"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.
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.
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").
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.
Live actors in Voltron costumes set off on a national mall tour. Kids flocked by the thousands to gape at Princess Allura and Commander Keith. The "mob" was so huge in Hawaii, a local TV reporter said, it reached Menudo proportions.
Voltron episodes released on VHS (another novel technology) went double platinum, meaning over 2 million sold within a year. Voltron toys and the animated series fed off each other in what Lacey calls "a rare synergy." Merchandisers hounded Keefe to sign deals on everything from pajamas to watches.
"Peter was Voltron," Lacey recalls. "His phone was ringing off the hook."
But it was in boardrooms that Keefe revealed his true genius, Lacey says. A voracious reader, Keefe would allude to French history while presenting in Paris. In Japan, he drew analogies to the shogun era. And for all his oddball flair, the mustachioed Keefe spoke to executives in their own terms: ratings, demographics and, most crucially, dollar signs.
Lacey remembers one broadcaster summing up Keefe's energy this way: If you shook the man's hand, you'd better not be standing in water.
"He was masterful," concludes Lacey, a 28-year veteran of the industry. "The best I've ever seen in the business."
But Peter Keefe's resentment was building.
During production of World Events' next major hit, Denver, the Last Dinosaur, Peter Keefe quit in anger. He felt that Koplar had verbally agreed to pay him more, but wasn't following through.
In 1989, Keefe filed suit in California against Koplar and the company, alleging breach of contract and demanding $9 million. Four years later, a jury awarded him $2.6 million. The adversaries then reached an out-of-court settlement.
Franklin Cofod testified on Keefe's behalf at trial.
"In my opinion, [World Events] did what a lot people do when they get successful," Cofod says. "They figured it was cheaper to get sued than to pay. And Peter sued them. And he won."
Keefe and Koplar were not on speaking terms during the '90s, but the Voltron franchise did not die. In 1998, World Events ran a 26-episode sequel in 3-D computer-generated imagery. The characters looked different. Reviews were lukewarm.
Worse, the Japanese creators of Beast King GoLion — Toei Animation — began saber-rattling. Toei believed World Events had overstepped the boundaries of their 1984 agreement and made the CGI series without buying those explicit rights.
To quash this dispute once and for all, Koplar and crew purchased GoLion outright in 2000. Now they had the freedom to adapt at will. But nothing was in the works.
In 2001, Tiffany Ilardi — a five-foot-tall brunette all of 27 years old — slid into the vacant seat of managing director at World Events. Hundreds of e-mails and phone calls were pouring in every day, she discovered, from fans across the globe. They wanted more Voltron, and they also wanted merchandise. She didn't have much to offer.
So she went onto eBay to take stock of vintage Voltron items still in circulation. And she was shocked.
"I had no idea how big this was back in the '80s," she says. There were Voltron dinnerware sets, bedsheets, viewfinders, Easter egg wraps, shrinky-dinks. She bought all of it. Her office filled up so fast she had to move it all into storage.
For the show's twenty-year anniversary, Ilardi made a deal with Media Blasters to re-release the entire original series in eight collectible tins. It sold well. Then Toynami came out with some limited-edition classic Voltron toys. Those sold out. Ilardi even had some cheeky apparel made, such as boxer shorts emblazoned with the words, "Form Blazing Sword!"
Reebok took notice of the buzz and designed five different pairs of Voltron-themed sneakers, each for a different lion. The New York City launch party, which featured Voltron-themed martinis, drew the likes of Chace Crawford from Gossip Girl. Within six months, Ilardi says, Reebok had unloaded all 125,000 pairs.
In 2005, the prospect for a live-action Voltron movie grew bright as Grey's Anatomy producer Mark Gordon took an interest. Variety reported in August 2007 that World Events was ready to ink a deal with Gordon and 20th Century FOX.
But Toei came a-knocking once more. "Congratulations!" the company's lawyer wrote in January 2008 after reading the article. "We, however, were surprised with the fact that Toei has not been contacted in connection with this movie planning." Once again, the Japanese felt they had retained some Voltron-related rights.
