Clear The Track For Choo Choo Bob

February 21, 2012

The Choo Choo Bob cast

In the early days of television, local TV stations used to produce a fair number of their own programs. And none were more popular than children’s shows. Nearly every major U.S. city had at least one legendary local kiddie-TV host.

In the Twin Cities, those legends included the stars of long-running programs like “Lunch With Casey,” “Axel and His Dog” and “Clancy the Cop.”

By the early 1970s, locally produced programming (except for the news) had pretty much disappeared from U.S. airwaves, a victim of the increased corporatization of the TV business.

But a St. Paul filmmaker is hoping to bring a locally produced children’s show to stations in Minnesota and its border states. Bob Medcraft is currently producing 26 half-hour episodes of “The Choo Choo Bob Show,” a train-themed program that got its start as a promotional tool for Medcraft’s hobby shop, Choo Choo Bob’s Train Store.

Medcraft plans to offer the show to local stations in the Twin Cities, Fargo, Sioux Falls, Duluth, Eau Claire and other regional markets. With financial backing from an angel investor, Medcraft plans to buy the airtime, hoping that the show catches on and the stations eventually will pay him to air it – rather than the other way around.

What makes Medcraft think that today’s kids – with their computers and video games – are interested in a technology that reached its zenith a century ago?

“Trains are big and they’re fast and they’re exciting to watch,” he said. “I think kids are naturally attracted to big technology like tractors and trains and road graders. There are some train shows already. But they are all CGI (computer-generated imagery). There’s nothing as old-school as what we’re doing.”

The show features about a half-dozen local actors, including Sam Heyn as Choo Choo Bob, Emily Fradenburgh as Engineer Emily and Paul Howe as Engineer Paul. Howe is actually a longtime employee of Medcraft’s train store.

Minnesota baby boomers remember Roger Awsumb as "Casey Jones." Credit: Pavek Museum of Broadcasting

Medcraft opened the store in 2005 after a 20-year career as a film producer. He worked on a number of movies shot in the Twin Cities, including “Jingle All the Way,” “Grumpy Old Men” and “Little Big League,” and also worked on music videos for Prince and others.

But as the new century dawned, “the whole industry here in town sort of started falling apart,” Medcraft said. “Videos collapsed, film work went to Canada.” He decided to open a retail train store after noticing how kids flocked to a Thomas the Tank Engine play table at a local bookstore he and his sons frequented.

The Choo Choo Bob Show actually began as a commercial for the train store and morphed into an idea for a public-access TV show. Then one of the actors brought a wealthy train enthusiast into the picture: Bob Vince, a University of Minnesota chemist who shares in royalties from several drugs he developed at the U. Vinceput a substantial sum into the project, allowing production of a full slate of episodes as well as providing the wherewithal to buy airtime for them. Former KSTP sportscaster Eric Gislason was brought on board to line up sponsors and broadcast opportunities.

The goal is to have the first episode on the air around June 1. Medcraft admits that he has dreams of eventually taking the show national, but he’s not holding his breath.

“Sure, that would be the Holy Grail,” he said, “but Disney or Nickelodeon can’t wrap their heads around this. This is so old-school. It’s not CGI, it doesn’t move fast.

“Kids still want to be entertained by human beings – we just don’t give then that chance anymore.”

This is John Reinan’s weekly marketing column for