Elmo lives here

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December 7, 2009 // UPDATED 10:14 am - December 7, 2009
By: Tricia Cornell
Tricia Cornell
Forty years ago this fall, Sesame Street revolutionized children’s television. With sets that urban children could relate to, short segments tailored to kids’ attention spans, and loveable puppets, it soon set the standard for mixing education and entertainment.

Most importantly, the characters, no matter how outlandishly colored or shaped, had real, distinct personalities. Big Bird got to ask naïve questions and Oscar was allowed to be truly grumpy.

About a decade into Sesame Street’s run, Vince Egan, who had cut his teeth marketing ice shows, recognized that a generation of kids literally growing up with Sesame Street would love to meet their favorite characters in person. Recently returned to Minnesota, where he grew up, Egan was looking for a new venture. He convinced Jim Henson and Children’s Television Workshop (now Sesame Workshop) to license Big Bird and his beloved friends for a big, Broadway-style production aimed at kids and their families. And on September 17, 1980, the first Sesame Street Live show opened at the Metropolitan Sports Center in Bloomington (now interred under the Mall
of America).

“Everybody said it would last three months,” he laughs. “I’m sitting here 30 years later and wondering who I should apologize to.”

Egan used his contacts and expertise from his ice show days to take the show on tour to seven other cities, wrapping up with four weeks at Madison Square Garden in New York City.  

In August of this year, the 100th Sesame Street Live production — “1-2-3 Imagine! With Elmo and Friends” — opened in LaCrosse, Wis. Egan’s company, VEE Corporation, has toured in 34 countries, hitting just about every city of any size at all here in the United States. At any given time, there are three productions out on the road.

VEE has branched out into other brands, creating shows around Dragon Tales, Bear in the Big Blue House and, touring now, Curious George. The company also develops museum exhibits and creates mascots for sports teams.

And it all happens right here in Minnesota, with the headquarters in an inconspicuous office in the LaSalle Plaza building and a warehouse in the Midway area of St. Paul.

Egan calls VEE Corporation “one of the best-kept secrets in the Twin Cities.” Why headquarter a national company here in downtown Minneapolis? “First off, it’s my home,” answers Egan, who commutes from a farm in Dayton. Then he cites the area’s abundant theater talent. “We’re able, with the talent in the Twin Cities, we’re able to do it better,” he says, adding, “I don’t need to hire security to watch security to watch the shops. We can just go home and lock the door.”

The stuff of magic

The 35,000-square-foot warehouse where the magic is made is as bright, cheery and clean as Sesame Street itself. Here, the 43 full-time staff members build sets, design sound and lighting systems, and sew and maintain hundreds of costumes — all for larger-than-life characters. Zoe’s tutu alone is made of 15 yards of fabric and Ernie’s sweater is knit from nearly a mile of yarn. And it’s all custom-made, by hand.

In addition to the live children’s shows, warehouse general manager Jack Pence and his team work on a variety of unique marketing efforts. The U.S.S. Lexington, an aircraft carrier and museum in Texas, recently called on VEE to create interactive exhibits that would help attract a younger audience. Each year, they also build the design and décor for the fan activities at the NBA All-Star Jam.

“It’s the same thing we do on stage: engaging people through entertainment,” says Dayna Deutsch, senior vice president of sales and marketing.

Considering the sheer number of shows based here, it’s a remarkably compact and efficient space. Pence says that efficiency comes from being one’s own client.

“When you’re paying for the gas, you don’t send out seven tractor trailers,” he explains. He and his staff pack every show onto just two 48-foot trailers.

The self-contained operation — VEE owns more than 30 trailers and stores everything on-site — and unique expertise have led to interesting side business. Alongside Big Bird and Bert, they store and maintain mascots for clients like sports franchises and General Mills. (The Lucky Charms leprechaun? That’s VEE.)

Pence took a summer job with VEE in 1987 and he’s still there. “We’ve got a lot of people who’ve been here 20 years, 18 years,” he says. “I mean, take a look around” — he motions to a window-lined sewing workshop where a childhood friends and memories peek out from behind every corner — “isn’t this great? We’re working with real brands, real going concerns. And we get to add to that.”

In late November, the sewing machines are mostly quiet and the machine shop is empty, but, Pence says, come late January and early February, “It’ll be crazy out there.” The down economy hasn’t affected their specialized business much.

After 30 years, Egan still has the same “Come on, who wouldn’t want to work here?” attitude. His eyes still light up as he settles in to talk about what he calls his “favorite topic” — Sesame Street Live — and he declares he has “the greatest job in the world.”