Los Angeles Times

A cartoonish calling

Sentinel Staff Writer

The pastel buildings cluster in a long curve. With their pinks, greens and blues, the garage, warehouse, power plant and church are reminiscent of Toontown, the setting of Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

Like Toontown, though, nothing here is real. The "buildings" are just facades made of wood and plastic foam, like those found in a movie or at a theme park. But this whimsical setting soon will find its way to a church.

Bruce Barry, a special- effects wizard who designed animatronic gorillas and elephants for Rainforest Cafes and painted backgrounds for Universal Studios, has almost completed this razzle-dazzle children's-ministry environment for the new complex at Northland Church in Longwood.

By early November, when Barry's Wacky World Studios crew finishes installing the 4,800-square-foot set, the Northland children's worship center will be one of the 10 largest and most elaborate Barry has done.

And it will be the latest step in the journey of a self-taught artist, raised without religion, who is literally changing the faces of megachurches across the country.

"He's had a huge impact on children's ministries nationwide," says Dale Hudson, children's minister at Central Christian Church in Las Vegas.

Barry has installed his work at dozens of congregations for marquee pastors including Joel Osteen, Jerry Falwell and Adrian Rodgers, ranging in cost from $5,000 to $1 million.

The Northland environment is a little less fanciful than some of the others, says Stephen Arnold, the church's lighting and staging director. He spotted a model of Barry's in a Fort Myers church and asked if Wacky World would collaborate on a slightly different design for the Longwood congregation.

"We are going for a more realistic look," Arnold says. "The point here is that we're creating a children's worship room that is representative of their neighborhood. The intent is that worship of God is not just limited to a church building. Worship should take place everywhere, everyday -- at a power plant, in a warehouse."

Arnold, who said the set would cost about $460,000, is pleased with Wacky World's work.

"I think it's excellent," he says. "The attention to detail, the way the artists really love what they're doing. They're excited about it."

An artful journey

The son of a Disney illustrator who worked on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Barry once painted murals for the ET ride at Universal Studios in Orlando. Although he didn't get religion until six years ago, when he was almost 40, Barry has made up for lost time.

A self-described "big kid" with an earring, beard and a blond, Hollywood haircut, Barry works out of Wacky World's two-story warehouse and studio in Oldsmar, near Tampa. With 67 employees, including two of his brothers, he brings his artistic and animation talents to a wide arrange of projects, most designed to support his Christian faith.

Barry was raised in central New Jersey. Although his family was nominally Catholic, there was no religion or churchgoing in the Barry home.

Barry's father taught him sketching and model-making, the two skills he would use later in life.

After a stint in the Navy, he came to Florida and took jobs with animation studios, doing storyboards for cult favorites such as Ren & Stimpy at Last Laugh Studio in DeLand. While working at Universal, he lived for a time in Kissimmee. Ultimately, he started his company, Bruce Barry's Wacky World Studios, doing cartoony, 3-D designs for children's bedrooms.

A turning point

Then fate -- or, Barry thinks, God -- intervened. A small ad he posted on a friend's Internet site in 1999 caught the eye of Pamela Hudson, wife of Dale Hudson, then children's minister at First Baptist Church of Springdale, Ark. The pastor had $200,000 from the church to build something special for children's worship, along the lines of Toontown in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and for some reason he thought Barry was the one to build it.

Hudson's call caught Barry off guard.

"I didn't know what a children's minister was," he says.

For some reason Barry accepted the commission and flew to Arkansas to supervise the installation. He was impressed by the congregation's warmth and kindness and by the fact that they did not try to convert him.

At an alternative Halloween celebration in the church, Barry was led around the room by a 12-year-old girl, encountering illustrated Bible stories that were new to him.

"I'm seeing the Bible for the first time through a child's heart and a child's eyes," he says.

Later, at a men's church luncheon, he felt moved to accept Jesus.

"God opened the door," says Dale Hudson, who moved from Springdale to Las Vegas. "Bruce got down on his knees and invited God into his life. You could just tell when he got up he was a different person."

The environment was a success, and word of it spread to other churches, especially in the Sun Belt, leading to more commissions.

Now dwarfed by his subsequent creations, the two-room environment in Springdale remains popular.

"The kids still love them," says Michelle Griffey, an associate in the children's ministry. "They look forward to coming in there."

An artist pours his talent and faith into kid-friendly worship rooms, including one for Northland Church in Longwood.




Mark I. Pinsky can be reached at mpinsky@orlandosentinel .com or 407-420-5589.

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