PopCult Rudy Panucci on Pop Culture

Mark Wolfe and Eliska Hahn on The AIR

Thursday night we debut a new episode of The Real with Mark Wolfe at 10 PM on The AIR (or this embedded player).

Mark Wolfe returns with his fascinating interview series and this week his guest is Eliska Hahn, actress, figure skater, DJ and newly-minted resident of Charleston’s historic East End. Mark and Eliska discuss her career and how she wound up in the Daniel Boyd classic Troma Film, Invasion of the Space Preachers. Eliska also talks about her time as an educator, school counselor, skating coach and radio host.

The two also talk about the recent festivities surrounding the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame induction ceremony and Eliska’s return to Charleston after twenty years away.

The Real with Mark Wolfe can be heard Thursday at 10 PMwith replays Friday at 10 AM, Sunday at 6 PM and Tuesday at 7 PM on The AIR, and you can also find it on iTunes and at The Real with Mark Wolfe website.



UPDATED: Today was the day that the Toys R Us liquidation sales were to begin at most locations. I don’t mean to beat a dead horse with this story, but Toys R Us is a huge pop culture icon, and their demise is a pretty big, still-developing story. In a breaking development, many stores have posted signs saying that the liquidation sale has been postponed. We don’t know what this means. Reports are surfacing that they could begin at all locations by Friday, but even that isn’t certain.

Apparently this delay is due the fact that some interested parties want to purchase as many as 400 stores and keep them in operation. Most states have laws on the books that force a business to file a “going out of business” plan, and stick to it. This way consumers are protected from unscrupulous retailers who try to run perpetual going out of business sales simply as an advertising tease. In this case, since some TRU stores may remain open, they have to weigh all their options before starting such a sale.

When the sales do begin I wouldn’t expect any steals in the first week of the liquidation. All the toys will be marked up to their full retail price (or beyond) and initial discounts may only be enough to bring them down to what they were yesterday. In a couple of weeks, when the advertised discounts hit 30% or more, you’ll start to see real bargains.

There are still several bidders that want to rescue part of the chain. Isaac Larian, the CEO of MGA Toys (Bratz, LOL Surprise) is trying to buy the Canadian arm of the business along with as many as 400 of the US stores. That amount seems to be a best-case scenario, but it’s possible that, if his bid is successful, some stores might just halt their liquidation sales in April and attempt to get back to normal operations. That appears to be the hold-up in starting the liquidation sales, and the fact that the sales didn’t start on time is an indication that the court is at least taking these offers seriously.

The other major player that is known in this game is Strategic Marks Inc., who have been getting tons of press since they announced that they have “acquired” the trademarks to KB Toys. I’m still using quotes there because there are so many conflicting reports about how they picked up the trademarks, and there’s a lot of suspicion that their claims of ownership are shaky, or at least shaky enough to draw the scrutiny of the bankruptcy court.

However, it seems they can prove that they legitimately own the KB Toys name since they’ve already announced how they will bring the stores back in time for the holiday shopping season. They plan to partner with a seasonal retailer like Spirit Halloween or one of the many other stores who “pop up” for a couple of months (Party City and Spencers have divisions that handle this sort of temporary store) and open as many as a thousand KB Toy Stores in time for Christmas.

While this sounds exciting to folks who are nostalgic for KB Toys, the reality is that these stores will have higher prices and less selection, and will only share their name with the former national toy chain, which went defunct in 2009. There are conflicting reports about whether or not Toys R Us, who purchased the KayBee Toys intellectual property out of liquidation, really did allow the trademark to slip into the public domain. If they did, then somebody at the company screwed up big time, which at this point would be par for the course. The URLs for the trademark names have expired and no longer point to the Toys R Us website.

Assuming that, since Strategic Marks is a very successful company, their plan is on the level, I hope they put more effort into their pop-up stores than the typical seasonal retailer does. We’ll have to take a wait-and-see approach with this, but it’s looking a lot like we’ll have temporary stores in our local malls in time for the holidays. At least we can be sure that they’ll have plenty of spaces available for them at the Charleston Town Center.

