The Book of Root
Depressed, Vischer started flipping through the mail. Among the bills was a letter with no return address—and a $400 cashier's check inside. "God laid it on my heart," the enclosed note read, "that you might need this." Says Vischer, whose dire situation was well-known among members of his church: "I was at a crisis point. Then comes this sign that this is what I'm supposed to be doing."
Apparently so. By December 1993 the cartoon for which Vischer had mortgaged his family's future had morphed into a children's video series called Veggie Tales, in which cartoon vegetables use Bible stories to teach morality. Today it is the No. 1 children's video series, with nearly 30 million tapes sold, and Vischer, a Bible college dropout, is on the verge of creating an animation empire. In September he unveiled the first Veggie Tales computer game and this month will release the feature film Jonah: A Veggie Tales Movie, based on the Old Testament tale. "I think there's a real chance," says film critic and nationally syndicated radio talk show host Michael Medved, "that this will become a franchise in the Disney mode."
A large part of Veggie Tales' success stems from the fact that even though the videos are aimed at children ages 2 through 8, they have enough of a hip quotient to inspire college students to throw Veggie Tales viewing parties. The passel of produce—voiced by Vischer, 36, Lisa, 31, and his college pal Mike Nawrocki, 36—includes Larry the Cucumber and Bob the Tomato, who banter like Abbott and Costello, and sassy French peas who drop slushies from the walls of Jericho. "Our point of view," says Vischer, "is, 'What would happen if Monty Python took over your Sunday school class?' "
The middle child of three siblings raised in Muscatine, Iowa, Vischer is a great-grandson of the Reverend R.R. Brown, a 1930s Midwestern radio preacher. His mother, Scottie, 60, was a teacher and church choir director, and his father, Harold, 63, an advertising executive, was a Sunday school superintendent; they divorced when Vischer was 13. "He had a lot of pain," says Scottie, "so he poured his energy into his interests."
That meant using a video camera to make short films and studying music videos for techniques. But Vischer, an evangelical Christian, soon concluded that pop culture promoted "values you wouldn't want kids to grow up with." In 1984 he enrolled at the Christian Crown College in St. Bonifacius, Minn., to "firm up my beliefs" before attending film school.
As a freshman Vischer focused more on staging religious puppet shows than studying, dropping out after flunking chapel class twice. He moved to Chicago to work for a video production house, teaching himself animation and editing. In 1989 he felt ready to strike out on his own. "I was," he says, "so stinking naive."
It didn't help that while Vischer was raising money for his business he was also trying to support a family. He and Lisa, whom he met when she sat in front of him at a 1988 Bible conference ("I remember turning around and thinking, 'Wow, he's kind of cute,' " she says), married in early 1990 and had their first daughter, Shelby, later that year. (Two more children, Jeremy, 8, and Sydney, 5, followed.) Although Vischer took on freelance work, his dedication to his animation efforts kept him from making more than $13,000 a year, and it was only with financial support from family, friends and the anonymous donor (whose identity still remains a mystery) that he was able to produce the first Veggie Tales cartoon.
In late 1993 a Christian-music company picked up the video; within five years Veggie Tales tapes were selling in Kmart and Wal-Mart. Today Vischer oversees 200 employees in Lombard, Ill., returning home every night to nearby Wheaton, where his family lives in a five-bedroom Federal-style house. Despite his newfound riches, which he shares with a host of Christian charities, Vischer remains committed to his original vision. "By and large," he maintains, "children are not exposed to God. Someone needs to change that, and we're willing to try."
Noah Isackson in Wheaton