Gordon and the Hollywood studio caught wind of this confusion and recoiled. World Events filed a federal lawsuit against Toei, alleging that it had scotched a lucrative film deal.
The St. Louis-based company hired a new attorney in his late twenties to assist with the case: Ted Koplar's youngest son, Bob.
Along with his three siblings, Bob had served as an original Voltron guinea pig. He still remembers screening early episodes in Ted's office, with his father asking the children, "What are your impressions?"
"We just went crazy," he says with a grin. Bob Koplar was also the kid in school with the most Voltron toys. "It was like currency to get friends," he jokes.
After finishing law school at Washington University, he put in time as a corporate lawyer in New York City but felt the pull back home. Upon returning in 2009, his first major project was to help with the lawsuit against Toei. The parties settled in late 2010.
Around this time, someone else returned briefly to St. Louis: Peter Keefe. He'd been diagnosed with rapidly metastasizing throat cancer, and had undergone chemotherapy. He and Ted Koplar had spoken on the phone a few times in recent years, but hadn't seen each other in more than a decade. They arranged a lunch at the creperie below the World Events office in Maryland Plaza.
Bob Koplar, who joined them, says it was a peaceful moment. "It was a really good thing."
Ted Koplar refers to their spat as a "misunderstanding on both sides," adding: "I have a lot of respect for Peter. He was a bright, colorful, unique individual."
Peter Keefe died on May 27, 2010. He was 57. The New York Times ran a 400-word obituary, hailing him as creator of a show that "helped prepare the way for other Japanese-style animation in the United States."
Jeremy Corray, the creative director of Voltron, does not answer questions. He releases currents of language where sales pitches swirl into pop-culture standup. Six-foot-four and thin in business attire, he could pass for a frat brother. But this is a guy who "felt sick for a week" when Optimus Prime died on Transformers. Now, he's 33 years old and brand watchdog for Voltron.
"In many situations," he admits, "I'm just the fanboy that got let into the party."
On a recent August afternoon at World Events, he's pacing a tight line inside his office while on the phone with THQ, the company that's developing the first-ever Voltron video game. A few feet away, two young sons of another employee twitch in front of a flat screen as they play the prototype on an XBox. Corray watches as he negotiates.
"I know it's a big ask," he concedes into the phone, but he insists the game needs more blazing sword. Even if that means delaying the release date. It would be like playing Luke Skywalker and not being able to use a light saber, he says. Just not cool.
When it's time for the boys to leave, Corray curves his hand into a letter C and presents it to them. "Gimme Voltron claw," he says.
In 2010, Corray was invited out to Los Angeles to meet Todd Garfield, head writer of the new Nicktoons series Voltron Force. Garfield instructed him to bring along every Voltron idea he'd ever had. So Corray consulted a notebook of ideas he'd begun in grade school.
"I walked in there with 100 index cards," Corray recalls, "and we sat there and Tetris-ed this show together." In the show, a new generation of cadets — trained by some of the older pilots — fly updated lion ships and form a revamped Voltron.
Garfield, the head writer, snagged the gig specifically because he wasn't an obsessed fan, and therefore wouldn't be precious with the material. But Corray helped him hew close to the original's mythology.
"I call him my Voltron police," Garfield says.
When the first three episodes debuted on Nicktoons as a seamless trilogy in June, they set a network record as the highest-rated premiere for the key demographics, according to spokeswoman Maria Poulos. On all of TV, she adds, Voltron Force is already No. 2 with boys ages six to eleven.
After each episode airs, Corray logs into the online fan forums to gauge reaction.
"I read everything," he reports. "Everything. Good, bad, fugly, homicidal. I have to know what the view is in the nerd trenches...I shouldn't say 'nerd.' But it's coming from a nerd!"
Corray doesn't believe in fate, per se, but he did carve "Black Lion" into his Huffy bike while growing up in Carbondale, Illinois. Later, employed at his college's TV station, he pulled off a major coup by acquiring the entire Voltron series on three-quarter-inch tape and broadcasting it to hung-over kids on Saturday mornings.
Once out of college, he spent his very first paycheck on a reissued Voltron toy. When he interviewed at KPLR, he promised he would even be willing to pick up Voltron's dry cleaning to get a crack at the job.
