Stepping into a nondescript office park on Arville Road, I enter a bizarre soundstage. A ball-capped, pajama-ed, athletic-looking children?s-TV character sleeps in his bed. Flies buzz his smelly toes. Sunshine filters through the window. He rises, rubs his eyes and launches into his best—that is, funniest—Saturday Night Fever impression. The original musical track, ?Disco Daddy,? is bass-heavy, kick drum-thumpin?, club-ready, four-on-the-floor rock. When a disco ball starts spattering light everywhere, I think: Who the hell buffed up Pee-wee Herman for sporty tykes?
And who thinks the kids-TV industry is going to bite?
The answer is 31-year-old Jon Robbins, a.k.a. Johnny Rockfit. For almost a decade, he has operated a Yelp-acclaimed Henderson play-gym for toddlers called Rock and Roll Kids. Now he and Ryan Rich, who runs a landscaping company, are trying to execute, in their own words, ?Portlandia meets Sesame Street.? How do they plan to pull it off?
With help from Cirque pals, Robbins and Rich are filming stand-alone music videos. They plan to edit these into a full-length 22-minute pilot episode, which they hope to complete by next year.
?Once the pilot?s done, we?ll put together the show bible [a reference document for information about a TV show?s characters],? Robbins says. ?Through our industry contacts, we hope to have our sizzle reel viewed by Sprout, Nick Jr., NBC and more.?
When I press him, Robbins confesses that he and Rich have no industry contacts. They don?t have so much as an L.A. agent. All they have so far are two five-minute videos on YouTube. Sure, they look pro and sound great. But does the world need a show for toddlers emphasizing health, nutrition and exercise? The response suggests: yes.
Robbins and Co. are uploading a new musical segment every other month. Currently, Johnny Rockfit has 5,000 Facebook friends; the first video boasts 8,300 views. Not bad for a project announced in May. But the idea has been a long time coming.
Five years ago, Rich drove his 9-month-old to a ?Rock Babies? class at Rock and Roll Kids. Led by Robbins, these classes focus on music and movements—dancing, clapping, parachute-circling. The tunes are non-Barney rock ?n? roll: Led Zeppelin, ?50s doo-wop, Crosby, Stills & Nash, the White Stripes. The songs don?t grate grown-ups. Parents participate in the classes, grateful to be spared nerve-jangling jingles. Robbins? prescribed movements are fun, free-form, easy for kids to learn. His class is also a way for stay-at-home parents to socialize their children.
?It?s his personality and energy that draws in all these families,? Rich says. ?My kids love it and want to go everyday.?
Born to Christian missionaries, Robbins lived in the Philippines until he was 19. He moved to Las Vegas, working as a corporate play-gym instructor for a year. He didn?t enjoy the irritating kids music he was forced to use. Employee turnover was high; kids didn?t appreciate seeing a different instructor every day. So Robbins started his own business.
?I teach 99 percent of the Rock and Roll Kids classes,? he says. ?The only time I don?t teach is if I?m sick. A kid might start here at 8 months old, and I?ll see him or her three times a week. I meet friends here, and we stay friends. It?s a little community.?
Indeed, with a shared passion for fitness, Rich and Robbins became fast pals. They began training for triathlons together, chatting about childhood obesity and the TV prospects for a health-conscious character based on Robbins? instructor persona.
Then it dawned on Robbins. More than a few Cirque du Soleil artists took their brood to Rock and Roll Kids. Why not ask if they would be interested in helping shoot YouTube segments as a way of pitching to networks?
Rich and Robbins enlisted Zumanity saxophonist-composer JF Blais to write and record all the music. They recruited set designers and costume/makeup artists from several Cirque productions. Drawing from his fan base, Robbins assembled a production team. Thus, the character and world of Johnny Rockfit were born.
Robbins and Rich don?t study children?s TV. They say they were sports-oriented kids themselves, preferring the outdoors and physical activity.
?The music, characters and fast pace [of most kid shows]—drives us crazy,? Rich says. ?We?re getting away from that by showing kids how to slow down and focus.? There aren?t many leisurely movements in the first YouTube-able Rockfit segment, ?Johnny Learns Basketball.? Here, a towering basketball whiz named Mario rap-instructs Rockfit, visibly tattooed, on how to dancercise like a b-ball player over a funk-rock jam. You gotta take that ball with both hands/Now push it real hard to impress the fans. During the chorus, adorable kid breakdancers and cheerleaders strut their stuff in between animated speaker-shuddering stereo cabinets. Everything is colorful and bouncy, like a PBS show. The difference is in the un-lobotomized delivery, the punk vigor and the emphasis on being active and fit.
Rockfit?s producers don?t say it, but the obvious precedent is Nick Jr.?s Yo Gabba Gabba, a retro-hipster children?s show created by two fathers with no educational or industry experience—just a strong dislike of kids TV programming. Like Rockfit, Yo Gabba Gabba began as a privately financed pilot episode and circulated on the Internet.
The director of Napoleon Dynamite discovered it, bringing it to the attention of Nickelodeon. Since its 2007 premiere, Yo Gabba Gabba has featured guest alt-rockers such as the Killers and Weezer, and has been nominated for six Daytime Emmys.
By comparison, Rockfit has a leg up thanks to Robbins?s play-gym. Moreover, he and Rich enlisted a shooter of edgy music videos for local bands such as Deadhand and Candy Warpop. The segments look glossy. But do Portlandia-watching parents want another Yo Gabba Gabba?
?[Our] show promotes a healthy lifestyle,? Robbins says. ?It?s easy to entertain kids, but sending a positive message is the challenge.?
Rockfit segments run the gamut, from learning a new sport to choosing nutritional food to waking up in the morning enthusiastically and ready to start the day. Robbins and his team have 50 online segments written, and he?s particularly excited about the next video, ?Breakfast.? A live pig appears in the shoot—an $850 showbiz hoglet with her own handler.
?I hope she likes bluegrass music,? Robbins says.
Rock and Roll Kids
10730 S. Eastern Ave., Suite 130, 450-7529. Classes for kids 8 months to 5 years. $75 monthly membership for unlimited classes. RockAndRollKidsOnline.com.