Speaking of Charleston, while it is indeed very sad to Toys R Us go, in the likely event that the Charleston store is not one of the top performers that might be saved, we have to be honest here. Charlestonians over the age of 35 were never “Toys R Us Kids.” We didn’t get our local store until about 22 years ago, and the Barboursville store only opened in the mid-1980s after Children’s Palace shut down at the Huntington Mall.

We had KayBee Stores since the early 1980s, with two locations in the Charleston Town Center, and one in the Kanawha Mall. Those stores and Kid Country Toys made up most of our local toy-shopping world post 1980.

Back to where we stand: many Toys R Us stores could begin liquidation sales this week or next. Should the court accept any of the bids to buy some of the US stores out of banktupcy, it’s not clear how those stores would proceed. They may have to go ahead and liquidate, then close so they can restock those stores and then reopen a week or four later, of they may not be allowed to liquidate at all. KB Toys is preparing to open up to a thousand pop-up stores in time for Christmas, but it remains to be seen how well-stocked those stores will be, since the period for ordering holiday toys is nearly over.

That’s the current update. As the bidding process moves through bankruptcy court, it’s probably going to be mid-April before we have any idea if any of the plans to save any Toys R Us stores will succeed.

This story has been revised more than half a dozen times since it was originally posted early on March 22. Any further updates will be made in additional posts.

Sculpting Event In Charleston Thursday

Thursday evening there’s a really cool event happening on Charleston’s East End that any area sculptors might want to attend.

RJ Haddy’s Rad FX Atelier is hosting a fundraiser to help with the cost associated with replacing the building’s old HVAC system before other code upgrades can be completed. What he’s doing is holding a sort of sculpting version of Dr. Sketchy’s Anti-Art show, only without any models.

This event is not a structured class, this is a freestyle fun casual evening for folks to practice sculpture skills, chill out with good friends while making new ones, listening to some good music, enjoying some good wine (21+ only please B.Y.O.B.) all while making some good art.

A donation of $50 gets you in the door and all proceeds go towards replacing the HVAC system. In return, attendees get the following:
Entrance to the party
Cheese and fruit trays, along with other snacks
Soft drinks
ALSO…The first 25 (or so) people through the door will also get a small sculpture package of:
1.5 lbs of WED clay
1- sculpture base
1- package of wire

Doors open at 6:30 PM, so get there early otherwise, its B.Y.O.C (Bring Your Own Clay). Your use of Atelier sculpture tools and other supplies needed for the process will be made available for use during the event, plus Rj will be on hand sculpting his own project (and drinking) alongside you to answer any questions.

This sounds like a lot of fun, and if your PopCulteer can get over his obnoxious cough by then, I’m going to try to make it. I need to work on my 1/6 scale sculpting skills now that my fingers work again.

This week Life Speaks to Michele Zirkle looks at the concept of time, Wednesday at 1:30 PM and 7 PM on The AIR (or this embedded player).

Time keeps on ticking this week as Michele Zirkle looks at the relationship between the past, present and future, in an episode inspired in part by the movie, A Wrinkle In Time and in part by the death of Stephen Hawking.

How do you plan for the future when you don’t know all the variables that you’ll encounter on the way there?

Following up on last week’s show about movement, this week Life Speaks to Michele Zirkle looks into how we move through time. Can the past be changed, or at least the perceptions of the past, and is that as real as the present and potential future? Why would you even want to do that?

Michele examines these questions and tries to figure out the answers as she listens to life.

Life Speaks to Michele Zirkle replays on The AIR Friday at 9:30 AM and Monday at 12:30 PM. Check out our other cool programming on The AIR, with music every weekday at 2 PM. A new episode of The Real with Mark Wolfe can be heard Thursday at 10 PM. We’ll tell you more about that tomorrow.

More Unpredictability In The World Of Toys.

Since it became clear last week that Toys R Us would likely be shutting down all stores (some locations are telling customers that they’ll be closed by May 14), speculation has run rampant, and one company has already capitalized on the situation with an interesting announcement over the weekend.

Strategic Marks Inc., a firm that specializes in reviving defunct brands, and one that has had some remarkable success, made a big splash Sunday with the announcement that they have “acquired” the trademark for “KB Toys.”

I use quotation marks there because they didn’t purchase the trademarks from Toys R Us. Another company tried to do that last year. Strategic Marks filed for a variant of the name that had escaped notice by TRU when they snapped up “KayBee,” “KB Toyworks” and “KBKids.” TRU also owns the websites associated with those names, although they all just redirect back to the Toys R Us website.