These days, Corray's value to World Events is obvious. He recently took the toymakers at Mattel to task for coloring Hunk's uniform peach, rather than the original orange.
"You have to do it, so no geek can bust you," he says.
He's also vigilant of trademark conflicts. He's just learned, for instance, that R&B artist and jack-of-all-trades Tyrese dubbed his new music label "Voltron Recordz."
"I think we're just going to send the guy a friendly letter, trying to deputize him," Corray says. "I mean, he's a Voltron fan!"
Hip-hop's infatuation with Voltron goes back more than a decade. In the late '90s, after Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur were both gunned down in the beef between the East and West coasts, Sprite ran a series of commercials to promote unity. Fat Joe, Common, Goodie Mob, Mack 10 and the revered DJ pioneer, Afrika Bambaataa, all played Voltron lion pilots, coming together in the end to smite an evil robeast.
Since then, rappers nationwide have given shout-outs to Voltron, from big dogs such as Eminem and Wu-Tang Clan down to T-Rock and Edan. Pharrell Williams and will.i.am are reportedly Voltron devotees.
Back in 2003, rapper Murphy Lee of the St. Lunatics squeezed a Voltron reference into the No. 1 single, "Shake Ya Tailfeather." Later, he explained the robot's significance in a video entitled "Voltron 101." (His heavy eyelids in the clip suggest he was intoxicated by a bit more than just the magic of Voltron.)
Voltronic love has bled into pro sports, too. Last year, basketball star Kobe Bryant was asked about the Miami Heat's "South Beach Trio" of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. "They've basically formed Voltron," he said with a laugh.
Corray loves that his brand has become synonymous with unity. But in true geek fashion, he quips that the show's value lies elsewhere: a frequent plot formula involving an evil, deceptive witch.
"I could sit here and [talk] about the teamwork and everybody coming together," he said in a DVD interview. "But frankly, I would have to say the life lesson learned from Voltron is don't trust a mysterious stranger who's claiming to be a relative.... It's probably just Witch Haggar in disguise."
Outside the Tivoli Theatre in the Delmar Loop, in the evening heat of August 18, the Voltron staff looks anxious. Cinema St. Louis is closing its local filmmakers showcase for the first time in its eleven-year history with an animated feature, the Voltron Force: New Defenders trilogy.
As a camera crew interviews Bob Koplar, Jeremy Corray deals with guest list issues and Tiffany Ilardi snaps photos. All three are sweating.
Granted, nobody's sweating like intern Wes Murrell, who's inside the eight-foot Voltron costume. (He's so wide that, later, to enter the lobby, he must clomp through the double doors sideways.) Murrell clowns for fans on the sidewalk as passersby aim cellphone cameras at him.
No large crowd forms. Inside the theater, many vacant seats remain, even though the Koplars sprung for enough tickets to let kids in free. Just as in 1984, a new Voltron project is a gamble.
World Events tried to infuse the Nicktoons series with enough new and old to create what marketers call a "co-viewing experience" (for kids and parents). After all, kids don't have credit cards. Adults do — the same ones who are buying the DVD reissues and classic XL T-shirts.
It's adult affection for the franchise that lured Hollywood. The live-action Voltron feature is being developed by Relativity Media — a powerhouse production company that openly avoids risk. And a Voltron movie, made by and for grownups, would not be risky. Like Smurfs and the upcoming Thundercats feature, Voltron is nostalgia. And nostalgia sells.
But here's the irony: Voltron is only a sure bet today because once upon a time, it wasn't, and Ted Koplar and Peter Keefe piled all their chips on it anyway. Yes, the Koplars and their staff want to cash in on nostalgia. But they're the ones who earned it in the first place. They're still hustling for the brand. On this steam bath of an evening, they're still sweating.
Back out on the sidewalk, a family of four approaches the eight-foot robot knight. The father tells his two young sons to sidle up to the robot for a photo. The boys balk.
"Get in the picture with Voltron or you're not going into the movie," the father says. "This is big for Daddy."
They won't budge.
"OK, fine, I'll get in the picture!" And he does. Crossing his arms like a tough guy, grinning like he did when he was eight.
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