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Coulda Been a Contender 

Scrounging for cash in the strangest places, the creators of the karate-themed Adventures With Kanga Roddy children's TV series infuriate investors

Wednesday, May 31 2000
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The Venetian blinds are tightly closed in Anthony Chan's corner office, blocking out the afternoon sun and views of the yellow and purple petunias that decorate a nicely manicured lawn outside. The shades are drawn down the hall, too, in the room where George Chung works. The business partners are ensconced in their offices, desperately crunching numbers and calculating ways to keep their start-up company alive. With its stocks worth just $1.20 a share, American Champion Entertainment Inc. (ACEI) is dangerously close to flatlining. That's when the price goes under a dollar and the company is kicked off the NASDAQ list -- a familiar predicament for American Champion, which was already resuscitated by a reverse split in January. Investors were left with just one share of stock for every four they owned, and everyone knows the stockholders won't tolerate going through that ordeal again.

American Champion produces the children's television series Adventures With Kanga Roddy, which has aired on PBS stations in San Francisco, San Jose, and 60 other cities across the country. In the show, kids facing dilemmas from peer pressure to prejudice are beamed through the screen of a magical computer to the land of Hiyah where a friendly martial arts master -- a 7-foot-tall kangaroo -- plays games and dispenses advice.

In the first Kanga Roddy episode, "Try, Try Again," written by George Chung and Anthony Chan, young Billy is upset that he keeps striking out in baseball, and Kanga Roddy teaches him how to learn from his failures.

"What's the matter, Billy?" asks one of the adult cast members, Karen.

"I guess I'm in a slump. I can't seem to get anything right these days."

So Billy pays a visit to the land of Hiyah.

"I can't get a hit," Billy tells Kanga Roddy.

"Billy, even the best players in the world strike out sometimes," the giant kangaroo says, breaking into the song "When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get Going."

Kanga Roddy and the Hiyah gang sing and dance to the Billy Ocean hit. They also perform Starship's "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now" to inspire the defeated baseball player.

"How was your adventure?" another adult asks Billy upon his return home.

"Kanga Roddy showed me when you can't get something exactly right, it's best not to get uptight," he answers.

Chung and Chan -- martial arts masters themselves, once archrivals, and now business partners -- are doing their best not to get uptight. During their karate careers, they each won many championship titles and were both inducted into the Black Belt Hall of Fame. But their television production careers haven't gone so well. Last year, American Champion lost more than $6 million and auditors have expressed concern that the company may not exist in 12 months. Despite good ratings and even a regional Emmy award for best direction, Kanga Roddy hasn't made any money. Lucrative merchandising deals never materialized, and a lawsuit over who should get credit for the creation of the show's characters also slowed any early momentum. Now Kanga Roddy is out of production and only seen in reruns.

Chung and Chan sought to create a program with moral and educational content that would still be considered cool by computer game-weaned kids, who want their entertainment flashy and action-packed. The result is a bizarre confluence, at best. For one thing, Kanga Roddy is a martial arts master who isn't permitted to hit anything. PBS wouldn't allow it. "The only karate Kanga Roddy does is in his song and dance," Chan says. "We wanted a show that taught all the good values intrinsic with the martial arts, minus the punching and kicking."

Kanga Roddy prefers to solve problems through his lessons of courage, perseverance, honor, and respect, but the result is often saccharine and heavy-handed. A review in Entertainment Weekly couldn't get past the premise, bestowing the title "Weirdest kids' show," and going so far to call Kanga Roddy a "kiddie acid trip."

Why the combination of kids and karate? "We're passionate about children, because we have our own," Chung says. "And we're passionate about karate, because that's what we do."

When American Champion went public three years ago with an initial share price of $5, the company was able to raise $6 million. But the stock has lost 80 percent of its value since then. Investors once wooed by dreams of a golden kangaroo are getting restless -- and angry. They vent their frustrations on the Internet, where Yahoo! lists American Champion on its stock bulletin board. The often vitriolic postings number in the thousands, which is why Chan keeps his office blinds closed. "I won't sit in front of an open window anymore," he says.

In fact, the FBI is investigating death threats against Chung and Chan. "People like that should die," someone wrote in February, using the screen name "lightenupfrancis." Another message suggested that Chung and Chan seek protection: "Make sure you're wearing your bullet proof vest ... Chan will be killed shortly."

American Champion¹s troubled history might actually be a parable about the dangers of -- well, a lot of stuff. For instance, investing in a completely unproven stock. Or going public with a media company with a negative cash flow. Or starting a business producing and syndicating a television show, when you have no experience doing so. Or trying to market a karate-expert kangaroo who doesn¹t actually do karate. Or promoting boxing matches in China, where there is, apparently, little interest in boxing -- but that¹s sort of another story, although not completely. Actually, it¹s hard to say what anyone can learn from Chung and Chan, except that it would be a good idea not to do what they¹ve done.

Chung, 38, and Chan, 45 -- hard-working fathers of young children, believers in the values of their cute, furry TV character, and Hall of Fame karate masters -- met as competitors in a national tae kwon do tournament in Long Beach. "It was the one to win," Chung says of the 1977 contest that was a turning point for both young men. Fifteen-year-old Chung placed well enough to receive his black belt and Chan, then 22, took top prize. "He was simply amazing," says Chung, who was so enamored of Chan's skill that he asked the champion if they could train together. They both lived in the Bay Area, so Chung became Chan's student -- but soon, he was competing against his teacher. Ultimately, Chung and Chan became fierce opponents and went on to dominate the martial arts field of the time.

About The Author

Joel P. Engardio

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