Interview with Ted Koplar who brought 'Voltron' to America

(This interview was originally published April 23, 2011 on the now-retired Kickin' it Old School blog. It is one installment in an incredible series of interviews we are republishing on Rediscover the '80s for posterity and your enjoyment. These are more than just interviews in a way; they are more like '80s timelines or oral histories on their respective subject matters. Please keep in mind the original date because some content could be specific to the time of the interview, though the majority should be timeless and totally rad.)

When the opportunity presents itself to ask a few questions to someone who contributed to the awesomeness of the '80s, I will continue to share those answers with you right here. Again, lucky for me (and hopefully you), I do get to share a little more awesomeness with you.

This time that awesomeness is Ted Koplar. Who is that, you might ask? He is the President and CEO of World Event Productions (WEP) and is responsible for bringing Voltron to the American audience. After seeing a Japanese anime series, he saw the potential in adapting and distributing it for U.S. television. WEP licensed the series from Toei Animation and this ultimately resulted in the Voltron animated series premiering in 1984. I remember the series fondly and it remained a personal favorite for several years as after-school viewing. You’ll find out more about the origination and history of Voltron as we get on to some selections from my interview with Ted Koplar…

Q: You founded WEP in 1980. What were your goals and intentions for the company when you started? Was part of your plan always to create children’s programming?

Ted: WEP began as a means to provide compelling, original programming for KPLR-TV, St Louis, an independent television station that was run by my father, Harold Koplar. Our first show, and our namesake, was World Events ’80. World Events covered various commemorative occasions worldwide, including the 40th anniversary of the D-Day invasion and the Paris Air Show. The anchors were Bud Palmer, a former NBA Basketball star, and Frances Kolten a travel correspondent from NBC’s Today show. The show also featured a young reporter named Bobby Costas, who has done quite well since then I’d have to say. Voltron was WEP’s first breakaway hit, but the name World Events stuck. Denver the Last Dinosaur was another highly successful show, clearing 85 countries worldwide.

The original Voltron TV series aired in syndication beginning on September 10, 1984 with new episodes continuing through November of 1985. There were 52 original episodes that also continued in re-runs for many years following that. Voltron was created primarily by WEP from the Japanese cartoon Beast King GoLion which was dubbed into English and edited for the new target audience of American children. It was Ted Koplar who discovered this show and had the inspiration to adapt it for U.S. television. The show revolved around five brave space explorers who discover the secret of combining incredible robot lions into one advanced robotic warrior named Voltron who protects the universe. The series was an immediate success in the U.S. and even became the top-ranked syndicated children’s program at one point. Here is the opening sequence for Voltron: Defender of the Universe

Q: How did you first come across Beast King GoLion? What gave you the idea that this had potential to work on U.S. television?

Ted: Japan was producing an abundance of visually stunning animation. GoLion was immediately appealing to me with its rich, colorful aesthetics and a storyline that I could follow without understanding a word of the Japanese dialog. I didn’t see any reason why the show couldn’t work in the U.S. I like to think the show’s breakaway success helped pave the way for Japan-originating shows to follow, including Transformers and Power Rangers.

Q: How did you secure licensing and U.S. distribution rights to the show? Was this a risky investment on your part or was the downside minimized in some way?

Ted: WEP first acquired an option for the rights to the full series. We then restructured a new pilot to conform to U.S. taste, which included a totally new music score produced in stereophonic sound (new to broadcasting at the time), new scripts, editing out scenes unacceptable to our target audience, and new theme titles. Creating Voltron required enormous resources for our small company, which went way beyond acquiring the U.S. license. We then cleared the show nation-wide from our small office in St. Louis. After we successfully cleared 65% of the U.S., we had an entire production staff working around the clock in Los Angeles, to essentially re-make an entire 52 episode series. We had never undertaken anything like this, and had no idea whether it would succeed.

Q: At what point was Peter Keefe hired to be producer? Please tell us about Mr. Keefe and what role he played in the success of Voltron.

Ted: Peter had worked on previous shows, including the World Events special where he was used as talent and his exuberant personality lent itself well to the creative and often taxing demands of production. Animation was a new medium for him, but I knew Peter would learn quickly and bring a unique perspective to the show. Peter always understood who the audience was in children and always made sure the show was working on that level.

Peter Keefe unfortunately passed away from throat cancer in May of 2010. Keefe was hired by Ted Koplar to take the reigns in creating the Voltron series. The series was credited by The New York Times in his obituary as having “helped prepare the way for other Japanese-style animation in the United States.” He continued to work in animation and, over a 20-year span, Keefe created 600 half-hour episodes (including Voltron) that were enjoyed by millions of children worldwide.

Q: Who else were key contributors to making Voltron the success it became?

Ted: 'Voltron' was a collaborative effort in every respect, and depended on the contributions of many eager and talented individuals to make the show what it was. Franklin Cofod was an outstanding producer, and John Teichmann was an integral part of the team. And who can forget the Voltron theme song? John Petersen and Dale Schacker helped to make that a huge success. Our cast of characters was also top notch, including the likes of Michael Bell, BJ Ward, Neil Ross, Lennie Weinrib and Peter Cullen-who many fans know as the voice of another famous robot, Optimus Prime.

Q: Please summarize some of the major changes made to GoLion to make it appropriate for American television.

Ted: We had a lot of opportunity to flesh out character development and integrate the classical mythology and we used that to our advantage. We had to tone down the violence; GoLion went a little overboard and obviously beheadings were not going to work for kids. All of the episodes had to be dubbed into English and we took some liberties here and there with the translation or to clarify a story point.

