ROAD SHOW Kids' construction video paved the way to Fred Levine's success

THE BALTIMORE SUN

For thousands and thousands of children, Fred Levine makes the earth move. Literally.

In little more than a year, his video, "Road Construction Ahead," a step-by-step road-building documentary, has become a cult classic among the erector set.

With its pulsing "Mission Impossible"-esque soundtrack, an amiable, hard-hatted host, and tons of dirt, blasting and bulldozing, "Road Construction Ahead" arouses a primal response that leaves Barney in the dust.

Consider the viewing ritual of 4-year-old Galen Blubaugh of Manchester: First, he "puts his little construction hat on," his grandmother, Barbara Stevens, says.

Then, in the "club basement, just sitting in that little chair," Galen watches the video. "He's just in like a little trance. I don't know what it is, but it really turns him on," Mrs. Stevens says.

"Well, I like it when the front-end loader goes up and flips over," says Galen, explaining a segment when a piece of heavy equipment toils with a mighty load.

When Selma Kahl of Perry Hall bought "Road Construction" for her niece's 4-year-old son, Lee Miller, "he watched it 25 times right in a row. He wanted to watch and watch and watch and

watch and watch and watch and watch and watch and watch," she says.

It's a brilliantly simple formula, one of those right-in-front-of-your-face inspirations that prompts people to slap their head in self-disgust and say, "I should have done that."

Too bad. Mr. Levine did it first: "Road Construction" was finished in late 1992.

Now his own success story -- Mr. Levine's staff has ballooned from one to a Christmas-rush staff of 50, and his two videos have grossed more than $3 million -- has become as captivating for adults as his videos are for children.

Connie Chung has touted "Road Construction" on air. News anchor Harry Smith interviewed Mr. Levine at a road-construction site. He has been profiled in the Christian Science Monitor, Newsday, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Kansas City Star and the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, among other newspapers.

It is "the story that Americans appreciate the most," says Neil Alperstein, a professor of popular culture and advertising at Loyola College. "This kind of instant success, it's like winning the lottery."

Mr. Levine, a former Vermont maple-syrup farmer and self-taught independent video maker, is not averse to acclaim -- he fantasizes about the day when parents will actually pay baby sitters so they can duck out and watch his big-guy motion pictures in a real theater.

But Mr. Levine recoils from the gawking and edgy admiration that his rags-to-riches tale has spawned.

10 copies a day

The film wasn't a "get rich quick" scheme, Mr. Levine says. "It's not really the way it started. I said initially if I sold 10 copies a day, I would be happy. That's the way it started."

At that point, he had little inkling that in the weeks before Christmas 1993, his company, Focus Video, would receive 20,000 orders -- generated in large part by weekly ads in Parade Magazine, with a circulation of millions -- for "Road Construction Ahead" and his latest offering, "Fire & Rescue."

The idea for a real-life video struck several years ago, when Mr. Levine and his two preschool-age sons were watching a "Sesame Street" television segment featuring a bulldozer. The boys were rapt. A light bulb flashed in Mr. Levine's mind.

But it was not until several years later, when Mr. Levine's independent video-production business snagged on the recession, that he decided to make "Road Construction Ahead."

Motivation from mediocrity

He was driven as well by the mediocre quality of other kid-vid offerings. "I didn't like what was out there," Mr. Levine says. He found television cartoons and videos to be either overly graphic and violent, or condescendingly infantile. And all of it, he lamented, was fantasy, "not reality."

Mr. Levine found an interstate road project in Rhode Island, moved his family there for six months, and documented the construction from start to finish.

A Vermont dairy farmer and part-time actor serves as the friendly hard hat who takes viewers through the step-by-step documentary. Mr. Levine's sons, Ian and Miles, appear throughout the film in their own sandbox construction site. And wife Jan made every ex-school-kid's audio-video dream come true by suggesting that the film's blasting segments run forward and backward. Over and over again.

Such artful touches draw in big kids, too. "Everybody likes to see things blowing up," says Baltimorean Donald Mox, father of 5-year-old Eric. Especially from "27 different angles and then they show it backwards!"

What is it about big blasts and big machinery that throws kids and adults into such blissful reveries?

"I think for me and for a lot of the kids, it's the ability, the power they have to change the environment," Mr. Levine says. "They can dig holes. There's nothing subtle about it. It's a visceral, high-action thing. It's so graphic, so audible."

Both of Mr. Levine's videos offer the same open-ended play possibilities as a simple cardboard box, Dr. Alperstein says. A high-tech toy loses its appeal quickly, but a box presents all kinds of challenges for a youngster, he says. Similarly, "Road Construction Ahead" and "Fire & Rescue," unlike videos with "closed texts," let kids identify with the real characters, project themselves into the action and give their imaginations full reign, Dr. Alperstein says.

Four-year-old Andrew Fleck, of Dunkirk, has "tons of videos," his mother, Marci, says. But his favorite is "Road Construction Ahead," which he calls the "tractor" movie. "He's a big Barney fan, has plenty of kids' music videos, 'Free Willy' and all that kind of stuff," she says. But it is only the "tractor" movie that he asks for "at least once a week."

Immersion approach

Mr. Levine took the same complete-immersion approach with "Fire & Rescue" as he did with his first video. He spent time with fire companies in Trenton, N.J., Providence, Boston and Vermont. He lived with a fire radio and answered fire alarms with his subjects. "Fire & Rescue" has the same mesmerizing effect as its predecessor.

Selma Kahl approves. "[Mr. Levine] flashes back to firemen helping children and being part of the community. I think children just like the fact that they can be learning on their level about the community and things that are happening aren't just grown-up things."

Now that he is part of the cultural mainstream, Mr. Levine's mission to create simple, enjoyable entertainment has become complicated.

As he sets his sights on new projects, he is feeling pressure to present an ethnically, racially and sexually diverse work world. He tried unsuccessfully to find road projects that included women. "I'm being held accountable for the fact that the construction industry is heavily male dominated," Mr. Levine says.

Focus videos planned for the future include "All Aboard," "Cleared for Landing," and "Blasting Zone." But Mr. Levine has learned to protect new ideas. Since stumbling onto a lucrative entertainment genre, he has been plagued by "pesky" video knockoffs.

"There are so many subjects out there that can be done," Mr. Levine says. "Instead of knockoffs and getting rich quick, there should be an eye toward quality that's positive. . . . I'm only one person. There's a lot of room out there. I think everybody can help everybody [in this] new genre of kids' video, [which is] an alternative to crummy programming that I can't stand."

Aside from the fact that Mr. Levine is speaking on the phone from Florida, where he, his wife and three children (Ian is 8, Miles is 6, Mariah is 18 months), are enjoying a winter vacation, sudden success has not dramatically revised his life.

The Levines still live on a farm on the slope of Mount Hunger in Vermont. He spends a lot more time at Focus Video's Montpelier office. But the "most tangible result of having been so successful" is that Mr. Levine has been able to buy state-of-the-art broadcast equipment, something that "would have been a pipe dream four years ago."

Aside from that, little will change for the 38-year-old video producer. Whether it is making maple syrup, beekeeping, building houses, thinning lots, fixing things or "hanging off wind generators," work is "always my play," Mr. Levine says. "It's kind of the way it's gotta be for me."

To order "Fire & Rescue" and "Road Construction Ahead," call (800) 843-3686, or send $19.95 per tape plus $3.95 shipping and handling to Focus Video, Dept. P19, 138 Main St., Montpelier, Vt. 05602. No shipping and handling for orders of more than one video to the same address.

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