Brad Kuhn first introduced me to Creative Engineering. The ramshackle warehouse is located just north of the bustling night club scene downtown. I parked in the loading dock area and got this sketch as I waited for Brad, his daughter Meschelle, and Darlyn Finch to arrive. When we knocked on the front door, the sun had set and it was starting to get dark. Aaron Fechter answered. A albino doberman pincher named Athena, was barking and snarling, but once Aaron pointed out that we were friends, the dog calmed down checking for scents on our shoes.
The entry showed promise since there were half painted set pieces lying around and sculptural forms receded back into the darkness of the factory. For the next hour or so Aaron took us on a tour of the facility. He had us step into an old freight elevator and warned us to watch where we stepped since some of the floor boards were not so sturdy. The lift loudly groaned as we rose up. I could see the drop below us through the crack between the floor planks and there was no ceiling to the lift so I could look up at the cables that vibrated and strained.
We later stopped at a whack-a-mole play station. It turns out that Aaron had invented whack-a-mole but the concept was stolen from him by some carnie. The moles in the game we stood near had Osama Bin Laden, Hitler and other despots as the moles. That idea never took off. By now he was using a flashlight to show us around. Mysterious dark forms would flash brightly for a moment then disappear into the darkness.
Aaron said he had to turn on an air compressor. He disappeared and we stood in the darkness waiting. Moonlight now filtered through the factory windows faintly illuminating the space. I heard the compressor fire up with a hiss and then I adjusted my eyes and saw the dark forms on the sidelines start to twitch to life. They moved with an awkward mechanical quality but the one closest to me shifted its gaze and stared right at me. It's head turned, the fur bristled, and it's eyelid raised with curiosity. Dust rose when they shook their arms and the cloud filtered our view. We were surrounded by animatronics each of them moving and stretching perhaps for the first time in thirty years...
The Creative Engineering factory doesn't have air conditioning anymore. It gets sweltering hot inside in the summer. It is so hot that the rubber faces of some of the characters have started to melt. This poor moose's snout has melted away oozing down and dripping onto the TV below it. I returned many times in the heat because everywhere I looked was new and unexpected. These characters were part of a Country Bear Jubilee.
On the floor there were isolated pools of saw dust from termites that had infested the wooden beams. There were banks of 1980's computers many of them still operational. It reminded me of NASA's mission control. Yet here there was little to control, just the single band that Aaron used to program videos for You Tube. I'm not sure I fully appreciate the fan base. I never went to a Showbiz Pizza when I was a kid so some of that early magic is lost. On one of my sketching excursions I did bring a huge fan. Erika Wilhite grew up loving "Rock-afire Explosion" and she had a blast when Aaron gave her a tour of the factory.
Aaron is first and foremost an inventor. When he was young he invented an automatic pool vacuum and he sold it door to door. In 1974 when there was a gas crisis he created a small car that got 75 miles per gallon. Today he is dreaming of starting an algae farm that could possibly be used to create an alternative fuel. He feels fuel could be harvested drop by drop rather than being pumped from the earth. Although he has had reasons to be disillusioned, he still dreams big, and is eternally optimistic.
It was a very hot day. The band members of "The Rock-afire Explosion" waited silently on the loading dock of Creative Engineering. The loading dock door was open with the hope of some cross breeze. A kinder gentler Fats sat at the keyboard. Athena, Aaron's doberman pincer checks on my progress periodically. She still got spooked if I ran across her unannounced on the factory floor. Aaron sat in the next room programming another performance for You Tube. Periodically the Rock-afire Explosion Hits the road. For instance they performed for all the artists and staff at EA sports. Aaron had talked before of the band traveling the country like any other Rock and Roll band on a tour. The problem of course that these guys are heavy and they can't walk themselves into the venue.
In the foreground of this sketch is Billy Bob and behind him is Mitsy Mozzarella. Beach Bear's elbow is barely visible be hind Billy Bob. There is Fats Geronimo on the keyboard and right behind him is a darker version of himself. Dook Leroo is on the drums. Earl was the first animatronic to ever perform as a puppeteer. The voice talents were all recorded in a sound stage in the Creative Engineering factory.
Rock-afire Explosion fans are hard core however. There is a whole subculture out there of fans who love these characters. After over 30 years in storage The Rock-afire Explosion is staging a come back. Aaron is single highhandedly keeping the dream alive. The Phoenix will rise from the ashes. His creative enterprising spirit still burns bright.
In the basement of Creative Engineering, half finished animatronic figures were lined up like so many wooden soldiers. The scarecrow and tin man were nestled in among the crowd from a long lost Oz attraction. Yellow air tubes snaked in and around the aluminum inner structures. Eyes stared blankly forwards, yet the scarecrow had a mischievous and lifelike grin. Rather than mouths, the animatronics used a simple hinged plate to work the lower jaw. Everywhere I looked there was something to draw. Although the heat was oppressive I returned time and again anxious to find life in the dormant factory.
I studied one of the animatronics figures in detail noting every piston and servo so I might reconstruct its inner workings using my 3D animation program. I drew up an immense grid and hung it up behind the figure for size reference. It was so hot I had to remove my shirt. Sweat poured down my back as I worked. It felt good to be using a workshop that had sat idle for more than 20 years. I worked quickly and used the shirt to wipe my brow. Aaron came down to check on my progress. He laughed when he saw me at work and said, "That is how we work at Creative Engineering, anything to get the job done."
The last time I saw Aaron Fechter he was working in the basement of Creative Engineering painting some latex and fiberglass on the inside of Fats Geronimo's mask. A Japanese company was considering buying one of the last "Rick-afire Explosion" animatronic bands. Aaron was reinforcing the rubber. The oppressive heat tended to weaken and in some cases even melt the rubber masks. Stacked on the wooden shelves there were large plaster molds for the characters heads and hands. The area where Aaron was working was once the painting station.
Large canisters lined the wall filled with different colored paints. So work continues to keep the Rock-afire Explosion dream alive. He has also started selling animatronic kits to help people who aspire to one day build their own characters.
Aaron is still dreaming big. Perhaps he will someday invent a way to produce an alternative fuel source by harnessing the sun's energy. This factory was built from the ground up and was a huge financial success story in the early 80's. I keep thinking that this factory space is just waiting to spring alive again. All that is needed is the right application. For me the company's story mimicked the Orlando Florida Disney Feature Animation story. I was there in the idealistic days when a new studio was built and the films were all hugely successful. But with every rise came a fall and the studio was shut down. The trick is to find the next wave and ride it out. For Creative Engineering that wave may be just on the horizon.
--taken from the blog and gallery of THOMAS THORSPECKEN