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Robots

Fred Barton makes robots and not just any robot. The wild-haired president of Fred Barton Productions Inc. builds replicas of the famous Robby the Robot, the man-made metal man that first appeared on the screen in the 1956 MGM film, “Forbidden Planet.” But unlike the original Robby, the robots Barton builds in his Sun Valley factory are not meant for the movies. At $25,000 to $75,000, these Robbys are for the movie fan who has everything. “Someone always will say, I can get a Mercedes for that,” said Barton, of the typical reactions he gets to the price of his robots. “Well, this is for the guy who already has a Mercedes. He has his poolroom, his rumpus room. It’s toys for boys. It’s the next level of collectible.” Last year, Barton’s company rang up some $350,000 in revenues. This year, he has sold five Robby replicas, mostly in California. He expects to sell more than 50 units by the end of the year, using a web page on the Internet along with some magazine advertising. Barton also rents Robby to companies who use the robot for conventions at $2,500 a day. A fully computerized version of Robby that blinks with mercury vapor lights, talks the way the original Robby spoke, and moves its arms and head goes for $75,000. Only 10 of these will be built. The no-frills version, at $25,000, makes up the bulk of sales. “This is a piece of art,” said Barton, who employs at least four employees at the Sun Valley factory where he builds his robots. “It’s museum quality. I didn’t want to make a rubber Darth Vader that will deteriorate from smog and temperature. I want these to last generations.” Barton, 40, became enchanted with Robby the Robot in 1961 while watching “Forbidden Planet” on television. “What struck me was his demeanor, his size and his dry wit,” Barton said. “He had all these widgets and gadgets going off. He was a butler and a protector.” Years later, while he was freelancing as a screenwriter, Barton discovered the original Robby the Robot in a props museum in Buena Park. He restored the decaying movie great, the only robot ever to have received an on-screen credit in a film. Barton figured that there were others like him who had a soft spot for movie memorabilia. Indeed, others had tapped into the trend. “A lot of people who grew up with ‘Lost in Space’ and ‘Forbidden Planet’ are now coming to the age where they have money and want a piece of their childhood,” said Bill O’Neil owner of Robots and Space Toys in Milwaukee. Barton has licensed Robby from Turner Entertainment, a division of Time Warner, which owns the merchandising rights to the robot. Each eight-foot robot, which takes about 45 days to build at the plant, is made from fiberglass, brass and machined aluminum. “You spend a lot of money, but you get something that not only looks good, but also is historically correct,” said John Rigg, a robot collector and the director of corporate engineering at AEI Music Network Inc. in Seattle. Rigg, who owns a Robby replica, said collecting movie robots, even small toys, is big business. “A little tin one sold for $75,000 at Sotheby’s,” he said. “It’s huge in Japan.” While Barton is concentrating on selling Robby the Robot for now, he also has built replicas of Gort from “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” the 1951 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp. thriller, and B-9, the robot from “Lost in Space,” the CBS series from the mid-1960s. None of these, however, is for sale. “The originals were just movie props,” Barton said. “These are the finest robots in the world.” Barton is currently building a replica of the time transporter from the 1960 MGM film “The Time Machine.” Only 10 will probably be built. The selling price will be around $85,000. He points out that Hollywood has been in love with robots for years. Fritz Lang introduced Maria, in his 1926 classic “Metropolis.” The 1930s and 1940s were filled with low-tech robots in films like “Muranian Robot,” starring Gene Autry. “This is the 75th anniversary of the robots in entertainment,” he said. Barton traces the origins of the robot in entertainment to “Rossums Universal Robots,” a play written by Karel Capek, a Czech dramatist. The word ‘robot’ is Czech for slave. The play debuted in 1923 at New York’s Garrick Theater. “A lot of these robots looked like water heaters and trash cans,” Barton said. Robots went high tech in the ’50s with “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” and “Forbidden Planet.” “Star Wars” with its daffy R2D2 and quirky C-3PO” raised the level again. “Terminator” and “Robocop” dominated the ’80s and ’90s. Later this year, a theatrical version of “Lost in Space” will hit the big screen but with an entirely new robot. “They are hoping to create a new ‘Star Trek’-like franchise,” Barton said. Barton shares a Westwood condominium with his wife Chris, two cats and a number of robots. He has little tolerance for the shoddy workmanship. One example: a plastic “Star Wars” C-3PO telephone. “It cost me $100 and it doesn’t work,” he says. Then there’s a rubbery rendition of the monster from “Alien.” “The rubber is hardening and flaking off,” he said. “It’s yellowing and coming apart. This was several thousand dollars!”

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