For years, Steven Rotblatt toiled on the fringes of Hollywood.
The actor-writer landed bit parts in the TV series “Cheers” and the Shelley Long film “Outrageous Fortune.” In between, he waited tables, taught high school and managed an office, all the while struggling to keep his acting dream alive.
He has finally succeeded, albeit in an unconventional way. Rotblatt runs Rubber Chicken Cards (rubberchickencards.com), a Santa Monica company that is generating buzz on the Web by creating online greeting cards that combine voice-over acting with irreverent humor.
Rotblatt founded the company six years ago with Richard Zobel, an old acting buddy he lost to cancer in October. The company name was an inside joke between the two actors: When either had a bad night onstage, they commiserated by joking that if all else failed they could do vaudeville using rubber chickens.
Lately, Rotblatt has earned rave reviews for his performance on the online stage. Me.com, which operates a social networking site, recently selected Rubber Chicken over dozens of other vendors to create an electronic birthday card for members.
“The cartoons have the smartness of a ‘Saturday Night Live’ sketch,” said Alex Mostoufi, founder and chief technology officer of Me.com. “They’ve been very popular.”
Classmates.com asked Rubber Chicken to develop several test cards. The Renton, Wash., company was looking for a lighthearted card that would help its 40 million members reconnect with old friends.
“We really liked their humor,” said Lisa Sharples, senior vice president of marketing at Classmates.com.
Capitalizing on the growth of broadband, Rubber Chicken has built a library of more than 400 talking cards that are available to subscribers for a $20 annual fee.
The cards, which target baby boomers and can run for as long as 90 seconds, are actually cartoon shorts that feature more than 60 zany characters who play recurring roles set to different holidays. Among them is Frankie and Eddie, two singing birds that can’t carry a tune; the Breeder Boys, two backwoods brothers with “one brain cell between them”; and a high-society rodent named Dottie Rat.
For Rotblatt, 54, it’s like running his own micro-studio.
“I get to create the characters; I get to draw them; I get to direct the animation,” he said. “I’m playing a huge range of characters, certainly more than I ever would have been cast in.”
Better still, serving up Rubber Chicken means Rotblatt no longer has to moonlight.
The company, which operates out of a makeshift studio in Rotblatt’s garage, has 13,000 subscribers. Rubber Chicken’s annual sales are expected to reach $300,000 this year, up nearly 60% from last year. The company employs about a dozen mostly part-time animators and actors.
In addition to its subscription business, Rubber Chicken is making money taking corporate orders. Last year, Cisco Systems Inc. hired the company to create cards to encourage employees to take a health survey.
A lifelong doodler, Rotblatt founded Rubber Chicken after creating a series of greeting cards for Paper Moon Greetings and Recycled Paper Greetings, one of the many odd jobs he held to make ends meet. He also supplemented his income by illustrating a children’s guide to the Smithsonian, as well as a CD-ROM based on physicist Stephen Hawking’s book “A Brief History of Time.”
To hone his drawing skills, Rotblatt enrolled in UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and Television to study animation. There, he invited his old friend Zobel, with whom he had co-founded a theater company in upstate New York, to play the role of an angry cat for one of his class projects.
Zobel, who was working as a building manager at the time, eagerly embraced the role. The pair teamed up on other characters, laying the groundwork for Rubber Chicken.
“It was the compilation of everything we tried: acting, directing, writing, drawing, screwing around with computers,” Rotblatt said of his company. Besides, he added, “nobody is telling us what to do anymore.”
They adopted a simple strategy: Use their talents and spend as little as possible.
They bought a $300 software program and hired a college student to design a website for the company. Zobel found some old computers and fixed them up. Rotblatt borrowed $2,000 from his mother to pay the student and purchase microphones and other equipment.
Rather than sell characters to someone else, the pair wanted to build a library of characters that they would own.
To market the characters, they persuaded Yahoo Inc. to feature some of them free of charge on its website, helping to build a following for Cowboy Bob and other signature figures.
In the wake of Zobel’s death, Rotblatt hired a manager to take over some of the business tasks his friend handled, while tapping other actors to do voice-over work.
Now, Rotblatt is thinking about more than just greeting cards. He’s working with Template Entertainment of Toronto to develop a potential TV show based on Frankie and Eddie, the tone-deaf birds. Like most of the Rubber Chicken characters, the pair are lovable losers.
“I don’t have anything significant to tell people,” Rotblatt said. “I just want to make people smile.”