The Rockfather has a great explanation of this up at his site. If it weren’t for Strategic Marks’ previous success in reviving Leaf Brands and Hydrox cookies, this would just look like an attempt to cash in on the sudden interest in toy retailing. However, since this is a successful company with a strong track record, and they may well be able to purchase the complete set of KayBee trademarks out of liquidation and possibly even get a few stores in the process, it can’t be easily dismissed.

Reuters has a story up that details how the Toys R Us brand name is likely to survive liquidation. If the bid by the group led by Isaac Larian is successful, then we might see two or even three smaller toy retailers emerge from the post-liquidation rubble.

There is a hearing scheduled for today, and from that we are likely to learn more details about potential buyers of parts of the company and when liquidation sales will begin. Most vendors have stopped shipping new product to Toys R Us, and the fate of their previously-announced store exclusives is still unknown.

It’s anticipated that the top 200 stores will be liquidated last, to give them time to try and find a buyer for their best performers. Gift cards and rewards dollars are expected to become worthless by the middle of April.

We will keep you updated on this story, probably later this week.

On Monday, Astral Theatre Collective issued the following press release:

Special Announcement!

Astral Theatre Collective Announces “Teacher’s Night”
Thursday, March 22, 2018

Astral Theatre Collective, in association with the Alban Arts Center, will be holding a special performance for our local teachers this Thursday evening beginning at 8pm. All teachers showing proper credentials will receive free admission to Astral’s performance of “Wolf’s Head – A Tale of Robin Hood and the Sheriff.” Guests (family, friends, and students) will pay $5.00 for their ticket, with that entire amount going to provide scholarships for the Alban Arts Academy for continued education in the Arts in the community.

Astral Theatre Collective would not be in existence had it not been for a teacher who made an impact on its founder, introducing him to the Arts at an early age. Realizing that first contact with the Arts generally comes to children from their teachers, the cast and crew of our production would like to say “Thanks!” to our wonderful educators who stand and fight for the children they inspire.

200 seat capacity. Tickets will be available at the door. Doors will open at 7:30pm. This performance is reserved only for our teachers and their guests, and is not open to the public.

We told you about Wolf’s Head – A Tale of Robin Hood and the Sheriff last week, and this is a great chance for teachers to see it for free. If you are not a teacher and want to see this original retelling of the Robin Hood saga, you have three more chances this weekend, Friday and Saturday at 8 PM and Sunday at 2 PM, at the Alban Arts Center.

Monday Morning Art: The Biggest Of Boys



A few weeks ago I showed off two paintings based on another person’s work of art, “The Thinker,” by Auguste Rodin. Once again I find myself i the position of answering my calling as an artist to interpret another artist’s work.

This time, it’s a digital Impasto of “Big Boy,” by Bob. This one is just striking, if I do say so myself. It’s not like anyone else will. Click to make Big Boy even bigger.

Sunday Evening Video: ToyLanta 2018

pc-2-9-007Above you see a video recap of the highlights of ToyLanta 2018,. which was held March 9-11 2018 at the Marriott Century Center in Atlanta, Georgia. I’ve been writing about it for a few weeks now, and have brought you video snippets, audio  and photos over the last week.

I have to be honest with you, your PopCulteer has been far under the weather since he returned. I think it was a double whammy of a week’s exposure to fine Southern allergins combined with arriving back home just in time for a ridiculous blast of winter weather, but I’ve been living on cold medicine, and that has slowed me down considerably. This video should have been done days ago.

Some of this clip may seem a bit familiar to my readers and viewers. I attempted to post a video of the first day of ToyLanta, but a combination of me not having the proper software installed on my laptop and the hotel undergoing a very loud renovation resulted in the video clip I posted nine days ago having dodgy audio at best. So I re-edited much of that clip and used it in this all-encompassing round-up, with vastly improved sound and more thought put into the video. This is the first time that I’ve  let so many ToyLanta regulars speak, and I think it gives you a pretty good idea of the fun and family atmosphere at this show.

