Photo by Caitlin Abrams
Bob Medcraft is the real Choo Choo Bob. This is a big deal in certain circles: specifically among little kids, foamers, and moms. The little-kid part is self-evident to anyone who has been to Medcraft’s St. Paul store, where a dozen low train tables, kitted out with tracks, cars, and landscapes, encourage free play. “Foamers” are the fellows who show up at Choo Choo Bob’s Train Store and say things like, “What I’m really looking for is a Lionel Blue Comet Steam Engine with original paint.” Then, as they go into excited detail about the particular toy train, flecks of foam begin to form around their mouths. Or so it seems. Then, of course, there are the moms. They recognize Medcraft from TV.
“Some moms get pretty excited,” he says outside the St. Paul studio where he and the crew shoot The Choo Choo Bob Show. “They say, ‘That’s him, that’s the real Choo Choo Bob!’ And they want to talk to me. It kind of annoys my wife, but that’s OK. I figure I need more people to know I’m the real Choo Choo Bob. That way, when I get to heaven, God will say, ‘You’re Choo Choo Bob! I guess I gotta let you in.’ That’s my long-term plan I’m working now.”
Medcraft has the uneasy black humor of someone who has seen an industry collapse around him. Before he was Choo Choo Bob, he was one of the most sought-after film production folks in the Twin Cities: a location manager on Mall Rats, A Simple Plan, The Straight Story, Little Big League, and Jingle All the Way, plus a scout for Grumpy Old Men. That was before the Minnesota film industry fell apart. “Music videos collapsed in 2005, and they were the last to go,” he says. “The film community is maybe a fifth what it was 15 years ago. I think we used to be number four in the nation shooting television commercials. That changed.”
As he says this, his blue eyes both wince and grow large, in the particularly Midwestern male way of expressing, “I am in great pain and it’s really not that bad in the scheme of things.”
When music videos collapsed, Medcraft went to his Plan B. “A bunch of years before, a girlfriend had given me a train,” he says, “and it was just so cool.” Medcraft’s grandfather had worked for the Chicago & North Western railroad in Michigan, and he remembered riding the rails with his grandpa with great affection. Next thing he knew, he was building an elaborate train-scape in his basement in the intense downtimes that come between filming’s intense on times.
Soon a friend’s kid was constantly demanding to visit “Choo Choo Bob.” Medcraft had been appalled by how anti-child many model train stores are. He decided to open an adamantly pro-child train store in St. Paul. Then he decided to go bigger and make a TV show for kids. He recruited some of the best of the old film scene. Medcraft teamed with actor Rich Kronfeld, star and producer of the Comedy Central series Let’s Bowl, and director Andy Grund, who worked on music videos for Liz Phair, Prince, and Ice-T, to make goofy, wholesome children’s variety shows that are heavy on train info and funny, and that walk that utterly Minnesotan line of being completely without irony (there’s a lovable rat puppet!) and utterly ironic (there’s a lovable rat puppet). They’ve made 40 shows so far, financed by angel investor Bob Vince (aka The Other Choo Choo Bob), director of the Center for Drug Design at the University of Minnesota and the developer of one of the world’s most important medicines used to combat AIDS. The show airs locally Saturdays at 2:30 p.m. on Channel 45.
The Choo Choo Bob crew has been relentlessly touring train shows—there are dozens of them, drawing as many as 30,000 people (foamers, kids, and moms) a weekend to fairgrounds around the country. Medcraft also started the St. Paul Train Show, which is happening for the first time December 28–29 in the St. Paul RiverCentre, with bouncy castles, a ride-on train, giant train-scapes, and more. “It will be train-gasmic,” Medcraft notes dryly (but also enthusiastically).
Medcraft’s plan is to build Choo Choo Bob into a stable economic enterprise he hopes will one day be on par with The Wiggles. Don’t laugh. The Wiggles are the second-biggest-earning entertainers in Australia, right behind Russell Crowe. They got their start by relentlessly touring preschools. “This is the most fun I’ve ever had making a show,” Medcraft says. “My biggest fear is that we won’t get to keep doing it.”
Being the real Choo Choo Bob is not only a big deal in certain rarefied circles; it’s a big deal to Medcraft, too.