Corrections or additions?

This article by Barbara Fox was prepared for the May 29, 2002

edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Even Untrained, Kids Can Still Star

For parents who shoot home videos, the idea that their

children will end up as stars is surely only a pipe dream. An

impossible

dream.

But for Steven Haase, it is reality. For his business, Trainfans

Inc., he wanted to make videos showing families having fun taking

train trips. So he hired his children, Kayla, age 8, and Alec, 7.

They had no theater training but turned out to be naturals.

Their first video, "Kayla and Alec Ride the Acela Express

Train,"

is meant for ages one to six and sells for $15.99 at Jazams in Palmer

Square, Pennington, and the Montgomery Center. Co-sponsored by Amtrak,

the video is the first in a series that will explore some of America’s

greatest cities. It has been so successful that Haase has changed

his business model from selling train videos to adults to creating

train-related products for children.

The video opens at the Haase home in Hopewell where the children

gleefully

preview a trip from Boston to Washington, D.C. They sound enthusiastic

and spontaneous, perhaps because they aren’t over rehearsed, but they

also sound as if they had acting training. No such thing, says Dad.

They didn’t even have much rehearsal.

"We started going through the script every day, thinking that

they would need training, but it got to be too much. You gotta keep

it fun," says Haase. "So the day before a half-day shoot,

we start to go through some lines for two hours. Then they aren’t

tired of it."

He hired one professional actor, a Rider University alumnus named

Bo Smith, to play the role of Cody, the young conductor. He hired

Bert Stronsdorf of Hamilton-based MC Squared to write the theme music.

His wife, Nadine, works with the kids. He taps Rider University for

interns. But Haase writes and directs the scripts himself. Neither

he nor his wife had any theater training, but his maternal grandfather

had been a playwright and director, and his grandmother was a writer

for Highlights, the august children’s magazine, and Haase remembers

helping her edit when he was 12.

Nevertheless, the company started out using a professional director.

"We canned him after the first day," says Haase. "He spent

six hours doing a 1 1/2 minute scene, and it wasn’t fun for the kids.

They were entirely turned off. I just said we are going to do it

ourselves,

and the more we got into it, the better we got."

In the video, as the children tour various child-friendly sites in

Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, and D.C., they are lively and

animated. Perhaps because their dad wrote the lines to fit how they

talk, they sound spontaneous. Their parents can be seen in the

background,

so you know these kids aren’t traveling alone, but they are the stars.

As the antithesis of stage parents, the Haases had

thought

that Kayla and Alec would retire after they have made a couple of

videos. "We want to keep things normal — they missed almost

three weeks of school for the first video," said Haase several

months ago.

Now it seems the kids will have a longer run. "Once we started

the project, it became obvious from the feedback we were getting that

Kayla and Alec could handle the roles and were always very comfortable

in front of the camera and crew," says Haase. "In fact, over

the past year, the kids have become extremely close to our crew (Shawn

Kildea, Charles Gallagher, Nick Lipka and Bo Smith) and it has been

an ideal working environment for all involved."

"That being said, each project has presented hard work for the

kids," he says. The first video involved three filming sessions

on multiple days each to Boston, New York City, Philadelphia, and

Washington, at least seven filming sessions on a long distance train,

six filming sessions at home, two filming sessions each in Vermont

and Delaware and northern Virginia. "Lots of patience and

flexibility

is required and it’s rare to have two kids consistently roll with

the production."

Wary of parental pride, Haase has sought opinions from dispassionate

observers. "If anyone was going to give us honest feedback, it

was the president of FAO Schwarz, the famous toy store that also owns

Zany Brainy and the Right Stuff," says Haase. Result: Haase is

working on a Kayla and Alec video that takes place in the Manhattan

store. His next goal is a TV series, introduced by the three main

characters, followed by an animated travel episode.

"We have one of the few products that parents will purchase, and

when the children watch it, they will ask mom and dad if they can

ride the train and see the different sights," says Haase.

Trainfans used to be a catalog business for people who like to watch

trains pass. Haase founded it using proceeds from Princeton Learning

Systems, an online learning firm from which he had made a hefty profit

(U.S. 1, September 4, 1996). But he is selling off the catalog

business

so that his seven-person company can try to fulfill the potential

of the huge entertainment market for toddlers. Books, product

placement

(which brand of bottled water will they drink?), and memorabilia items

are just some of the possible additional sources of income. "If

we can create other offshoot products, the brand will quickly catch

on," he says.

If Haase has his way, a Kayla and Alec Trainfans brand will put Thomas

the Tank Engine on a siding.

— Barbara Fox

Trainfans Inc., 83 Princeton Avenue, Hopewell

08525.

Steven Haase, principal. 609-466-0880; fax, 609-466-8114. Home

page: www.trainfans.com


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