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

Chung finally made the A-list in the early 1990s when he met 49ers star Ronnie Lott, who was interested in applying martial arts skills to the gridiron. Lott trained with Chung, and was so impressed with the results he talked teammate Joe Montana into trying karate. Chung ended up giving private lessons to the football stars and their families, and eventually was invited by the Niners' coaches to start teaching everyone on the team.

Anyone who wanted to train with Chung was welcome, but coaches made his classes mandatory for defensive linemen. Chung's exercises proved helpful for hand and foot coordination and balance. "George has been one of the great things to happen to the 49ers over the years," says team director Bill McPherson, who as assistant coach helped see the 49ers to five Super Bowl wins. "You can see a player's progress after they get into his program. George is a great inspiration; players get confidence after spending time with him. We swear by this guy."

Chung was appreciated enough to be awarded the Super Bowl ring after the 49ers' 1994 victory, a testament to how much he is liked.

George Chung: One of the great things to happen to the 49ers.
Anthony Pidgeon
George Chung: One of the great things to happen to the 49ers.
Earning His Super Bowl Ring: Chung trains with Niners center Ben Lynch.
Anthony Pidgeon
Earning His Super Bowl Ring: Chung trains with Niners center Ben Lynch.

Most important for Chung, the team's biggest stars proved their allegiance. Joe Montana continued training with Chung even after he moved to the Kansas City Chiefs, and saw to it that Chung got a mention and a two-page picture spread of karate poses in his book, Montana. And, along with Ronnie Lott, Joe Montana also helped Chung move into the next phase of his career.

Chung and Chan wanted to get into the entertainment business, but they needed to come up with a product. All they had known and loved was karate. They were also beginning to start families. So they decided to create a children's TV show starring a karate master kangaroo. Montana and Lott signed up as executive producers, while their wives agreed to play on-screen roles in the song and dance series. With the football stars' backing, Chung and Chan raised enough money to produce a pilot episode of Kanga Roddy and take their new company public.

"Putting that program together and getting it distributed was quite a feat, and shows that these guys can definitely follow through on a project and create content of value," says Lott, who is, for the record, a major shareholder in American Champion. "I believe in George's determination and ability to get the best out of people; Anthony, too. Both have the characteristics to succeed, and that's why I jumped on board."

But Chung and Chan were unprepared for the difficulties they faced bringing Kanga Roddy to life while managing a public company. In addition to learning about television production and how expensive, cumbersome, and painstakingly slow it can be, they had to navigate the bureaucratic and highly politicized world of PBS to get their show on the air. They had to spend what time was left trying to land merchandising deals in order to have any hope of actually earning some money. And there was still the chain of 11 karate studios to run.

"We were two karate guys who had become millionaires, but we were naive," reflects Chung. "Going public was only part one, and no amount of study can make up for experience. It was the beginning of an emotional roller coaster, filled with happiness, sadness, drama, and deceit. We found out who our allies and enemies were."

The first casualty was the friendship between Chung and Chuck Jeffreys, a martial arts expert and co-star in some of the karate movies in which Chung acted. (Jeffreys also works as a Hollywood stuntman.) Chung asked Jeffreys for input while creating the concept of Kanga Roddy, which later resulted in a lawsuit over just what Jeffreys had contributed and how he should be billed in the credits. The case was eventually settled out of court for an undisclosed sum, with Jeffreys deemed a creative consultant.

"He was a very good buddy of mine. We shared a lot of good times and won't be able to anymore, and that hurts," Chung says. "But what drives things like this is greed. If not, why would he sue me for an enormous amount of money? If it is about principle, he should have just sued for an apology."

"George Chung was one of my best friends in the world, who for a reason larger than a 7-foot-tall kangaroo turned into somebody I didn't know anymore," Jeffreys says. "I think that reason is Anthony Chan -- even though he's only like 5'2" -- and whether that be good or bad, it's something that George is going to have to live with for the rest of his life."

The karate studios were the next to go. To keep up with the $240,000 price tag for every half-hour Kanga Roddy episode (there were orders for 39; 29 were ultimately made) Chung and Chan had to begin selling off their original business piece by piece. The enormous production costs, plus the expense of staffing the company (Chung and Chan paid themselves each about $140,000 a year), and incidentals like office rent ($10,000 a month), quickly wiped out the $6 million they'd raised with the IPO. But the proceeds of the sale of the karate studios weren't enough, and American Champion's stock price continued to drop.

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