One thing that made the show unique was that it was the first animated series to be produced in stereophonic sound, which was important at the time because TV stations were converting to stereo, so Voltron gave them the opportunity to showcase this feature. It was thrilling to walk into electronics stores as they were all tuned into Voltron to showcase this exciting new technology.

Q: How and why was the name Voltron chosen?

Ted: We had a number of names tossing around back and forth from Voltar to Klystron which we saw as an inside joke amongst broadcasters as a Klystron was a piece of television engineering equipment. Eventually, the name Voltron just stuck and had a nice sound to it so our instincts must have been correct.

Q: How much were you personally involved in the process of converting GoLion into Voltron?

Ted: I’m not a watch-from-the-sidelines kind of person, and our company had a lot riding on the show. I practically lived on an airplane for those several months, shuffling back and forth between our headquarters in St. Louis, our production team in LA and our animation studios in Tokyo and Seoul. After putting the team in place, I had to ensure they were steering in the right direction of making a quality show for kids. And when it came to the merchandise of the show, I wanted to make sure I cleared anything that would be featuring the Voltron name to make sure it was the right fit.

Q: When did you feel like you might have an actual hit show on your hands? Could you have ever anticipated the reaction the show would receive? I read that at one point, Voltron was the top-ranked syndicated children’s program. What did WEP do at that point to cultivate the success?

Ted: We actually aired the Vehicle Force Voltron episodes first in some markets, which were adapted from a different show entirely called Dairugger. Its performance was lackluster, and the entire project was in jeopardy. Immediately upon airing the Lion Force episodes, we knew we had a hit on our hands. Our sales team was inundated with phone calls from TV stations, toy companies, merchandising outlets, and so the madness began.

The ultimate gratification for me was a Voltron-sponsored trip to Disneyworld aboard an L-1011 we chartered from Eastern Airlines. In association with the Make-a-Wish Foundation, we took 120 children and their families on the trip of a lifetime and made getting there half the fun. All of the heroes from the Voltron Force were onboard to entertain the kids, culminating in a “birthday party” they threw for Princess Allura at 30,000 feet. I can remember the kids were having so much fun that the pilot entered a holding pattern over the Atlantic Ocean before finally landing in Orlando!

Q: Please describe what happened when you ran out of GoLion episodes to adapt. Did you attempt to adapt different Japanese anime shows or commission new episodes entirely?

Ted: The demand for more Lion Force episodes was incessant, but Toei had only made 52 and stations were running them to death. We ultimately produced 24 additional episodes from scratch to meet this demand. With only nine months from start to finish, the time in which we were able to deliver was pretty remarkable.

Q: How has the relationship with Toei Animation been over the years? What have they contributed to the success of the original Voltron series?

Ted: Toei’s animation is the foundation of the show that would become Voltron – their cleverness and ingenuity captured kids’ imaginations.

Q: What else can you share with us about the production of Voltron and its quick rise to popularity?

Ted: The original Voltron series was supposed to be comprised of three different Japanese animated series: Daltanius, Albegas, and Dairugger. We had requested to be shipped Daltanius, also a show about a giant robot, which featured a lion head for a chest. However, we did not have the show’s title, and thus had to describe it. Not knowing a word of Japanese, and our counterparts knowing very little English, we asked for “the show with the lion.” This triggered an instant recognition, and the show they sent was, of course, GoLion. After seeing the tapes in our St. Louis office, we scrapped Daltanius for what we knew would be a hit.

Q: What are your feelings about the original Voltron over 27 years later? Are you proud of the show that you helped create? You must be proud of the vision you demonstrated by bringing the concept to the U.S. market. How does it make you feel to know that you also made a lot of kids happy for many years?

Ted: I couldn’t have ever predicted what a huge impact Voltron was going to have, but I couldn’t be happier to have been a part of it. It’s remarkable to see the term “Voltron” itself weaved into pop culture vernacular to mean “to come together.” It still makes me smile to see the worldwide love for the show and especially its characters. When someone who grew up with Voltron finds out I was responsible for bringing the show to Western audiences it’s a thrill to see their faces light up. What’s most exciting is when I hear that today’s children are discovering the show as well and we hope to continue that with our new series Voltron Force. And of course sites like yours help keep the legend going, so thank you.

In 1998, WEP produced 26 episodes of Voltron: The Third Dimension and coming in June of 2011 to Nicktoons in the U.S. will be another new 26 episode series called Voltron Force. This has and will help bring Voltron to entirely new generations, but you can also still watch the original series that started it on the official Voltron YouTube channel which is very convenient.

Q: I read that a big screen adaptation of Voltron may be in the works for possible 2013 release. Can you confirm those reports? What else can you tell us about that project?

Ted: A live action feature film is indeed in the works, and we have been working closely with Richard Suckle and Jason Netter to bring about the big-screen adaptation. I am also grateful for the efforts of Chuck Roven in championing the project. We are hoping to make some pretty big announcements soon.

I am very honored that Mr. Koplar took some time to answer my questions so I could share them with you here. Special thanks to Tiffany Ilardi who helped coordinate the interview. To find out more and keep up with everything they are doing with the franchise, you can visit the official WEP website and please also visit the official website. I want to take this opportunity to again thank Ted Koplar for his contributions to '80s pop culture especially by bringing us Voltron and, even more, for taking a moment to go back to the '80s with us here as well.

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