By: Jaimz Dillman
One must be careful when speaking about James Keaton. You see, Keaton is such a local theme park legend, he's pretty much the face of anything you've seen in the media or on stage in the last 20 years or so.
A military kid born in Germany, he moved to El Paso, Texas, at six years old. Keaton says he was a huge Star Wars fan, and wanted to learn how movies were made. "As a kid, I always knew there were people in the masks. I was obsessed with animatronics, and how things work," Keaton said. He was headed for a theater degree at UTEP, before a trip to Orlando changed everything. He credits his early job as a door host at the now-closed Adventurers Club of Pleasure Island as his main study in improv, characters, and how to make bits work. "It was a great training ground - how to stay in character, stay fresh, work with animatronics. The actors there were so great to watch and learn from," he said.
Switching over to that other place down the road, Keaton spent some time close to well-loved animated characters. Then, his knack for doing voices got the right attention for more featured positions on stages, specials, and in seasonal events. "Put me in interactive theater - give me a character, and push me out the door," Keaton said. And that's just how he landed the first year of Halloween Horror Night's beloved Bill and Ted show - although, not as Ted... yet. "I never thought they'd cast a 19-20 year-old for Doc Brown, but they did, so that was my first year," said Keaton. Added roles to his HHN resume through the years include the title Wyld Stallyn, Adam Sandler, Mystery Men, and Planet of the Apes, to name a few.
Landing a regular gig as the ghost with the most, allowed him time to write bits to try out. "I was always writing new things for the show. I like to form things to fit my rhythm and timing," he said. After years of portraying the most iconic faces for Universal, seeing himself all over billboards and merchandise, not to mention fan cosplay creations, and even tattoos, Keaton got the opportunities to write alongside creators that he had long since admired in several different projects.
Fast forward to just a couple years ago, he had already worked with Tony Wakim for a long time, prior to Wakim starting PattyCake Productions along with Layne Stein. "The first video for me was 'Disney's Greatest Showman.' I didn't think I looked much like Disney, but when it all came together, it was amazing," said Keaton. Batman followed next, putting him in prosthetics - something he's very familiar with. "We did the audio first, and then makeup. Tony's attention to detail is always on point. A couple of hours of filming, and then you're like, 'wow,'" Keaton said.
Working behind the scenes was more of a passion than becoming another character, and with the ideas to have video series dedicated to the princesses and villains, Keaton joined in with writing scripts. "The first writing I remember is 'Princess Academy.' Tony always starts with an original song, which inspires writing in the script. I kind of connect the plot, and they deal with the theming. I always try to make sure each character gets a line, which becomes a challenge now that there are so many," he said. Keeping in mind budget, being creative as to how things are filmed is also something he has to think about when putting pen to paper. "The exposition has to be done in a clever way, rather than have everyone just sitting around a table talking," he said.
During COVID, the production company took advantage of an outside set location to keep providing content, while ensuring the cast and crew were safe. "For 'Bump In the Night,' I wrote the script, but they're really good at adapting as needed. I'm more of the plotter, and they make it work," said Keaton. He also made a small cameo in the video as everyone's favorite bald uncle.
Once the first episode of each series was published, the team realized the demand for more of the stories meant they had to connect everything initially set up in the beginning of the story. ""The good thing about this season is that we have it all written together. That first season we had to figure out how to link everything together, because we didn't know it would be so popular. Sometimes we're talking about figuring something out, and they'll change motivations depending on how the video is turning out. Tony is all about the villains and princesses. Layne is really good about seeing if something isn't connected, and we'll adjust it so it's entertaining. I'm always about the Easter Eggs - some of them get in, some don't. It has to pass through Tony first," Keaton said. "I just want to inspire a picture in people's minds. So I'll throw in a line and if you get it, you get it."
The success of the first season for both series showed enough interest for a second round. There may be more writing involved, depending on possible song changes and such. For Keaton, personally, he has ideas for some more stuff coming up, maybe a fringe show, but he hasn't gotten too serious about anything yet. You may get a chance to see him reprise his hugely well-received role of the theme park-nixed Polar Bear in Jeff Jones' widely acclaimed Fringe show, "The Animatricans." Keep an eye out for its return to a central Florida theater early 2022. As he just opened the 30th year of an event he's been a part of for over two decades, he's looking for more time off stage. "I'd rather write or produce something than act. It's not my passion. I'd much rather create something, and hand it off to someone to bring it to life than be on stage," Keaton said.
Stay tuned for the premier of season two of PattyCake Productions The Villain's Lair, debuting on September 25! To view PattyCake Productions latest videos, click here. To become a supporter for future projects, check out their Patreon.