Full steam ahead for Choo Choo Bob
Princeton native hosts kids’ tv show in Twin Cities
By Kristin Berg • Town & Country
Sam Heyn fell in love with acting his freshmen year at Princeton High School when teacher Mary Beth Barder cast him as one of the gangsters in a production of “Kiss Me Kate,” a musical adaptation of William Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew.”
He acted in plays in middle school, but his first high school
audition proved to be the catalyst for a long love affair with entertaining audiences.
“The plays were always fun in middle school, but the Performing Arts Center at the high school was brand new that year, and it was my first audition, and (Barder) kind of did it in an
intimidating way. She made everybody go up on the main stage, and she had all of the lights off in the audience. So I was like, ‘Oh my gosh,’ this must be like what the real world is like or something. I was 14-years-old, and I thought, ‘Oh man, this lady means business’,”
While in high school, Heyn went on to perform in more plays, including musicals and one-acts plays before graduating in 1998.
He tried wrestling, but Heyn found himself feeling more competitive on stage than on the mat.
While attending Minnesota State University-Moorehead, Heyn took all of the theater classes he could, and when he ran out of those, he began taking film classes. Heyn graduated in 2003.
“People find things that they really want to be the best at,” Heyn said, and for him it was always acting.
Today Heyn is being the best kids’ television show host he can be on the Choo Choo Bob Show, which airs at 2:30 p.m. on Channel 45 on Saturdays.
Heyn plays Choo Choo Bob, the ever-curious, and often goofy, host of the live-action show about real trains, toy trains, and a variety of entertaining characters, of both the human and puppet variety.
The show’s producer, Bob Medcraft, first came up with the idea for a kids’ show after opening The Choo Choo Bob Train Store in St. Paul in 2005. Medcraft worked as a television commercial creator and video producer before opening the store, and he continued working those day jobs for awhile.
When Medcraft went to Splice Here, a post-production company in Minneapolis to have a 30 second commercial for his train store edited, Heyn ended up doing a voice-over for the commercial after his colleague and friend Joe Martin suggested him.
When Medcraft thought of doing a TV show in addition to operating the store, he knew he already had one eager actor, a retired National Guardsmen named Paul Howe who was his first employee at the Choo Choo Bob Train Store.
After Medcraft and co-creator Martin threw around ideas about the show, Heyn’s name came up to play Choo Choo Bob.
“He’s a good actor and a good editor, and he plays that character so perfectly. I can’t imagine anybody else being Choo Choo Bob,” Medcraft said.
Heyn did not have a traditional audition for the part. Instead they took Heyn and Paul Howe to the trolley car that still runs on Lake Harriet (Minneapolis) and shot some footage.
“And then we have just been developing the show in various forms, on and off, for about the last five years,” Heyn said.
From 2007 to 2009, they only produced six 12-minute episodes, but major funding from Robert Vince has allowed them to do 30 more episodes, including a longer Christmas special.
Vince invented the HIV drug Abacavir and established the Center for Drug Design at the University of Minnesota, but he got involved in the show because his daughter is a long-time friend of the wife of Rich Kronfeld, an actor on the show. Vince also grew up in New York, where his grandfather worked in the train yards.
Since the end of 2011, Heyn has worked full-time on the Choo Choo Bob show in front of the camera as Choo Choo Bob and behind the scenes as a video editor.
“This whole last year we spent a lot of time shooting,” Heyn said. “It’s not just me and Bob doing this. There are a ton of cast members and some really talented people behind the scenes.”
The other main cast members include: Paul Howe (Engineer Paul), Charles Hubbell (Charlie Rat), David Tufford (Conductor Dave), Randy Reyes (Randy the Planner), Emily Fradenburgh (Engineer Emily), Christiana Clark (Ticket Agent CC), and Rich Kronfeld (Richard W. Kornbelt).
“A lot of the cast members are working actors in the Minneapolis area,” Heyn said. For Heyn working with someone like Rich Kronfeld is a dream come true because he remembers watching him in his parent’s basement on a Public Access show called “Let’s Bowl,” which eventually got picked up for two seasons on Comedy Central.
In 2007 Heyn even got to do a scene in a short film with Kronfeld.
“That was a lot of fun because I actually made him laugh,” Heyn said. “He brings not only an insane talent for physical comedy and comedy along, but he has experience making television. He’s a smart guy. He an ambitious person, and that’s the kind of people it takes to do something like this.”
If Heyn had to compare The Choo Choo Bob Show to other kids’ shows, he said it has elements of Captain Kangaroo, Pee Wee’s Playhouse, The Muppet Show, and Mister Rogers.