I tried to strike a balance between showing as much ToyLanta fun as possible and keeping the clip short enough so that more people would watch. In the coming days or weeks I’ll be posting some full panels and maybe some bonus footage from the show. I will also be posting a photo essay devoted to the custom figure and diorama contest later this week. I’d like to do this in a more timely manner, but cold medicine makes my brain not work too good.

This clip also includes the resolution of the saga of my first GI Joe, a Talking Soldier. My first attempt to get him repaired last August in Louisville by master Talking GI Joe repair guru, Scott Wilde, didn’t work out too well. Watch this clip to end to see if Scott was able to restore the voice to my oldest action figure.

Die hard fans of Radio Free Charleston may recognize the song, “Forbidden Dance” by the legendary band Feast of Stephen, which just seemed like the perfect tune for the background of our Dealer’s Room footage.

Stay tuned to PopCult for more coverage of ToyLanta, and news on next year’s shows and other cool toy shows coming up later this year.

The RFC Flashback: Episode 130

flashboack-5-7-02This week we go back toMay, 2011 for an episode of Radio Free Charleston featuring host segments shot at The East End Yard Sale (seen right) and music from the then-current Charleston Light Opera Guild show, The Drowsy Chaperone. This edition of the show does indeed feature a song from The Charleston Light Opera Guild, a jazz tune from C2J2, animation from Frank Panucci, and a couple of surprises.

Our first musical number this week was “Toledo Surprise,” from the Charleston Light Opera Guild peoduction of The Drowsy Chaperone. We were invited to bring our cameras in to a dress rehearsal of the show and had a ton of fun recording this tune. Our animation this time was “Changes,” the 47th piece of DEVO Energy Dome animation by Frank Panucci that we’ve featured on RFC. Rounding out the show this week was C2J2, a jazz quartet consisting of four veteran maestros, Chris Mickel, Jamie Skeen, Chris Hudson and Josh Cannon.

You can read the full production notes HERE.

tru_front-copy-1-845x684The PopCulteer
March 16, 2018

You may have noticed that PopCult has been largely devoted to toys for the last few weeks. We had the International Toy Fair in New York last month, and this month we’ve been bringing you lots of pre- and post-ToyLanta coverage (with more to come). However, we have to take a moment to talk about the biggest story in the world of the toy industry this week, the not-unexpected impending demise of Toys R Us.

Last year I wrote about the real cause of TRU’s woes. It was not a downturn in sales or competition from Walmart on Amazon. Toys R Us was the victim of a perfecly legal, yet lethal, financial transaction, a leveraged buyout.

In 2005, Bain Capital, a firm that had already systematically destroyed KayBee Toys in exactly the same way, teamed up with two other private equity firms to buy TRU and take it private, and in the process they saddled the company with a debt load that could only be paid off if sales went up and all their competition went out of business.

The surprising part of what happened was that Toys R Us was so big that it took them thirteen years to run the company into the ground, with somewhere between five and eight Billion dollars in debt (reports vary). That’s “Billion” with a “B.” Outside of military contractors, it’s hard to run up a loss that huge.

The most important lesson that should be taken away from this is that, perhaps, the government should consider whether or not the practice of leveraged buyouts should even be legal. I realize that the prevailing philosophy among those currently in power is that all government regulations are bad, but that philosophy is evil and self-serving.  We need banking reform and new regulations on Wall Street, and we need to consider banning such predatory financial manuevers as short-selling, derivative trading and leveraged buyouts.

post-1-0-70873000-1449894013A leveraged buyout, in too many cases, is just the act of a money vampire. Private equity firms borrow money to buy a healthy (or in the case of TRU, a still-viable, but damaged) company and then transfer the debt from that purchase to the company, meaning that they don’t really put out much of their own money, and instantly plunge the company that they just bought into debt. Then they install their own board of directors and high-priced consultants, all of whom get paid before anyone else, and drain as much money as possible out of the company, while not investing any more capital to keep that company competitive.

In the case of Toys R Us, the company had been adrift without competent management since the death of its founder in 1994.  The management team that came in after him had no understanding of the toy industry or the original concept of the stores, and hobbled the competitive edge that TRU previously had over everyone else in the field.

