Stage shows for kids: A grown-up industry


By Marco R. Della Caca
USA TODAY
July 3, 2007

With many of today's dual-income households looking to spend precious time and entertainment dollars on family-focused experiences, a growing number of successful children's properties are hitting the road with live shows. Once largely a toddler-oriented phenomenon, the stage performances now are aimed just as much at parents and the lucrative "tween" market, kids 10 to 14.

Many of the companies behind such shows are mum on sales figures, but a "best estimate is that this has grown into almost a $1 billion-a-year business," says Linda Deckard of Venues Today, a trade journal that focuses on the financial side of stadium and arena shows.

"It might have started modestly a few decades ago with Sesame Street and Disney on Ice, but now it's hard to find a successful kids' property that doesn't have a touring stage show," Deckard says.

Newcomers to this lucrative playground include:

High School Musical: The Ice Show.
Based on the success of the 2006 Disney Channel movie that became a sensation among tweens, Ringling Bros.' Feld Entertainment is putting together three touring casts for live shows. Two troupes will blast across the USA, starting in Lakeland, Fla., and Tampa on Aug. 31 and Sept. 7 respectively, and a third starts in Santiago, Chile.

In an effort to keep the franchise rolling, the second half of each ice show will draw its plot from the movie's sequel, which premieres Aug. 17 on Disney Channel.
A longing for live entertainment

Audiences' thirst for live shows seems to be a reaction to the virtual experiences that dominate children's entertainment through video games, says Kenneth Feld, CEO of Feld Entertainment.

"So many options for kids seem to be two-dimensional ones," says Feld, whose father, Irwin, had the vision back in 1981 to pop skates onto Disney's famous characters. That franchise has grown from one touring company to nine. In 1983, there were 397 Disney on Ice shows in 30 U.S. cities; last year 1,288 shows played in 135 cities.

"There just seem to be fewer opportunities in our society for families to go out together," Feld says, "and that's where we come in."

Social altruism aside, live shows based on characters from TV shows and DVDs are practically necessities in a crowded kid marketplace.

"Marketers are always looking for ways for consumers to 'live the brand,' and these shows provide just that," says Becky Ebenkamp, entertainment editor at Brand Week magazine. "It's just part of the tentacle approach these days. 'What are we doing online? What are we doing about a live show?' "

But some question whether the very young are fair game for such marketing strategies.

"Over the past decade, one of the greatest changes in American childhood is the range of media aimed at infants and toddlers," says Susan Gregory Thomas, author of Buy, Buy Baby: How Consumer Culture Manipulates Parents and Hurts Young Minds.

"Research shows that all preschoolers really get out of a TV show is character recognition, nothing more. For toddlers, Elmo is the Nike swoosh. He's a brand. So these traveling shows are just one more chance to submerge kids in a branded environment."

Dana Deutsch, senior vice president at VEE, says the company is marketing Kidz Bop to children and adults "because we're talking about an older age group."

But when it comes to spinoffs of Sesame Street, the star of ad-free public television, "we promote only to parents," she says.

Nickelodeon's Rosenstein echoes that. "We won't advertise for Go Diego Go (the live show) during that (TV) show," he says. "We target parents only."
Judging from the crowd at a recent Sesame Street show, many parents are more than eager to be targeted. In fact, they seem more than happy to roll back the years.

As a life-size Bert began to strut in a white suit to a classic Saturday Night Fever tune, adult voices began mouthing the Bee Gees' lyrics.

That sort of participation is something Les Bowen, 28, sees all the time from inside his 8-foot-2 Big Bird costume.

"I'm always amazed how many people my age I see singing all the songs in the show," Bowen says. "I guess in most cases they grew up with them like me, and never forgot."

That group includes Tammy Garretson, 36 ("I loved Sesame Street"), here with her cousin Meridith Forristal, 33, and girls ages 3, 3 and 7.

"It's a girls' night out," Garretson says with a laugh. Forristal "recently lured us to (a live performance of) the Doodlebops," a Disney Channel staple that features four musicians dressed as space aliens.

"That was a bit creepy, the big plastic people and all," Garretson says. "But the kids loved it. So we figured we'd try this."

The cousins are pleased with ticket prices (around $20) compared with expensive Broadway shows such as The Lion King. But "we don't like all the merchandising," Garretson says. "The kids know they get the show, but that's it."

That's understandable, considering that during intermission vendors did a brisk business in cotton candy and Elmo balloons, both at $8 a pop. Other brisk sellers included an activity book ($7), plush character toys ($10 to $25), show soundtrack CDs ($15) and the ubiquitous light wands ($15).
Taking in the scene from a second-row seat is Lisa Finch, 38, of Antioch, Calif.

"I can't get my 2-year-old to sit still for anything," she says. "But when we took our eldest (who is 5) to a live show, it was amazing. The younger one sat there riveted the whole time. It's because it was all so up-close and personal."

She ticks off performances she and her family have seen recently Dora the Explorer, Blue's Clues and a particularly memorable night with The Wiggles at Oakland's Paramount Theater, a showcase usually reserved for top musical acts.

"A night out like this isn't cheap, but it's the one thing we can do as a family," she says.

"Whenever a kids' show comes to town, we're there."
http://www.usatoday.com/life/lifesty...terstitialskip