On April 4th, 1998, PBS premiered its own children’s show containing martial arts, although this one was a little different. It combined non-violent martial arts, music, and dance together to teach kids something that is rarely ever taught on other children’s shows: Emotional intelligence. That show was ADVENTURES WITH KANGA RODDY.
Co-created by George Chung and Anthony Chan as a co-production of American Champion Entertainment, KANGA RODDY followed a group of kids in San Francisco, where – with the assistance of a magical laptop – would travel to the mystical Land of Hi-yah to meet with an anthropomorphic, karate-practicing kangaroo, and learn valuable life lessons from each visit. It ran for three seasons on PBS, gaining about 40 million viewers nationwide within a few months of its premiere, and even won an Emmy Award in 1999.
The people that were part of the cast and crew made the show to be the ultimate labor of love. It was created by two martial artists and starred a group of talented children from all over the San Francisco Bay Area. In addition, former San Francisco 49ers Joe Montana and Ronnie Lott were executive producers, Jennifer Montana and Karen Lott were in the cast, and Academy Award-nominated actor Pat Morita and Starship frontman Mickey Thomas were in the billing as well.
KANGA RODDY was also an early work for dancer Nick Lazzarini, who would later go on to win the first season of SO YOU THINK YOU CAN DANCE in 2005.
As someone who had watched KANGA RODDY as a kid, while I didn’t necessarily have the vocabulary to describe it at the time, I just remember how it was certainly different from other shows; different in a good way. Looking back on it 20 years later, I can attest to its fully executed intention to use the morals taught in martial arts as morals that can be applied in life as well.
Knowing that this show is approaching its 20th anniversary, I decided to reach out and interview the wide variety of individuals who contributed their crafts to making this show a reality; from one of the co-creators, to two of the former child actors, the seasoned puppeteers, and more. Through crazy commute stories and reflections on fun moments from being onset, producer Jan Hutchins (who, unfortunately, was not able to be interviewed) best sums up the experience for everyone involved in the following statement:
“It was a magical family of friends from sports, martial arts and broadcasting. I’m proud we taught emotional intelligence and that every child who ever saw the show was fascinated by it.”
With the assistance of the individuals I’ve had the pleasure of talking to over the course of eight weeks, I present A Retrospect of KANGA RODDY. For the next three weeks, I will release a piece every Monday and Wednesday leading up to the day of the anniversary, exploring different perspectives on the making of this show.
Going into this, bear the following points in mind on the significance of what KANGA RODDY accomplished:
• This show was co-created by two Asian Americans – Chung and Chan, respectively – at a time where the number of Asian Americans working behind the camera in television was much smaller than now.
• It was filmed in the San Francisco Bay Area; a rare occurrence to happen nowadays.
• As mentioned previously, Pat Morita was in cast, in his last main TV role before his death in 2005.
• 90’s nostalgia FTW.
• To reiterate from earlier, KANGA RODDY taught valuable life lessons on emotional intelligence; lessons that are particularly relevant even more so in the era we are currently in.
Photo courtesy of Allison Langley