I am reinvigorated by the Themed Entertainment Association (TEA) and the good it is doing for the entertainment industry. And I want to tell you about the Thea Awards.
In spring 2017 at the annual TEA Thea Awards Gala, I had the very great honor of receiving the Buzz Price Thea Award for a Lifetime of Distinguished Achievements. The award was a humbling and terrific recognition to receive for my body of work over the decades in theatre, concerts and live entertainment, visitor attractions, animal attractions, cinema, TV, and various forms of spectacle. But what I find most exciting is that being allowed to join the circle of people who have received this award brings with it a lifetime privilege of sitting on the Thea Awards Nominating Committee.
BUZZ, MARTY, AND THE THEAS
When the TEA Thea Awards began in 1994, there was just one honoree: Harrison “Buzz” Price, the first recipient of Thea lifetime achievement honors. Price was the pioneer of the practice of entertainment feasibility. The following year, Marty Sklar was honored. Both Price and Sklar have passed now, and both are Disney Legends.
I was fortunate to have known both these mentors, legendary in our industry. Price, an engineering graduate from Caltech, studied demographic trends, accessibility, and weather to help Walt Disney choose the best location for his new project. Price went on to pioneer the economics of leisure-recreation feasibility, creating algorithms that provide the metrics for master-planning and investment that are now an essential part of the development of entertainment venues worldwide. Sklar was a tireless and inspiring manager of Walt Disney Imagineering talent, and presided over the design and production of many Disney theme parks. The number of designers, writers, and creators who were mentored and inspired by Sklar is legion.
After Buzz Price passed away several years ago, the Thea lifetime award was re-named for him. Meanwhile, over the years, the Thea Awards grew in scope, prestige, and global reach. After finishing the deliberations for the new slate of Thea Awards, TEA announced the recipients on November 14 from the TEA booth at IAAPA Orlando, with the awards to be formally given on April 7, 2018 at the annual Thea Awards Gala, at Disneyland Resort in Anaheim.
Having been through my first cycle as a member of the Thea Committee, I was so impressed with the dedication, attention to detail, and fairness of the proceedings that I am moved to share my enthusiasm. Once the Committee has vetted and prepared their slate of recommendations, they are submitted to the TEA International Board of Directors for final review and approval.
I should point out that the Thea Committee isn’t only made up of people who have received lifetime honors; it has a rotating membership of distinguished professionals in good standing with TEA—all dedicated volunteers. Some of the criteria, apart from being an active member, are experience, technical expertise, and/or the ability and interest to make onsite visits to review international attractions. The current chair is Adam Bezark of The Bezark Company.
THE HANDSHAKE AND A DIFFERENT APPROACH
With the Oscars, Emmys, Tonys, Grammys, Golden Globes, and MTV Video Music Awards, it seems like the awards season goes on all year. As a member of the Television Academy as well as an acting member of the TEA Thea Awards Committee, I see the result of an ever-expanding entertainment landscape in the staggering number of award submittals. So, let me tell you a little bit about what makes the Thea Awards so special.
One of the things that jumps out right away is that there’s no awards-night suspense. The November announcement names the recipients, so there’s no secret about who will be represented onstage when the Thea Awards Gala rolls around in then spring. This gives a different feeling to the proceedings: The Gala is an out-and-out celebration where the international industry comes together to appreciate and learn from its best and finest achievements. The Gala is preceded by the two-day TEA Summit, which includes Thea Case Studies Day, a full day of presentations given jointly by someone from the owner/operator’s team with someone from the creative team. Rather than an atmosphere of competition, there’s the feeling of collaboration that is so characteristic of how themed entertainment projects and project teams come together. The Thea Awards help to nurture, grow, and improve the industry, in an atmosphere of camaraderie.
TEA was founded in 1991. I joined in 1993, and in the span of years since then, I have seen the organization and the industry it serves make giant steps, boosting economies in the US and globally, stimulating leisure spending, and employing hundreds of thousands of people. The Thea Awards have helped bring visibility to this niche of the entertainment business that is of increasing importance. It has embraced companies and projects all over the world.
And that’s where the handshake and the credits come in. Themed entertainment is a field where it can be challenging to get credit for one’s work. TEA has addressed this in how it structures the Thea Awards. The award is made to the project owner, with the condition that said owner must share a list of official credits to be published by TEA. Everyone who appears on that official list is also eligible to receive a Thea trophy.
HOW IT STARTED
All this validates the initial intent of TEA founder Monty Lunde, president of Technifex, who, with the support of a like-minded group of visionaries, created TEA to give a collective voice to the growing number of companies that had sprung up and survived the ups and downs of the business cycle.
As Bob Rogers (BRC Imagination Arts)—one of my most trusted mentors, an ardent TEA pioneer, and a member of the original Thea Committee—wrote in an article about the Thea Awards, “Monty Lunde believed that our industry represented some of the most accomplished yet under-recognized talents working in all of entertainment. Therefore, after launching TEA, his next priority was the creation of an award that would bring recognition and prestige to the people of our industry.”
As an artist and set designer, I was drawn into that circle of companies. In 1993, I was even part of the team that designed the original Thea Awards statuette. At the time, doing that drawing, I didn’t fully understand that I was on the ground floor of a wonderful and very important organization.
I had been working in Hollywood for 20 years as a freelance designer, moving from one totally different project to another. Some knew me as a set designer for TV, others as a theatre designer and production designer for feature films. I was in the process of developing a giant, overhead viewing screen that would come to be known as The Fremont Street Experience in Las Vegas. I conceived and designed the giant screen, and wrote and directed the first five shows for it. I saw myself as a Jack-of-all-trades, outside the mainstream of the themed design world.
I had already received an Emmy for designing Pee-wee’s Playhouse. Then, in 1996, my project, the Fremont Street Experience, was named for a Thea Award. I hadn’t even known it was nominated, but needless to say, there was a sudden uptick in my interest in the organization. I started attending meetings and TEA functions, and discovered that the whole organization was filled with people with portfolios as diverse as mine. I finally felt that I belonged somewhere. Through TEA, my self-perceived outsider status came to an end.
SHOW TIME: THE AWARDS DINNER
The culmination of the efforts is the annual Thea Awards Gala, an elegant, black-tie ceremony show/dinner. The 2018 Gala will be held at the Disneyland Hotel in Anaheim, California. It’s a fun evening open to anyone, and I urge those interested in themed entertainment to buy tickets. The presentation celebrates all the honored achievements in a manner befitting the industry and the TEA. It is a fantastic opportunity to see and mingle with the brightest and best of this year’s international industry pioneers, and to appreciate the ever-expanding global influence of the work of entertainers and creators. The past three years, the Gala producer was Phil Hettema and The Hettema Group. For the 2018 gala, the producer is Ryan Miziker and Miziker Entertainment.
As themed entertainment has infused so many aspects of our culture, our provenance has expanded from theme parks into other venues, and we now consider categories in technical achievement, themed hotels, restaurants, and retail as well as museums, zoos, and waterparks. The increasingly global nature of the industry adds additional dimension. As a result, every year the Thea Awards become more fascinating, more instructive, and more exciting. There’s no better place to rub shoulders, and no better way to keep your mind open and stay current on your craft.
I hope to see all my colleagues at the 24th Annual Thea Awards Gala this spring, and I hope many of you will be inspired to submit your best projects for consideration in the next cycle of Thea Awards as well.
Jeremy Railton is the Chairman of the Entertainment Design Corporation, a company with a diverse portfolio, the recipient of four Emmys, four Thea Awards, a Designers Guild award, and a recent recipient of the Buzz Price Lifetime Achievement Award from the Themed Entertainment Association.