Local woman makes good in LA, comes home

Last updated on May 13th, 2019 at 02:22 pm

Quality of life and doing quality work. Both are important to Barbara Ferro, newly hired as vice president of production at Karen Johnson Productions, a Racine-based animation studio.

Ferro brings to the table skills and experience from the first name in animation, Walt Disney. But the pull of family and the fact that the Midwestern lifestyle is perhaps saner than the frenetic pace of Hollywood lured Ferro back to her hometown of Brookfield last year.

"She comes from our industry and she comes from the leading expert of our industry which is Walt Disney Studios," Johnson said. "One of the things we look for in recruiting someone — we want not only incredible background but for them to have their roots firmly planted in Wisconsin. That is probably one of her most important gifts — she has the same values as us. She believes in family and believes in raising her family in the Midwest."

Go west, young woman

Like many young Midwesterners who are attracted to the entertainment industry, Barb Ferro dropped everything and went to Los Angeles. She left her studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee her junior year and started waiting tables at Moustache Café – a trendy Hollywood restaurant.

For perhaps the majority of hopefuls, this is where the story ends. But Ferro, while on the job at the restaurant, networked her way into a position as a floater with Embassy Television.

"What I discovered is that people who have been helped are willing to help others," Ferro said. "I was introduced to the people at Embassy Television."

In this first job, Ferro handled publicity and worked as a gofer on productions like Sanford and Sons and All in the Family.

But she continued to develop industry contacts and, in 1985 landed a slot as a production assistant for Marvel Productions — a division of Stan Lee’s Marvel Comics. Ferro soon found herself elevated in rank.

"I took a job there as a production assistant and started working on various shows," Ferro said. "Ultimately, I ended up being promoted to production manager and then associate producer, working on programs like Fraggle Rock and Jim Henson’s Muppet Babies.

While Marvel was pumping out 350 half-hours of programming a week at its peak, by the late 1980s the workload thinned out.

"It was about that time that I heard about this little training studio – Walt Disney TV Animation," Ferro said. "They were looking for an associate producer."

Ferro joined in 1998 and worked on television productions including the Emmy Award-winning New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, as well as Tailspin, the Chippendales, Rescue Rangers and Duck Tales, which turned into a wildly successful program for the studio.

But it was Ferro’s work on a television series launched behind Disney’s Aladdin movie that launched her to the next level.

"We decided to take the Aladdin series and that pilot episode and put it onto home video," Ferro said. "We did $100 million in home video – and that spawned an entire new business within the company — the Video Premiers division."

Coming home

Upon returning to Wisconsin, Ferro did not expect to wind up back in the industry.

"I have been talking to Karen for a year since I’ve been back," Ferro said. "I was so surprised to hear there was an animation firm in Wisconsin. I am just so thrilled to be doing what I love to do in my homeland."

Likewise, Johnson did not expect a Disney veteran to literally fall into her lap.

"She found me, and I was just thrilled to know that someone with her level of expertise was in our area," Johnson said. "She is absolutely perfect for our company."

Currently, Ferro is managing the day-to-day operations of the company, a task that could become more significant if one major project gets off the ground. OINK – an Online Interactive Network for Kids — will combine television programming with online educational information accessible through proprietary a kid-friendly browser. Educational products would also be part of the mix. Producing a regular television show would mean explosive growth for the company, and Johnson said that having someone like Ferro – who has managed as many as 250 employees — will be crucial.

"In the future, she is going to be able to lead our creative staff and recruit top talent in the industry," Johnson said. "With her experience, she has managed many, many outsourced facilities across the world. We may in the very near future be producing as many as 64 half-hour episodes. We need someone with Barbara’s management skills."

Currently, Ferro is working on a Nancy Drew CD ROM game and helping Johnson prepare for the multi-media rollout of OINK.

"It is one of those things where all the pieces seem to be falling together just the way they should be," Ferro said of OINK.

Sidebar –

Name: Barbara Ferro

Position: Vice President of Production

Company/City: Karen Johnson Productions, Racine

Greatest Business Motivation: To work with people who are as passionate as I am about the kinds of projects I take on.

Greatest Business Challenge for the Coming Year: Working with Karen to develop OINK for nationwide roll-out.

Greatest Satisfaction from Business: I love both the up-front development work and figuring out how we are going to do things. It is like having another child to see it come to fruition.

First Job: Waiting tables at Moustache in Hollywood.

Most-Admired Person: Tom Ruzicka, former associate at Walt Disney, now senior vice president of Unversal Cartoon Studios

Education: University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, extension classes at the University of California-Los Angeles

Hometown: Brookfield

Family: two sons, Hudson, 11, and Daniel, 8

Interest/Hobbies: Kickboxing, volleyball, art and photography

Favorite Vacation Spot: Anywhere it is warm and the water is turquoise

Favorite Magazines: Los Angeles Magazine, Daily Variety

Favorite Charities: AIDS Foundation, Brookfield Skate Advocacy

Favorite Restaurant: Il Mito, Milwaukee

April 12, 2002 Small Business Times, Milwaukee

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