But first, the project needed a catchy new name. During a creative meeting, Koplar suggested "Klystron," which is a piece of broadcasting equipment. He figured fellow TV executives would appreciate the inside joke. Few agreed. Somebody else came up with "Voltar." Later, as production lore has it, Koplar scrambled the two words by accident and inquired about the status of "Voltron." It stuck.

Next, the project needed a creative captain. Koplar turned to a young man at the station who'd been announcing kickboxing matches alongside Chuck Norris (yes, that Chuck Norris). The young man also happened to be the son of Anne Keefe, a well-known radio personality on KMOX (1120 AM). His name was Peter Keefe.

By all accounts, Peter Keefe was half-man, half-electromagnet. His thick black handlebar moustache, always curled, clashed with his fine blond hair. Colorblind (though he kept that secret), Keefe would arrive at business meetings in purple shirts, yellow scarves and cowboy boots. He addressed associates like a ringmaster, sprinkling in exotic words (during one presentation, he described a show's enduring appeal as "velcronic").

Team Voltron, at their Central West End office: Bob Koplar, Ted Koplar, Tiffany Ilardi and Jeremy Corray.
Jennifer Silverberg
Team Voltron, at their Central West End office: Bob Koplar, Ted Koplar, Tiffany Ilardi and Jeremy Corray.
Voltron co-creators Ted Koplar and Peter Keefe (the mustache is real!).
Courtesy World Events Productions
Voltron co-creators Ted Koplar and Peter Keefe (the mustache is real!).

Keefe journeyed to Los Angeles in 1983, tasked with assembling a production team. They cobbled together pilot episodes. Tapes in hand, Keefe and other salespeople from KPLR crisscrossed the country. They "cleared" (or sold the show to) 65 percent of the national market by the spring of 1984. Voltron was set to air just a few months later.

Now the clock was ticking.

"There were many times when we began that I thought: We'll never finish," Keefe admitted many years later in a recorded interview. "It's a Herculean task."


GoLion, in its raw state, was an unruly beast.

"There were some episodes we had translated, and we still didn't understand them," recalls director Franklin Cofod.

For coherence, the staff relied on head writer Jameson Brewer, a septuagenarian who'd been a writer on Disney's Fantasia back in 1940. He banged out scripts on a typewriter, laboring to streamline the story and remain as concise as the original Japanese.

For the theme song, Koplar commissioned a young jingle writer in New York named John Petersen. He'd never composed an orchestral theme. But he came up with one for a 50-piece orchestra — possibly a first for an animated series.

A cast of expensive union talent assumed voice duty, including Peter Cullen (later the voice of Optimus Prime on Transformers) and Michael Bell (who spoke for Duke on G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero). The actors recorded together in the same room, which allowed them to feed off of each other. But with Voltron, that method proved tricky.

Ensemble recording normally comes first, with the "lip-flap" of the characters drawn to match. Yet Voltron was an adaptation. The lip-flap already existed. So the voice actors had to deliver lines in ultra-precise windows of time. (Actor B.J. Ward remembers cultivating an internal clock sensitive to tenths of a second.)

The emergence of stereo sound also complicated matters. Stereo was about to become de rigueur in television sets, so the team chose to produce in that format. But this required that they update the old sound effects, which caused delays.

"None of us were sleeping," says Paul Vitello, the sound editor. He recalls that his staff toiled literally around the clock for months. "I would sleep an average of six hours every other night to get this machine up and running."

Cofod likens the relentless pace to an "assembly line."

"The finesse stuff never got done," he admits. "If we had started sooner, we would've had a better-looking show, but that just proves it doesn't matter. If you catch lightning in a bottle, and people are excited by it, it just has a momentum of its own."

The first episode aired nationwide on Monday, September 10, 1984. A new episode followed every weekday. Ratings trickled in: The audience was ballooning. The crew churned out more episodes.

The second part of the trilogy, also known as "Vehicle Voltron," premiered on December 14, 1984. This was an adaptation of Dairugger, a totally different series in which four-wheeled machines — not lions — made up a giant robot. Ratings drooped.

"There were letters written to the TV station in crayon," says Vitello. "Little kids asking, 'Where are the lions?'"

The company back in St. Louis had been pumping hundreds of thousands of dollars into the project every week. World Events scrapped the trilogy plan to run with a clear winner: the five youths in lion ships. Yet there was nothing left to adapt. They'd used up all of GoLion, and even pasted in bits of Dairugger. So Keefe conjured up 24 lion-force episodes from scratch.

Animators in Asia whipped up the art. Ted Koplar had to fly there several times to check their work. They occasionally failed to make the characters smile at a joke, for example, because they themselves didn't understand the English script.

Attention to details large and small paid off. Koplar remembers strolling through Hi-Fi Fo-Fum, the former electronics store on Big Bend Boulevard, around the holidays. Every TV on display was blaring Voltron in order to showcase stereo sound.

By late 1985, Voltron: Defender of the Universe was king. It had risen to the No. 1 syndicated children's show in the United States, according to Brian Lacey, who'd been recruited to help manage the franchise.

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13 comments
Prairie Librarian
Prairie Librarian

A fascinating, well-researched and spot-on local interest story that reaches beyond St. Louis in its devoted fans and franchise suits who benefit from its reincarnation. I am always looking for a slightly tilted but popular new subject to add to my small rural library's DVD collection. Voltron will be a hit, I can tell.

sorphin
sorphin

I used to watch that all the time. I even had the lions. Grabbed it up on DVD once I figured out that it was on DVD. Awesome to know that St. Louis actually played a part in its existence.

Dennis Paruch
Dennis Paruch

Excellent article. The most comprehensive story on the history of Voltron I've ever read. Thank you.

J
J

1. This show was amazing. It was the reason that I woke up Saturday mornings. Sadly, if my memory is correct, there were just a couple of seasons before it went kaput.

2. Can we please get someone to proof these artices? "But the princess and four of her pals — Keith, Lance, Hunk, Sven and Pidge..." This kind of mistake is pathetic. Can the author not count past four?

 
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