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Songwriters finds surprise job as Halloween doll voices

Monday, October 14, 2002

By John Hayes, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

For about 20 years, Greensburg singer-songwriter Paula Purnell has struggled with the same conundrum that plagues most local musicians -- how to get her music to the people who might like it.

Paula Purnell of Greensburg with some of the Halloween dolls that sing her music. (Tony Tye, Post-Gazette)

A formidable writer of folky, rocky songs, Purnell has six albums of original material and is a rostered artist with the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. To maintain a cash flow as a full-time musician, she performs rock originals with Zen Again, covers tunes with various trios, sings historical songs about Southwestern Pennsylvania with The Newlanders, and works on kid stuff at school assemblies with Mainstream Music and Family Arts Theatre.

But the most unconventional method of marketing her music came as an accident: Purnell and her husband, Bruce Adamson, are the voices behind a new line of singing, dancing Halloween dolls.

The fabric dolls are from Kids of America, a family-run New Jersey toy manufacturer. Six of the dolls, labeled appropriate for children over 5, sing four songs written and performed by Purnell and Adamson. Stand them up (they're about 16-inches tall), press a button on their hands, and through internal computer chips and speakers they sing and dance for a minute, most of the time without falling down. The toys are available at J.C. Penney.

"We didn't start out to be doll voices," cracks Adamson, who runs a Greensburg advertising agency. "About seven years ago, we were working as puppeteers for the Children's Institute. As we drove to a show sometime around Halloween, we realized that there were no Halloween songs, except 'The Monster Mash.' We said that wouldn't it be neat to do an album of Halloween songs."

"We didn't even talk about it," says Purnell, "but a couple of days later, I had started one and so had Bruce."

Performing as Family Arts Theatre, they recorded "It's Halloween" in 1995, marketing the album independently. To their surprise, it won the 1997 Parent's Choice Gold Award, the top honor of a nonprofit group that rates family entertainment.

Last year about this time, Purnell got a call from an executive from Kids of America, who said he had been cruising the Internet looking for Halloween songs and had downloaded a sample from the Family Arts Web site.

"He said his toy company was looking for new material," she says, "because they were getting really tired of using 'The Monster Mash.' "

A month after sending the company a copy of the album, Purnell got a call back with an offer to purchase the rights to four songs for the new toy line. The couple agreed to provide the recording if Kids of America put information on the box on how to buy the CD.

As part of the global market for children's novelty items, the New Jersey company hired a Chinese manufacturer to create six prototype dolls, which Kids of America exhibited at a German toy expo. Retailers from across the United States ordered some 43,000 dolls.

"We didn't know what had happened with the whole thing," says Purnell. "Then last month, we got a call from a little girl who wanted to use [one of the songs] for her dance recital. We knew they were out there but we hadn't seen them yet."

"So we called the company," says Adamson, "and they said that in our area, they were at J.C. Penney."

"We jumped in the car and drove out to find them," says Purnell. "They were in a Penney's in our town and we didn't even know it."

Each of the six dolls -- Frankenstein, a witch, Dracula, a scarecrow, a pumpkin head and ghost -- sings about a minute of one of four songs from "It's Halloween": "Where Do You Keep Your Brain?," "Double Double Toil and Trouble," "Boogie Woogie Man" and "Transylvania Polka."

Family Arts Theatre will get a nickel for each doll sold. On the back of the box is an ad for the full "It's Halloween" CD and cassettes, including an e-mail address for Family Arts Theatre.

"I asked them if they needed any more songs," says Adamson, "and they said they'd be interested in hearing songs about Valentine's Day. So we wrote some and sent them a demo. We hope to hear back from them soon."

John Hayes can be reached at jhayes@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1991.

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