God  (Read 1960 times)
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« on: October 21, 2006, 01:33:43 AM »

Author now grateful for hit from God
'Veggie Tales' creator had sunk low along with company before seeing new light

 The man who has sold 50 million children's videos isn't presiding over a Nickelodeon soundstage or leading a production meeting at Pixar.

In the upstairs of an old home in downtown Wheaton that shares space with a real estate agent, "Veggie Tales" creator Phil Vischer is explaining how his empire crashed, burned and moved on without him--and how he's OK with that.

The world of computer-animated talking vegetables that Vischer created is popular with children and adults, primarily in evangelical circles, for its biblical lessons in morality and goofy humor that draws from influences ranging from Walt Disney to Monty Python.

"Veggie Tales" even made its way to Saturday morning TV last month, where it has become a top-rated NBC children's program. Yet controversy ensued when the network excised several references to God, including Vischer's traditional signoff: "Remember, kids, God made you special and he loves you very much."

"Veggie" fans were outraged and blamed Vischer, apparently unaware he no longer controls characters such as Larry the Cucumber and Bob the Tomato. Though he was involved in preparing the stories for NBC, he says the network failed to keep promises to conglomerate Classic Media, which now owns his brainchild, about the content.

Vischer had grand plans for Big Idea Productions, the firm behind "Veggie Tales." Now he has a new company, called Jellyfish, and his goal is simply to tell the best stories he can.

Jellyfish a personal tale

The first Jellyfish book is a children's story about two pigs, titled "Sidney & Norman," that is similar in tone to Shel Silverstein's "The Giving Tree." Beneath the surface, though, it is an intensely personal tale.

"Getting hit in the head with a baseball bat by God really changed how I viewed the people around me," Vischer said.

Big Idea, based in Lombard, began to implode in 2002 after it tried to grow too big too fast, Vischer said. "Big Idea started to go off-course when I made a 20-year plan: `OK, this is how we're going to change the world,'" he said.

When revenues started to shrink and couldn't keep up with ambitious projections, the plan fell apart. Vischer had to lay off people even as the first "Veggie Tales" feature film, "Jonah," hit screens in 2002.

Five rounds of cuts took the company from 210 people down to 65. Its distributor, Lyrick, sued Big Idea and won, effectively bankrupting the company. Though the verdict was overturned, that doesn't bring the company back, Vischer noted.

"I remember when the `Jonah' film came out, it was such a high for [Christian] parents," said Tim Morgan, deputy managing editor of Christianity Today magazine. "But of course, there was tragedy unfolding at the same time. People were utterly puzzled by the unraveling of Big Idea. I think people today are still puzzled."

After the bankruptcy, Classic Media snapped up Big Idea's assets, hired Vischer right-hand man Mike Nawrocki to run the revamped company (now based in Nashville) and started cranking out more "Veggie Tales." A second feature film is set for release by Universal in 2008.

Back in Wheaton, alone, Vischer rented the space above the realty office and tried to figure out what happened.

"The Bible says that if you are a Christian, your life will be marked with love, joy, peace, gentleness, kindness," Vischer said. "I was looking at my life thinking, `I don't have any of those things.' I spent 10 years feeling like Disney and Nickelodeon were so far out ahead and I had to catch up with them."

It wasn't mere narcissism, Vischer insists. His family, he says, believed that God gives people gifts to use for his kingdom and will judge them sternly on their performance.

His maternal great-grandfather, R.R. Brown, was a pioneering radio preacher from Omaha and was on the air from the '20s to the '70s. Vischer's mom was playing piano on the show by age 5.

"We were this weird, religious show-biz family, kind of a cross between the Osmonds and the Bakkers," he said with a chuckle. "I grew up in that."

Dad was storyteller

 On the other side, at least for a while, was his father. "I idolized my dad, who was a storyteller and advertising man all his life," Vischer said. "When I was 9, he walked out and ended up moving in with his secretary."

The shy Vischer retreated to the basement, where he made Super-8 films, puppets and clay figures. When MTV debuted during his sophomore year at Glenbard West High School in 1982, Vischer found his calling--to compete for the hearts of America's youth.

If he didn't, he surmised, he would be judged.

Though "Veggie Tales" wouldn't emerge until 1993, Vischer's sense of urgency resulted in a prolific stream of stories, from "Larry-Boy and the Fib From Outer Space" to "Madame Blueberry." He also developed pericarditis (an inflammation of the lining around the heart), shingles at age 32, and a sense that the weight of the world rested on his shoulders.

"He seemed to be dying a slow death and, actually, so did the company," said Lisa Vischer, who wrote songs, edited scripts and did voices for "Veggie Tales." The bankruptcy, she said, "was a blessing in disguise."

Today the Vischers live with their three children in a modest Wheaton home. Having sunk most of the money they earned back into Big Idea, they were left with no royalties or income when it went belly-up. Their contract to consult on new "Veggie Tales" stories expired in April, and Vischer is largely leaving his creation behind.

"It's still in flux, but it's looking like I'm going to be less involved going forward," he said.

Vischer says he learned he's not a savior or even a superhero and that kindness is more important in God's eyes than being the Christian Walt Disney.

"I can't change the world," he added. "I'm just a child of God, like every other one. My gift happens to be storytelling, and he will use that in some way. It may be a little way or it may be a huge way. Whichever it is, it's none of my business."

Joh 9:4  I must work the works of him that sent me, while it is day: the night cometh, when no man can work.
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