Voltron prepares to recapture the universe from a small office in St. Louis

<i>Voltron</i> prepares to recapture the universe from a small office in St. Louis

"Voltron" as a concept is utterly insane. Created in the '80s, the story unfolds in a future of both space travel and mullets.

The conflict is classic: Evil king Zarkon is crushing a peaceful planet, ruled by the orphan princess Allura. But the princess and four of her pals — Keith, Lance, Hunk and Pidge — learn how to fly huge, robotic lions. And these lions, they discover, can become body parts that join to form a single, giant knight called Voltron. And Voltron, it turns out, can slay Zarkon's evil "robeasts" with his "blazing sword" and kick all kinds of ass.

But who controls him? Where did he come from? It's never explained. And you can't ask Voltron. He just defends the universe. And never talks.

Jennifer Silverberg
The original defender of the universe surveys his jurisdiction, circa 1984.
Courtesy World Events Productions
The original defender of the universe surveys his jurisdiction, circa 1984.

The origin of the animated series itself, however, is no mystery. Voltron: Defender of the Universe was conceived in the Central West End, inside a small office belonging to KPLR (Channel 11). After the show premiered in 1984, it roared to international success, seizing little hearts and minds in more than 65 countries.

But then the two key producers — both from prominent St. Louis families — moved on to other things. They had a bitter falling-out. Time passed. The young Voltron fans grew into grownups.

Now the grownups want Voltron again. And from the franchise's world headquarters, above a bistro in Maryland Plaza, a tiny staff is trying to answer that call and mount a comeback.

They're coordinating with Hollywood heavyweights to develop a live-action blockbuster film, à la Transformers, slated for a 2013-2014 release. A video game is in the works, under their supervision. They've helped launch a brand-new Voltron series that's breaking viewership records on the Nicktoons cable network.

Yet the brand's ethos has spread beyond their reach. When rappers such as Eminem or pro athletes like Kobe Bryant talk about "joining forces," they use the term "forming Voltron."

And all of this has arisen without the aid of any major studio or PR machine.

"I say this and I mean this," begins Jeremy Corray, the property's 33-year-old creative director and fanboy-in-residence. And he does mean it: "Voltron is bigger than me; it's bigger than anyone. It has a love and an energy. It's entered the zeitgeist. And all we can do — we can't even harness this power. All we can do is nudge it in certain ways."

The four call letters of Channel 11, "KPLR," are not random. They're a vowel-less version of "Koplar."

Harold Koplar was a postwar wheeler-dealer who smiled big and dreamed bigger. It was he who inherited the massive Park Plaza building on Kingshighway and linked it to the adjacent Chase Hotel. A natural schmoozer and personal friend of Bob Hope and Dean Martin, Koplar turned the Chase into the place for chic entertainment and big-name guests.

But his most populist venture was KPLR, which he launched in 1959. The schedule came to include The Three Stooges, Cardinals baseball and Blues hockey. Koplar also arranged for professional wrestlers to maul each other in his hotel ballroom every weekend for tapings of Wrestling at the Chase, which enjoyed a robust following until its final season in 1983.

By that time, the aging Koplar was in a pickle. KPLR had grown into one of the largest independent stations in the United States, but the cost of programming had skyrocketed. He needed original content, and fast. So he turned to his youngest son, Ted, a balding and avuncular manager with a hands-on style.

Ted set up an outfit called World Events Productions to crank out news and amusement for all demographics. (A young Bobby Costas did a stint as on-air talent.)

To cater to kids, Ted Koplar hatched an unorthodox plan: He would buy the rights to foreign children's shows and adapt them to the local market.

In 1983, most TV executives in America shunned Japanese animation as shoddy and inferior. But Ted Koplar and his colleagues found themselves titillated by three different animé series on display at an international trade show. They purchased the option to develop them.

That's when an awkward phone call altered the course of KPLR — and, in a sense, the universe.

An employee at World Events phoned across the Pacific and ordered tapes of the first two shows — Albegas and Dairugger — but didn't know the title of the third, Daltanious. So the employee described the show as having a character with a lion on its chest. The Japanese executive on the other end understood only "lion."

When the box arrived from Japan and Koplar opened it, he pulled out the first two shows he'd ordered, but couldn't find Daltanious. Instead, he saw a tape labeled Beast King GoLion.

"I put it in the tape machine," Koplar recalls. "I played it back, and I could follow the story without knowing the language."

GoLion was graphic. It featured decapitations. A girl gets tied to a cross. One sinister character forces half-naked slave women in a harem to dance for his pleasure. One of the good guys ends up dying.

"It was a little macabre," says Koplar. Still, he felt in his gut that this could be their hit. World Events decided to adapt GoLion and the two other shows to form a trilogy comprised of 125 episodes.

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