Break a leg? Not necessary

Times Staff Writer

The genesis for the children's animated series "The Zula Patrol" was, quite simply, a sore foot.

Deborah Manchester, the creator and driving force behind the popular science-based show that airs Mondays on KLCS (Channel 58), a local PBS affiliate, had foot surgery in the early 1990s.

"My foot was in a cast for a long time," says Manchester, whose series premiered last fall and currently airs on PBS stations across 80% of the country. "It was the dead of winter in Ohio, and I realized I had nothing to put over my cast."

After the cast was removed, Manchester decided to design a line of covers for both children and adults so they could keep their casts dry and warm. She made the covers plain for adults, but to add a fun touch for children, "I came up with this idea of an imaginary planet with these characters."

Manchester went door to door to orthopedists and hospitals with the covers and eventually got a mail-order distributor. The cast covers did so well, Manchester decided to create a storybook to include with the covers, chronicling the intergalactic adventures of the colorful alien Zula Patrol -- the brave Captain Brulu, the brilliant Professor Multo, the daredevil pilot Zeeter, the space pet Gorgo, twin flying companions Wizzy and Wigg and the villain Dark Truder.

Manchester brought her book and prototype toys to the International Book Fair in Los Angeles a decade ago. Though she didn't receive a publishing deal, three TV producers approached her about transforming her characters into a series.

Heeding their advice that "Zula" had potential as a TV show, Manchester produced two 15-minute episodes geared for children from pre-kindergarten through second grade.

With her background in science -- she was an audiologist for 15 years before turning to animation -- Manchester conceived the series to teach scientific concepts in an entertaining way for young children, noting, "There is not much especially for this age group in terms of science educational material, and because of the de-emphasis on science education, the void is just terrible."

Manchester learned about a Chicago-based program for female-owned companies called Springboard Enterprises that was started by USA Network founder Kay Koplovitz.

Koplovitz told her that female entrepreneurs faced an "incredibly difficult" challenge, particularly in the entertainment industry, Manchester recalled. Springboard takes 150 applicants every year and then narrows the field to 12. Manchester was one of the dozen chosen.

"They groom you for six months, refine your business plan and give you mentors, then you present to a whole audience of investors," Manchester said.

In the audience that day was a person who knew of a wealthy Chicago businessman who loves science and had funded other science-related projects. Manchester met with the investor's right-hand man, who took the proposal to his boss. The investor, who remains anonymous, has funded the entire project. "We are doing 25 half-hours over the next two years, and we'll do another 13 after that," Manchester said.

Before she began the series, Manchester gathered an advisory board of teachers, scientists, physicists and astronomers to help her design the focus.

"We decided how many were going to be astronomy related, earth-sciences related. Then we came up with the general ideals of what we would teach about those subjects."

Subjects explored included comets, asteroids, shadows, eclipses, the Earth's moon, temperature, seasons and the solar system.


'The Zula Patrol'

Where: KLCS

When: 11:30 a.m. Mondays

Rating: TV-G (suitable for all ages)

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