Thirsty Thursday: The Wizard of Wacky World

Here’s the full story that ran in the Pinellas Reader:

Dreary Florida warehouses may be the modern equivalent of Dorothy’s
prairie grey, and they are as numerous as Kansan cornfields where the
Pinellas county line meets Tampa Road.  But step inside Bruce Barry’s
Wacky World and you are in a land of fantasy every bit as astounding as
L. Frank Baum’s imaginary realms. The only difference is that Mr.
Barry’s workshop is a fully operational design and manufacture studio.
Expecting a fancy cabinet-making shop, I instead found myself in a
comical Summer Camp lodge with a 3D sculpted moose over the fireplace, a
huge log mantle, carved  wainscoting and a giant “2D relief” fish – all
in a fat, cartoony style.  This is no ordinary reception room for the
extraordinary studios.
Great Explorations Children’s Museum in downtown St. Petersburg wants
kids to get back to reading, so they hired Bruce Barry’s Emmy Award
winning studio to create a travelling exhibit of twelve giant
interactive pop-up books based on The /Wonderful Wizard of Oz/ book by
L. Frank Baum. With an eye out for waterspouts, I drove over the Bayside
Bridge to Wacky World to find out how Mr. Barry created the exhibit
which begins a second tour of the country in 2014 after coming home to
Tampa Bay for refurbishment.
Greeting me with a smile as effervescent and easy as his lion mane,
Bruce Barry explains that all of his offices look like somebody mixed a
bit of Disney with a dollop of Seuss because this is the kind of work
they do: giant, immersive environments for entertainment.  “Everybody
needs to have an office like we have here!  When we created this
building three years ago we wanted to create a fun environment, not a
typical office with typical furnishings and pictures of work … a prize
wall. We walk the walk and talk the talk.”
Then Bruce Barry takes me for a walk, talking through the process of
making theme-park quality artwork as he leads me underwater into Lake
Marakenna. Well, actually just down the hall, but animated murals and
LED water lights give the hallway an aquatic sunset feeling, and fish
literally swim right up the wall as we wade upstream. Along the way we
pass an office that looks like a set from the Country Bear Jamboree with
shutters, mosquito lights and a fireplace where Allison Marks waves a
cheery hello from her seemingly anachronistic computer.
Before we enter his office Barry proffers “of course at the lake you
have to have a boat house, and a boat keeper to fix and repair
everything. That’s me!” He throws open the doors to a room overstuffed
with everything from life preservers, propellers and a giant outboard
engine to a burning fire circled with stones and lightning bugs. His Man
Cave includes a fully functional giant refrigerator right out of Cat in
the Hat, an ice cream dispenser with waffle cones, and a huge “wooden”
workbench with a cartoony vise. Everything is really big and it makes
you feel small, like a kid again.  There are only a few touches of
tech: a real modern phone and a TV “for white noise” but no computer!
The room is awfully cluttered. Then again not really, because the books,
buoys, binoculars — everything is a demo and a prop.  It’s an
overwhelming immersive experience. “You can be in here for hours and
hours and not see it all,” grins Bruce Barry.
Doesn’t he use a computer?  Not at the beginning. It starts with
sketches and drawings right there on the workbench, talking with the
hospital or museum or whoever and hearing their ideas. “Everybody would
love a 3D world like Disney, but it all comes down to budget. So I draw
and design right on the fly.”  Barry makes what he calls 30 second
“loosie goosies” or quick sketches. “If the client is out of town, I
will be on the phone with them and Karen scans and emails while they are
still on the phone.”
Karen Johnson is always handy and quips that any piece of paper is also
a handy candidate for Barry’s creative outbursts. “There will be
sketches on the back of an email or a contract. Napkins too!”
“I don’t erase.” Barry proclaims.  He uses a Sharpie and an old Flair. I
am amazed that such a gigantic creative explosion starts with just a
pedestrian little sketch made with a Flair and a napkin – a black and
white drawing, like those in Baum’s Books that inspired the Wizard of Oz
exhibit designed in this room.

Kansas is so very gray!
Kansas is so very gray!