On any given episode viewers can catch Choo Choo Bob and his friends enjoying time at their clubhouse, riding real trains in real places like the Black Hills, singing along with musical guests, or puppets, and even being shrunken to take a stroll through their tiny town “Tinyland.”
And parents can rest assured that kids will learn something, too, as the show is chock-full of facts about trains. The cast members also take questions from kids. And as the host, who loves to learn about anything and everything that is trains, Choo Choo Bob stands in the middle of the beautifully orchestrated chaos.
“Choo Choo Bob is not beyond being goofy, but he’s kind of the stable one, and he’s surrounded by a lot of funny characters with odd problems,” Heyn said.
Medcraft said it took them awhile to refine Choo Choo Bob’s character.
“The character that Sam plays is childlike in his enthusiasm, but he’s still an adult, and it just kind of took us awhile to figure out that balance between innocence and immaturity,” Medcraft said.
At the heart of the show are the trains. For many children, these powerful machines become a source of awe, even an obsession, but that was not the case for Heyn, at least not until he started playing Choo Choo Bob.
“I skipped trains and went right to Star Wars,” Heyn recalled. Thanks to his dad, Star Wars became a serious passion. “I was never really into trains before I got on this show at all, and that’s kind of the beauty of doing the Choo Choo Bob character. Bob loves trains. He loves anything to have to do with trains, but the fact of the matter is he doesn’t know enough about them at all as far as he’s concerned, so he’s also interested in learning.”
Heyn is more than happy to learn right along with Choo Choo Bob.
The cast and crew have taken “field trips” to shoot footage around the country. From trains in Durango, Colorado to trolley cars in San Francisco, these adventurers give kids a reason to smile, and to think.
Frequent local musical guests also keep viewers of all ages engaged in the show, and Heyn’s brother Abram and his sister-in-law Becky take part playing bass and keyboards in the show’s band.
“It’s been really fun to watch the show evolve from our first try back at the Lake Harriet trolley to now. I think we’re getting really polished, and the show is really just a pretty entertaining twelve minutes if you ask me,” Heyn said.
In a world with a lot of 9 to 5 desk jobs, Sam Heyn and his colleagues at the Choo Choo Bob Show are going down a different set of tracks.
“I have never had so much fun in my life as I have had making these shows,” Medcraft said.
Heyn agreed, saying, “We’re kind of making our own desks, you know. It’s cool. I get to work with a lot of my heroes.”
It also helps that Heyn has always loved kid shows and entertaining kids. As a teenager, he worked as a camp counselor in Onamia, where his specialty was campfire skits, playing guitar, and singing.
Heyn said he dreamed about being one of the grown-ups on Sesame Street. Though Big Bird has not called yet, Heyn is still overjoyed to be the host of a growing kids’ show in his home state.
“It’s sort of a weird dream job. I spent most of my life really wanting to be somebody who showed up on Sesame Street and got to talk to the monsters,” Heyn recalled.
As a kid in small town Princeton, grown-ups often told Heyn he should have a back-up plan because something creative like acting was not practical.
“My parents were the only adults in my life not saying that to me,” Heyn said.
Now his parents are two of Choo Choo Bob’s biggest fans.
“Every Saturday morning, we have to have it on theTV,” Heyn’s father, Mitch Heyn, said.
But both Mitch and Sam agree that Sam’s mother, Mary, is the show’s biggest fan and an avid grassroots campaigner for it.
Heyn even had Medcraft make her business cards with “Choo Choo Bob’s Mom” on them so she could distribute them at JCPenney in St. Cloud, where she works.
Heyn recalls a story she told him about a customer who came up to her counter and asked if she watched WCCO news. The older gentleman kept asking her questions, and finally revealed he was meteorologist Chris Shaffer’s father. And Mary Heyn said, “Well, very nice to meet you. I’m Choo Choo Bob’s mom. Here’s my card.”
Along with their current loyal fans, Medcraft said he hopes to build their fan-base even further and eventually expand to a national platform.
To learn more about The Choo Choo Bob Show, visit choochoobobs.com, their Facebook page, or check out some of their videos on Youtube. The show’s website is also kid-friendly with online coloring pages and videos.
For anyone looking for a more interactive activity check out the gang in action. Visit the events page on their website for more details.
After June 1st, The Choo Choo Bob Show began airing at 2:30 p.m. on Channel 45, right before “The Clone Wars.”
“So trains and then a Star Wars cartoon. If I was a kid, that would be insane. I would totally watch the Choo Choo Bob Show, are you kidding me?!,” Heyn said.