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Kazoo capital of the United States

That could be a new moniker for Port Richey, home to the nation's sole custom manufacturer of the instrument.

By MELIA BOWIE, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published July 24, 2003

[Times photos: Janel Schroeder-Norton]
Surrounded by kazoos and kazoo parts are, from left, kazoo capper Byron Fanning, 19, vice president of operations Stephen Murray, 22, and production manager Brandon Franklin, 22, at the company's new location in Pasco County.

photo
Byron Fanning caps a kazoo at Kazoobie Inc., which makes about a half-million custom kazoos a year. It relocated this month to Port Richey.

PORT RICHEY - Get ready to change the city signs, Port Richey.

Pasco's "Little City by the River" has become the new home of America's only custom manufacturer of kazoos.

That's right, the kazoo.

The instrument of choice at children's parties, parades and, apparently, for Paul McCartney, who played one on Ringo Starr's hit You're Sixteen.

And yes, they're still around. The alternative rock band Weezer just ordered 4,000 from Kazoobie Inc.

"It turns out there's this entire subculture of the world that you didn't even know about. The kazoo subculture," said entertainer Rick Hubbard, who owns Kazoobie Inc.

Now Pasco is part of that subculture.

Kazoobie, which markets online and manufactures about half a million kazoos annually, relocated from Hilton Head, S.C., this month. The company now assembles and custom-stamps its kazoos on Industrial Avenue in Port Richey.

Hubbard, who keeps a home in Winter Haven, said real estate prices were better in Pasco than in South Carolina and the new location allows him to operate closer to Ven-Tel Plastics Inc. in Pinellas Park.

That company is a medical manufacturer that also does injection molding for the defense industry, automobiles and electronics. Now it does kazoos, too.

"We make two very unique things," said Steven Meitzen, Ven-Tel vice president for sales and manufacturing.

The first is parts for the space shuttle's toilet. Then Hubbard approached him about four months ago about kazoos. Now, Ven-Tel uses a 3,500-pound tool that pops out 12 kazoo components in under 40 seconds.

The parts are sent to Kazoobie for assembly and custom stamping.

From there, they are ordered worldwide via the Internet. Japan, Australia, Brazil, Great Britain, you name it, said Hubbard.

"People think of it as a kid's toy but it's not," he said. "Most people are adults. We've sold to Microsoft and Dell computers. We've sold to the airline of Israel, El Al - I don't think they pass them out on planes, though."

Hubbard, who calls himself the "King of Kazoos" and says he's in his 40s, started out as a communications student at Wake Forest University.

Then he decided to become an entertainer. About 15 years ago he began doing family entertainment at area festivals, community concerts and theaters.

Proficient on the guitar, banjo, steel drum and slide whistle, he began touring the country with shows. Local stops include Ruth Eckerd Hall, Busch Gardens, Disney World and New Port Richey's Chasco Fiesta.

His signature? Free kazoos. He passed them out, and the crowd kazooed along as part of the grand finale.

The phenomenon grew, culminating in a 30,000-person kazoo orchestra at a Cincinnati Octoberfest in 2000. Davy Jones of the Monkees was a guest "kazooer." He, Hubbard and the crowd kazooed the Monkees hit, Daydream Believer.

After his concerts, Hubbard said, people would call and e-mail asking for kazoos. Twenty here, 50 there. He always replied.

"Some people want 25, some people want 300. I've had one person order 1,000 after a show," Hubbard said. "When I first started, I was buying them retail."

In the early 1990s he found Michigan-based Med-Tek, which manufactured plastic blood slides . . . and wholesale kazoos. Hubbard opened an account and began distributing them to his fans.

"About three years ago the owner of the company let me know I was buying more than anyone. (About 100,000.) He was retiring, and he asked if I wanted the company."

Hubbard bought the kazoo rights and equipment for less than $1-million in August 2001 and renamed the operation Kazoobie. Today, well, it is still worth less than a million.

"I'm building it back up," he said.

There is a market out there.

Or so says Hubbard and his vice president of operations, Stephen Murray.

If you can hum, you can kazoo.

"It's actually the best instrument," said Murray. "Anyone can play it."

And there are all sorts of models for sale at www.kazoos.com - the company's Web site.

Most people can purchase a brightly colored bundle of 25 for what amounts to less than 50 cents for each kazoo.

Or they can upscale.

There is the "executive boxed" handmade, gold-plated edition for $34.95. It comes on a bed of velvet in a custom carrying case made of Canadian maple.

Kazoobie also makes a standard metal kazoo. The metal model was made famous and manufactured since 1923 in Eden, N.Y., by The Original American Kazoo Co. That company was sold and the manufacturing moved to China in December. Eden still operates a small gift shop and museum.

Kazoobie is picking up the slack. The romantic "wedding" kazoo - one of the Web site's bestsellers, with its custom printing and "Humm For A Kiss" inscription.

Or shoppers can select one of Kazoobie's more delectable offerings: the chocolate kazoo for just $2.49 each.

"Actually we've had to suspend the shipping of them in the last couple of months because of the heat," said Murray. "People were getting little puddles of chocolate instead of kazoos."

Nevertheless, the business and its permanent staff of two (excluding Hubbard) carry on. When large orders come in, part-time workers are called in to assemble the kazoos.

On slow days, well, there's always kazoo practice.

Office kazoo bands are not unheard of, said Murray. Even an Air Force installation in California ordered some so they could play on breaks.

"The kazoo is something everybody can do together," said Hubbard.

Perhaps it will even strengthen Port Richey. After all, the city that plays together, stays together.

City Council member Dale Massad said that's a good idea.

"We need to act like a city," he said. "Right now we're like the Hatfields and the McCoys."

- Times staff writer Alex Leary contributed to this report.

A brief history of the kazoo

DERIVATION: Ancient Africa. Used in tribal gatherings to distort voices in storytelling and rituals.

TYPE: Among instruments known as mirlitons, which feature a vibrating membrane.

IN AMERICA: Got present form from African-American inventor Alabama Vest in Macon, Ga., in the 1840s. Made to his specifications by German clockmaker Thaddeus Von Cleg.

MASS PRODUCTION: Traveling salesman Emil Sorg took Vest's idea to New York state, where he and a partner started production in 1912.

PATENT: Granted in 1923 to a successor firm, the Original American Kazoo Co.

FIRST RECORDING: Mound City Blue Blowers, from St. Louis, 1923.

LOCAL CONNECTION: Kazoo virtuoso and blues guitarist "Tampa Red," born Hudson Whittaker, was raised in Tampa by his grandmother. Was big on the black theater circuit in the 1920s. Many of his recordings featured the kazoo.

IN MODERN MUSIC: Frank Zappa played a kazoo on his album The Lost Episodes. A kazoo is used on I'm in Love with a Big Blue Frog by Peter Paul & Mary, and on San Francisco Bay Blues by Eric Clapton.

BEATLES CONNECTION: Paul McCartney played a kazoo solo on Ringo Starr's You're Sixteen.

IN THE MOVIES: Carol Burnett played a kazoo in the film version of Annie.


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