The whole reason that TRU was so phenomenally successful was that they were the place to go that carried almost every toy made.  That was the attraction. It was costly managing that much inventory, but it was really the only thing that made them different from other toy retailers. In the mid-1990s the new CEO made the decision to drop more than half of the products they carried, and that put a serious dent in their appeal. That was when they started losing market share rapidly to Walmart, Target and KayBee Toys. If KayBee hadn’t been snatched up and destroyed by Bain Capital, they would’ve passed TRU as the top dedicated toy retailer by the year 2000.

So Toys R Us was already in trouble when Bain Capital lazily raised their head from the carcass of KayBee Toys and decided to just go ahead and kill another toy retailer.

And that brings us to where we are now. There is still a tiny glimmer of hope that some of the Toys R Us stores will remain open. I stumbled across a plan late last year that I had to agree to keep quiet about. A group of investors, lead by a toy company executive, approached TRU with a plan to buy their Canadian divsion along with 200 of their top-performing stores and also the Intellectual Property of KayBee Toys. Toys R Us bought the KayBee trademarks and website out of liquidation and still owns them.

The plan would be to rebrand the US stores as KayBee Toys and operate them out from under the unmanageable debt load that was pretty much obviously going to sink the company.  I was asked to keep my mouth shut about this plan, which was easy to do.  Chances are that it wouldn’t happen. TRU could not continue without their top 200 stores. But there were contingency plans to buy the same assets out of liquidation.

mga-logo2-centeredI can talk about this now, because these investors have gone public. The Washington Post reports, “A group of toymakers led by Isaac Larian, chief executive of MGA Entertainment, the giant behind brands such as L.O.L. Surprise!, Little Tikes and Bratz, on Wednesday submitted a bid to buy Toys R Us’s Canadian arm, which includes 82 stores, according to Larian. He added that he is also looking into buying as many as 400 U.S. stores, which he would seek to operate under the Toys R Us name.”

When I accidentally found out about this, even a hint of the plan coming out would jeopardize it. It’s still iffy. They have to get their financing in order and the bankruptcy judge has to determine that their offer will bring in more money than a total liquidation of those particular assets. Right now I’d give this plan less than a fifty percent chance of happening, but I really hope it does.

No “white knight” was going to take on the company’s debt load. Very few people have eight billion dollars laying around, and those that do are more likely to spend that money buying elections than they are to rescue a failing retailer. But a consortium of toy companies would be the best bet for TRU to find a management team that will take them back to their original philosopy of being THE toy store, and would be more intent on making the company work.

The Private Equity firms involved aren’t losing any of their own money on this deal, and they’ve already made tens of millions of dollars in management and consulting fees. To them, even with TRU going into liquidation, this was a profitable deal.

105068177-toysrus_closings_map-600x400Unless things change rapidly, I wouldn’t expect a ruling from the judge before next week. Toys R Us has announced that they will honor gift cards and rewards points for the next thirty days (probably 28 by the time you read this), and the start date for the liquidation sales has not yet been announced. To your left you see a map of all the remaining TRU stores in the US (courtesy of CNBC).

If a specialized liquidation team is brought in to sell off the inventory, don’t expect any bargains during the first week or two. As anyone who’s been to the St. Albans K Mart can tell you, the first thing they do when they liquidate a store is mark up all the prices to ten or twenty percent more than the suggested list price. Then they discount it from there. In many cases that means that the day before a liquidation sale you can find stuff for less than you will the day after it starts.

It’s not until they get further along that the real bargains will pop up. If you wait until they advertise “50% Off,” you might find some decent discounts from their inflated starting prices.

It’s sad to see Toys R Us come to this, and I really hope that some of the stores can be salvaged, but to those of us who watched what Bain Capital did to KayBee Toys, this was inevitable when they took over TRU back in 2005.

ToyLanta Swag

Just so that this PopCulteer is not a total bummer, I know that you really want to see some more ToyLanta photos, so in this post I’m going to show off what I bought, and tell you a little about the dealers. We’ll kick it all off with this year’s convention exclusive figure, available with the Commander’s Packages, it’s the Descend Into Danger set, featuring work by Cotswold Collectibles, Felipe Monaco and the talented ToyLanta crew.


Bryan Tatum has been creating cool mini-diorama pieces to go along with the convention figures for the past few years, and this year he came up with a really cool radioactive alien scene, complete with a working strobe light…



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