Publication Date: Friday Aug 21, 1998
The karate kangarooAtherton's Jennifer Montana helps Kanga Roddy teach children respect and honor on new TV show
by Kimberley Lovato
What do you get when you combine upbeat music, a mystical land called "Hiyah," life's valuable lessons and a 7-foot kangaroo with a black-belt in karate? Public television's latest take on quality family programming. Look out Barney, Kanga Roddy has emerged from the dinosaur ages with a hip attitude and is high-kicking his way into homes, reaching some 40 million viewers nationwide at last count.
With two former San Francisco 49er superstars as executive producers, their wives as cast members and a talented team of child actors, the show first hopped on the scene several months ago. It offers a notable blend of music, martial arts and wise advice from an oversized marsupial, all aimed at teaching children important values.
The show's creators and producers, George Chung and Anthony Chan, are martial arts masters and instructors. A father of young children, Chung wanted to change the perception of the arts created by shows like "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" and "Power Rangers," which exploit violence. He wanted families to focus on the philosophical elements of martial arts--honor, courage and respect.
"As responsible parents, we must sit with children and see what they are watching on TV," said Chung. "Families should watch television together, and shows should stimulate not only the children but the family."
The show's commitment to those principles is what appealed to Atherton resident Jennifer Montana, the wife of former 49er quarterback Joe Montana and a friend of Chung, who asked her to play a role in the series. "I'm not big on TV, in fact my kids don't watch TV during the week," she said. "But I like the message this show gives to children, and I thought it would be a nice thing to do. I think (the show) can be a valuable aid for parents and a backup for what they are already teaching their kids."
The show's black-belted star, Kanga Roddy, uses the values of martial arts to promote nonviolent solutions to the moral dilemmas faced by the five children who star in the series.
The series is set in a San Francisco community center run by characters Miss Lisa (Montana) and Miss Becky (Karen Lott, wife of former 49er Ronnie Lott). In each of the 30-minute episodes, the children seek guidance from a bookseller, "Uncle Pat," played by Pat Morita of "Karate Kid" fame. Through his magical laptop computer, the children travel to the land of Hiyah, where they meet the martial arts marsupial (given voice by Mickey Thomas from Jefferson Starship), who helps the children solve their problems.
In one episode, Billy, played by Bay Area actor Tyler Johnson, learns a valuable lesson about confidence. He is frustrated after striking out during a baseball game with his friends and feels he can't do anything right. Once transported to Hiyah, Billy meets Kanga Roddy and guest star Dusty Baker, the San Francisco Giants manager. He teaches the children that, instead of getting upset and giving up, they should relax and focus on ways to improve.
Songs with lyrics like "When the going gets tough, the tough get going" and "Don't give in to giving up" help inspire the children. In the end, Billy and his friends enjoy another game of baseball where, thanks to the lessons of Kanga and company, Billy hits the ball out of the park.
Sonoma-based puppeteers Lee Armstrong and Kamela Portuges bring the rest of the cast to life, including Zatochi, a 1,000-year-old monkey; Bantu, a Motown mambo snake; and Shakespeare, a bookworm who is Morita's comedic sidekick.
Chung said what makes the show unusual and appealing to parents as well as children is its combination of current music and an ever-changing plot.
"Most kid shows teach information like ABCs or one-two-threes and teach it in short vignettes, like on 'Sesame Street,'" he said. "'Kanga Roddy' passes off nuggets of wisdom, like honesty and respect, in a story format that kids and parents can follow all the way through."
Jennifer Montana said another unusual feature of the series is the communication among the children on the show.
"In every episode, the children communicate and talk with one another about their problems," she said. "I hope kids see this and realize that it is OK to talk about these things with their friends."
The show targets boys and girls ages 3 to 7. According to Chung, the test-marketing results on over 3,000 children have been phenomenal.
"The boys really like the action, the karate moves and sports, and the girls really like the music," he said.
Chung is confident that children as young as 3 understand the message of the series. If they don't pick it up verbally, he says, they understand it visually.
"Kanga Roddy is a black-belt in karate," Chung said. "But you'll never see him hit anyone. You are never too young to learn about good behavior."
Chung and Chan are also owners of America's Best Karate, a chain of martial art schools throughout the Bay Area, including one in Palo Alto. Chung met the Lotts and Montanas through his regular work as a martial arts instructor for over 20 members of the 49ers.
While their wives star on the show, Ronnie Lott and Joe Montana lend support behind the scenes as executive producers. Lott is also a director of the Hayward-based company that produces the series, American Champion Entertainment, and both he and Montana are making public appearances and recruiting corporate sponsors on behalf of the program.
"Adventures with Kanga Roddy" airs on KTEH (Ch. 54) Saturdays at 9 a.m. and Sundays at 9:30 a.m.