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Victoria couple's music video channel thrills millions of children

From the moment you step into their sweet, modest home near Victoria’s Royal Jubilee Hospital, the irony hits you like a sucker punch.
Puppeteer Billy Reid and cinematographer/voice artist Reb Stevenson at work with puppets Zach and Reggie in their home studio, where they create the magic for their Pancake Manor YouTube series.

From the moment you step into their sweet, modest home near Victoria’s Royal Jubilee Hospital, the irony hits you like a sucker punch.

For a couple whose creative collaborations have become a sensation on the Internet — their YouTube music video channel Pancake Manor had 25 million views at last count — Billy Reid and Reb Stevenson live a surprisingly retro existence.

Despite being at the forefront of digitized children’s entertainment, neither owns a smartphone. Their sole phone — a wired black rotary model — sits on a living-room table.

When you’re greeted by Reid, clean cut and wearing a blue-and-white checked shirt and sneakers, and Stevenson, flashing a Pepsodent smile and sporting a retro hairdo and lipstick that matches her vintage red and white polka-dot dress, it’s almost as if you’ve wandered onto the set of an idealized 1950s-era sitcom.

Resistant to Hollywood’s 3-D obsession, Reid even wears special glasses that render 3-D images two-dimensional.

This is where they create the magic for their online children’s TV series featuring puppets Zach, the orange character who could be related to Sesame Street’s Bert, and Reggie, his purple pal as inquisitive as Big Bird but with a personality all his own.

“We do our own thing. I’m old-school,” says Reid, the musician and puppeteer who created the series in 2011 and doesn’t seem the least bit concerned about competition from Elmo. “I don’t know Elmo. He’s not a character I was raised with.”

This remark from a fellow who incidentally loves Sesame Street but is more familiar with characters like Grover, Oscar the Grouch and Big Bird he befriended growing up, is typical of the playful irreverence that complements the silliness of his music.

“Hopefully, [Sesame Street] can deal with a little competition,” says Reid, whose characters take flight in a cardboard box, love pancakes and sing about shapes, ABCs, how to count and so on in a manner that parents can enjoy as much as their kids.

Pancake Manor has become so popular it’s now being released on DVD and CD that can be purchased separately or as a package on their website.

“A lot of people have DVD players in their cars apparently,” says Reid, reflecting on requests from a loyal, worldwide fanbase whose feedback inspired the new development.

“Teachers are now using YouTube as a teaching aid and iPads are becoming more commonplace. And we’re seeing a large number of our views coming from tablets.”

Reid and Stevenson, his conceptual collaborator who does most of the primary cinematography and occasionally plays “mama” in the videos, say they’ve been both surprised and moved by reaction from fans in places from Ireland to Istanbul.

“It makes you want to weep,” Stevenson says, referring to a touching video posted in their website’s Superfan section by schoolchildren from Turkey singing and dancing to a Pancake Manor video their teacher plays. “It’s become so global.”

The production has become so interactive, the duo has added twists on classic children’s favourites to their repertoire such as Wheels on the Bus, a colourful redo featuring Reid, the voice of both Zach and Reggie, as the amusingly animated bus driver.

“I had no idea if this would ever even take off,” says Reid, 36, whose brainchild was born when he lived in Toronto.

Before he moved home last year, the Victoria native, a self-taught musician at age 20 who credits his older sister with inspiring him to learn guitar, co-hosted CBC’s shorts program Exposure.

He made a name for himself during YouTube’s infancy, posting music and videos to his Very Tasteful channel before venturing into the musical puppets arena.

“When [Apple’s] Garage Band came out, that was the beginning for me,” recalls Reid, who also has musical-comedy experience (he played Horace Vandelgerder in Oak Bay High’s production of Hello Dolly!) and cites early Beatles, the Beach Boys and the Ramones as musical influences that inspired him to create the type of simple pop tunes children love.

“Most of those songs were just three chords. I’d been using Garage Band and wanted to broaden my horizons.”

An early adopter of YouTube, Reid began posting music and videos online after studying at Victoria’s now-defunct Canadian College of Film and Acting. He posted his early “silly songs and videos” on ZeD, CBC’s cross-platform creative showcase that Reid says was “way ahead of its time,” before gaining a profile on YouTube in the days it would feature individuals.

His Pancake Manor inspiration grew from a simple puppet his mom once helped him sew. It took on a life of its own after he connected with Kanja Chen, a Toronto-based puppetmaker who helped bring Reid’s designs to life in exchange for songwriting services.

After Reid met his Parkville-raised partner through her brother, actor-musician Zach Stevenson, in 2008, a romantic and creative partnership was born.

A graduate of Carleton University’s journalism program, Stevenson was a photojournalist at the Ottawa Citizen, wrote a travel column for the Toronto Star and created video content for before fate intervened.

“You’ve got to do kids’ stuff,” she told him after they collaborated on an online advertisement for Pop Tarts.

When YouTube chose four of Reid’s videos to feature online in 2007, it marked the beginning of a beautiful relationship with Google’s video-hosting site, which selected Reid to produce Olympics-themed clips for a Live in London promotion.

The two have had their chance to flex their creative muscles at the L.A. studio YouTube Space, where they shot Wheels on the Bus.

“YouTube had suddenly become this hotbed of personalities and TV shows,” recalls Stevenson, 35, whose contributions are largely visual.

She will also provide the voice for a female puppet they hope to add, along with an iPhone app at some point.

“I’ll often change a song to better suit a visual element she comes up with,” says Reid, whose influences as someone who grew up in the 1980s — including a Pee-wee Herman doll, Kermit the Frog and a Mad magazine — dominate his “corner of inspiration” above a relatively low-tech computer station in the basement green-screen studio.

“You really don’t need that much anymore in the DIY [do-it-yourself] world,” says Stevenson, seated opposite the eerily quiet puppets slumped in a corner, and a wardrobe rack containing tiny raincoats and tiny, disembodied jeans-clad legs.

“You can do a lot with a little,” she says. “When SLR [single-lens reflex cameras] became video-capable, it changed my life.”

And you can do it locally, they insist.

“Everybody seems to think you have to move away to succeed. Why?” says Stevenson.

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