Barry asks “do you remember how in the book and movie everything in
Kansas was black and white at the beginning?  I wanted to create that
black and white feeling when you walk into the first pop-up book. You
see the tornado, the chicken coop, all in shades of grey.  Illustrated
by W.W. Denslow in a particular style, Barry used the actual artwork to
create the exhibit, adding extensions to castles and characters
seamlessly styled like the Denslow originals.
As well as being artistically inspired Barry says “everything had to
tell a story and be interactive for kids.” With a heavy thunk, Karen
deposits an amazingly gigantic three ring binder heavily on the table
and opens it.  It is full of everything from loosey goosies to final
blueprints and photos. “This is the Oz exhibit!” she explains.
The Houghton Wagmans Great Explorations Children’s Museum guided him in
making the various interactive pieces like egg counting, pulse taking
and shoe clicking. Barry suggested a tornado “whipped up with two simple
soda bottles, dye and lights so it looked really fun.”  And then there
was some back and forth.  “For example” says Barry “the black and white
one had costumes, and it was originally designed with a big black and
white trunk. But the museum said kids would not put clothes back into
the chest, but they would put clothes on a clothes line.  It’s more
fun!” 1572
Because his work is for children he says “everything has to be friendly
so kids don’t poke their eye out. If you give kids enough time they will
bend steel! They will kick it, crawl on it, I mean they will bust it
up!” For the spooky forest where animal eyes light up and the Cowardly
Lion pulse test “we used industrial buttons from game stations that kids
A mural artist who lost his mind and blossomed into large and zany 3D
artwork, Bruce Barry says “I learned from my father, a Disney
cartoonist, so I have always wanted to do cartooning.  I remember being
down in the basement with a carving knife and a piece of foam, trying to
turn it into something.  My first carving was fish lure made out of foam.”
Barry’s dad advised his son “there are good artists and there are great
artists – and I want you to be a great artist.”  Barry came to greatness
by honing many seemingly unrelated skills.  “I do tattoos, I do
pinstripes, I do airbrush, I sculpt, I mould clay, I can weld, I
understand architecture and blueprints, I do red lines, I know how to
pack a truck, I know how to clean a bathroom and I do windows!”
Barry is a master of the exhibit making process, from cover to cover. So
it is no wonder he came up with book idea, the whole concept of walking
through the stories.  “I grew up on the wizard of Oz and I remember
watching it every Thanksgiving.  So what was amazing was when they came
to me I thought it was one movie, one book and that was it. But it was
13 books this guy wrote. 13 books! I had no idea. That is what really
blew me away.  So I had to read the books to really get into this
project. It’s kind of like the movie but it’s not.  In the movie her
slippers are red. In the book they are silver.”
So what are they in the exhibit?  “They are silver!” he laughs. “I got
that from the book. They wanted to make sure it followed the book. They
wanted to get kids back to reading again.”

Silver slippers ... of course!
Silver slippers … of course!

With the final details established in sketches and blueprints, we soar
past a room filled with paint samples and flooring.  At this point in a
project they are scaling everything out and asking those pesky technical
questions. “What kind of doors will it have to go through? How do we cut
this up to get it into the truck, into the building and put it back
We zip through a museum of maquettes where there is a miniature white
model of practically everything: chickens, happy faces, dogs, donkeys,
kings, trees, boats, undersea creatures, Middle Earth buildings and
rocket ships.  Once there is a maquette model and they know how it is to
be built, the digital department of a half dozen elves goes to work.
Bruce Barry says Photoshop and Illustrator-savvy Caitlin Chaney is “the
queen of quickness.” He also introduces Matt, Tom and Captain Kirk.
Barry explains “they add shadows, add water, drop in characters, blades
of grass, waterfalls … whatever.”
Around another corner and we have finally left Disneyland and are now
truly seeing how the magician does his thing behind the curtain. It’s a
gigantic industrial workshop, almost “normal” except for the calliope
music mixed with the drone of spray guns and carving choppers.   In the
foam and sculpting department we see a 7 foot tall teddy bear, and a 34′
long pirate ship replete with slides for a daycare center is going in to
get a hard coating and a lively paint job.
“I like to use a lot of purple, magenta and orange. I am not afraid to
do a yellow or magenta sky.” Barry claims to be color blind, and depends
heavily on his wife Vivian Barry to come up with the dazzling palettes
and tell him the difference between purple and black.

Read a book at Glinda's Castle and make the Oz experience last!
Read a book at Glinda’s Castle and make the Oz experience last!

Like the giant silver slippers just waiting to be clicked, Barry chose
the some of the colors in the original books. Green is the scene of the
Emerald City and pink for Glinda’s castle (not seen in the movie, but
definitely in the book!)  Glinda’s pink pop-up pad includes a smattering
of bambino-sized bean bags and a shelf full of the actual Wizard of Oz
books for children to continue exploring Baum’s American Fairyland.
The Wizard of Oz exhibit hits the Yellow Brick Road to Miami before
meandering north to Virginia and Tennessee. Find out more at and visit to see photos of
Bruce Barry and his artsy mayhem!

Here is a sample of the interview with Bruce Barry:

The Houghton Wagman Great Explorations Children’s Museum was co-founded
in 1986 by the Junior League of St. Petersburg and Hands-On! Inc. on
November 27, 1987, and has been serving children and families in the
greater Tampa Bay area for over a quarter of a century.  Formerly across
the street from the Salvador Dali museum, the original Great
Explorations included a Touch Tunnel exhibit that became world famous.

In March 2003, the Museum relocated to its new 18,000 square foot
facility located next to the historic Sunken Gardens on 4th Street North
in St. Petersburg. Recognized as one of Florida’s top museums and one of
America’s top museums for children, Great Explorations is home to
interactive exhibits, a preschool, camps, field trips, workshops for
parents and caregivers, as well as volunteer opportunities for young