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31 July 2010

A visit with Garner Holt







 Judith Rubin, InPark contributing editor

The city of San Bernardino, Calif. regards animatronics leader Garner Holt Productions (GHP) as a local treasure and government officials were up front and vocal about it at the company’s June 12, 2010 open house. The sunset over the San Bernardino Mountains furnished a glowing backdrop as some 450 attendees mostly from the themed entertainment industry gathered in the company parking lot in front of GHP headquarters. The scene was made more festive by the presence of two GHP signature items: a 40-foot animatronic tarantula waving its tentacles and brandishing its fangs (part of the Backyard Monsters rent-a-critter menagerie) and Wendell, the animatronic unicyclist traveling back and forth on his high wire (in the 1980s, one of Garner Holt’s breakthrough creations and still pedaling).

In his remarks to the assembled crowd, San Bernardino Mayor Patrick J. Morris called upon Holt to produce a fleet of animatronic police officers. Bob Botts, mayor of nearby Banning declared Holt an honorary citizen of that town. San Bernardino city attorney James F. Penman and Karen Serrano on behalf of Rep. Jose Baca of the 43rd Congressional District likewise sang Holt’s praises as a good corporate citizen. On the attractions industry side, we heard from the likes of Disney veteran and animatronics pioneer Bob Gurr (he used the words “lifetime martini” to express the spirit of unicyclist Wendell) and Gay Blackstone, widow of magician Harry Blackstone (she brought greetings from Neil Patrick Harris). Holt’s parents were also in attendance.

The open house was held in connection with the Themed Entertainment Association. TEA members present included Phil Hettema and George Wiktor of The Hettema Group, TEA manager of member relations Brian Szaks, Lynn Allmandinger of Wells Fargo, Larry Tuch of Narrative Concepts, who is one of the organizers of TEA’s annual SATE conference, and TEA Western Division president David Aion of Aion Creative. Several past presidents of TEA were present, including Wiktor, Roberta Perry of ETI and TEA founder Monty Lunde of Technifex. Carole Mumford, former event planner for TEA, had just accepted a job with GHP.

From the podium Garner Holt spoke about various projects where GHP has applied state-of-the-art animatronics, ranging from Chuck E Cheese characters to dark ride figures for Universal Studios and other major theme park operators, to military training environments, educational touring exhibits for museums and zoos and of course, the cradle of animatronic civilization: haunted houses.

GHP employs about 80 people and plenty of them (several in costume) were on hand to talk about their work as open house attendees toured the animatronics company to observe the workings of the very specialized and complex design and fabrication processes by which animatronics are brought to seeming life. There were character heads and body parts everywhere… It was clear that employees at GHP relish the creative opportunities and challenges they find there and are engrossed in and proud of their work. Each project presents a new set of conditions to solve in design, execution and installation and Holt himself continues to take a hands-on creative role alongside his staff. “There’s a lot of talent in this company,” says Holt. “There are a lot of dreamers and artists who have found it is a place to collaborate with others. In their off hours, they’re back there building all kinds of neat stuff, and that feeds back 100% into their work for the company. It’s nice to see all their gears turning.”

Holt also regularly puts resources into animatronics research & development, and the latest manifestation of this is the Yeti, a creature nine feet tall and several years in the making, expected to step into the spotlight for the first time later this year. The GHP team is working hard to finalize the Yeti for a 2010 debut – to get this gentle, hirsute talking giant assembled and in full working order all the way from his powerful internal actuators to his extensively articulated appendages to his astonishingly mobile facial features - so that the industry can meet him and mull over the possibilities. According to Holt, the Yeti has 54 individual moves in his face and 164 functions in his body, and can “see” via a camera in his eye. Through the combination of an image database and his vision, the Yeti will have the ability to identify people, single them out to communicate with, track their locations and follow them around - a real party animal. He weighs 1,800 lbs and speaks in a Scooby Doo type voice. And he embodies what Holt sees as the future of animatronics: “Technology is causing the role of animatronics to change – it’s becoming more based on interactivity.”

Quotes from Garner Holt:

“Not a lot of clients or companies will pay for R & D, but we’re interested in pushing the envelope just for the sake of furthering the art.”

“I’ve pulled out all the stops with the Yeti: I may have gone a little overboard. He’s my child.”

“Video is not going to replace animatronics.”

“If the overall concept of a show involves animatronics, we should be there at the table during the concept stage. There are issues of practical implementation and systems involved: hydraulics, pneumatics, maintenance, infrastructure, safety. The environment needs to support the animatronics as a show element.”

“Robotics and animatronics are overlapping and we’re going to see interesting new manifestations in education, business, medical, industrial, military, role playing, training, retail and more.”

Photos: Garner Holt Prodns. Top to bottom:
Gilbert Lozano, GHP Sr. Sculptor introduces the Yeti
Garner Holt introduces Gay Blackstone
Wendell the animatronic unicyclist
Disney legend Bob Gurr
Bill Butler explains GHP operations to guests
GHP staffers: Holly Conrad adjusts her costume, her original creation. Tayler Hudson at her graphic arts station
Ben Schwenk in latex