A Retrospect of KANGA RODDY is a series of features exploring the making of the PBS children’s series, ADVENTURES WITH KANGA RODDY, in honor of its 20th anniversary.
There were a number of cast members of a wide variety that made up ADVENTURES WITH KANGA RODDY; from the ones seen onscreen, to the ones whose voices were heard. However, it’s the ones who were seen but not heard that really added to the Land of Hi-yah, for James Harris and Joe Horde have quite a number of stories from performing as the larger than life characters of this world.
Photo courtesy of Allison Langley
Harris was the one who donned the suit as Kanga Roddy. Prior to that, he was teaching karate at one of the schools belonging to his mentor and show co-creator, George Chung.
“The concept of KANGA RODDY came about and they were asking if anybody was interested in doing stunt work for it,” he recalled. “Lo and behold, I ended up being the guy.”
For Horde, who came on later in the series, he had an agent at the time, who sent him out on an audition for the show. He was initially going in as both a back-up dancer and also to dance in place of Harris as Kanga Roddy.
“Somewhere along the lines of doing the auditioning and hiring process, they came up with the character of Tackle Bear, where I fell into that,” said Horde. “I auditioned with five other dancers.”
He wound up getting the role, and considered it a major upgrade.
This was the first time for both Horde and Harris to be portraying body puppet characters. In terms of performance, particularly movement, they both wound up learning a lot from the experience.
For Horde, under the guidance of the San Francisco 49ers mascot at the time, Michael Kennedy, he learned how to bring the character of Tackle Bear to life apart from just dancing. From making gestures in accordance to what his character’s voice actor, Tony Lindsay, was saying, to making movements appropriate for the kind of being he was portraying, it was quite an education for him.
Harris, on the other hand, had to learn how to dance as Kanga Roddy, and he sang all the praise for the show’s late choreographer, Sioux Lehner, for helping him. It was not at all easy for him; especially coming from doing strictly karate up until that point in his life.
Photo courtesy of James Harris
“I was like a machine,” he described. “All I did was karate at the time. So [Lehner] came in. She saw me doing the full on splits in every direction, and she was like, ‘Oh my gosh! Normally we get a person and they can understand eight counts but don’t have flexibility. So this is different. I have somebody who has flexibility and coordination, and now I just got to teach him eight counts.’”
Despite the lessons learned, that didn’t ease the fact that performing as these characters involved a lot of physical endurance from both Horde and Harris. The heads for both characters would weigh between 10-15 lbs. With all the pieces worn, along with all the dancing and martial arts performed in them, the inside of the suits would rise between 110-115 degrees F.
“I remember one time where I became really claustrophobic,” recalled Horde. “We were just about to go out on set. We were fully dressed, and I had the head on the side. I hadn’t put it on yet. I put the head on, and I couldn’t breathe.”
Fortunately for Horde, it was a brief instance that he was able to overcome.
Otherwise, he and Harris spoke highly of the family environment among the cast and crew. Everyone was really tight knit and skilled at their crafts.
Photo courtesy of Allison Langley
Harris, who also worked behind the scenes with digitizing and editing the footage, recalled witnessing his character’s voice actor, Mickey Thomas, sing in the studio.
“I’m down there with Mickey Thomas in the recording room,” he explained. “Mickey Thomas was getting ready to sing, I think it was a Michael Bolton song, and they never let us use the song in KANGA RODDY. They didn’t give us the rights for it.
“We’re sitting there, and Mickey just starts wailing. I had never been in a studio with a premier singer of that caliber. His voice was just amazing!”
Horde has two favorite moments from working on the show. One of them is a scene where Tackle Bear was in a band with Kanga Roddy.
“They gave us instruments, and we got to play and I got to get on the microphone in character,” he said. “That was a big one for me.”
Close to the end of the series, Horde actually appeared onscreen without the suit on, when he stepped in for an actor who never showed up.
While Harris doesn’t have a specific favorite memory from the experience, he did have a close friendship with Pat Morita. He recapped on a time where his mom discovered a voice message from Morita on her answering machine, addressing him as “Jamie Boy.”
“It’s definitely one of those things you remember forever,” he said.
Photo courtesy of Lee Armstrong
In the present day, Horde still carries on with the skills he learned from KANGA RODDY, as he applies them as a mascot. He also works as a massage therapist in Monterey.
“I like to see the expression on somebody’s face for something I did for them,” he commented. “Same thing with mascoting. If I can make an old lady laugh, a little baby laugh, and the dad in the middle [laugh], that’s awesome to me. I feel that we need more happiness and love and smiling.”
Harris works as a DevOps engineer for an advertisement company, where he develops automation tools for people to use to scale their networks.
When looking back on the 20 years since KANDA RODDY first aired, it feels fast for him.
For Horde, he is mind blown by the passage of time, especially with how much the child actors have changed.
“The greatest part for me recently: the one good thing about Facebook is seeing the kids,” he explained. “They’re all grown up and they have their own kids!”
He remains grateful for the experience, saying that had he not been on KANGA RODDY, he wouldn’t be where is now.