Keith Klein was born on July 12th, 1968, in the suburbs of Chicago, to Don and Josephine Klein. His parents met in the hotel lounge they both worked at. His father was a bartender at night and drove for UPS during the day. His mother, a singer and pianist who was also a legal secretary in Chicago. Little did they know that their union would produce such a uniquely creative child, one born with natural artistic talent far beyond his years. A quality his mother adored and encouraged, but which his father would fight against most of Keith’s life, until Keith was invited to Skywalker Ranch in the summer of 2001, having used his talent and knowledge of the Star Wars property to secure the Star Wars cereal premium license for General Mills.
Keith’s imagination was evident at a very early age, but the undiagnosed birth defect of extreme astigmatism was misidentified as a learning disability. That is until a day in First Grade, when someone tossed a lunch bag with an apple in it across the lunch room and caught Keith squarely in the eye. He was taken to an eye doctor who discovered that Keith had been virtually blind since birth, only able to see colors and movement. Keith recalls how upset he was learning that he’d have to wear glasses, because he knew the ridicule other kids with glasses got. That is, until he put them on and could see the world for the first time in his life. From that moment forward, Keith’s learning ability rose to match his creativity and he excelled at school, especially in the fields of art, science and writing… though school, itself, never really interested him. He’d rather be home, dreaming up adventures for his action figures, building things out of cardboard or drawing, which he did incessantly.
The time and place Keith grew up was integral to his development and would form the basis of his opus, “SURFUR GURL.”
Carol Stream, IL in the early 1970’s was a small subdivision, surrounded by cornfields and farms, which Keith watched grow up and change along with him. His father took a job as a policeman in the nearby city of Wheaton, and his mother stayed home to raise her son, a job she adored, often telling her son that he was the light of her life. Rarely calling him by his name (unless he was in trouble), mostly she just called him, “honey.”
Being boxed in by highways and endless cornfields proved to be a sort of petrie dish for the kids in Carol Stream. Because they were cut off from kids in other towns, the kids Keith grew up with in Carol Stream all came to knew each other and, even through loose association, stuck together until high school graduation. An interesting side note, the schools Keith attended were used in early experiments to test the benefits of not having any classroom windows for students to stare out of, on learning and grades. A factor that has carried on into Keith’s professional life, as well, as he often times works with the blinds closed and lights dimmed to minimize outside stimuli while creating.
His earliest memories are of being enamored by Adam West’s “Batman” TV series, and being sat down in front of the TV by his mother to watch the very first syndicated episode of the original, “Star Trek”, which she had watched in it’s initial run. Being the forward thinker she was, she told him, “This is the future”. Not meaning laser guns and space ships, although that was certainly part of it, but more the diversity of the bridge crew, at a time when we were still locked in a Cold War with the Soviet Union. She knew that we’d eventually overcome our differences and move out into space. This humanist philosophy became the basis of everything Keith holds dear. Carrying on his mother’s dream to see humanity come together and reach for the stars is the closest thing he has to a religion.
Another television show that captured Keith’s young imagination, at that time, was the Americanized Japanese cartoon, “Speed Racer”, about a young boy who drives the supped-up, “Mach 5”, a gadget-laden, racing car his father invented. No other cartoon has had the lasting effects that “Speed Racer” has had on Keith and when he was challenged by his father to come up with his own series and line of characters, the most base memory Keith drew upon was his deep love of “Speed Racer”. Instead of a teenage racer boy who travels the world, entering races and becoming involved in all kinds of misadventures, he came up with a teenage surfer girl, Honey Stuart, who, along with her friends, Scoop and Laguna Lou, travels the world, competing in surf meets and getting involved in all kinds of adventure and intrigue.
But it was seeing the original “Star Wars”, in 1977, that solidified the direction of Keith’s future. He, like many kids of his generation, was completely taken with the “galaxy far, far away”. After seeing the universe that George Lucas had invented, Keith knew he wanted to use his natural-born artistic abilities to create characters and tell stories of his own, someday. In fact, he knew he was destined for it.
By the time Keith was 16, he was already doing artwork, designing ads and creating logos and mascots for local businesses and companies. He used to travel to the nearby town of Glen Ellyn to get type set, long before the advent of desktop publishing on a home computer. Clearly, the youngest customer the typesetting house had, one time the owner asked Keith who he was and when Keith told him, the owner invited him in to meet the other staff. The next time Keith came around, he brought his portfolio along and they wanted to hire him on the spot, but he was too young and still in high school, so Keith kept on seeking out and doing work on his own.
In the Spring of 1988, Keith began his professional career doing artwork and creating promotional materials for one of (Chicago Bears legend), Walter Payton’s, nightclubs. The club loved his work so much that in a matter of months, he was doing the art and design work for all of Walter’s clubs, even designing a t-shirt of Walter surfing, which Walter personally told Keith he loved! Years later, Keith was in Key West and saw someone wearing that t-shirt.
That exposure was the catalyst for what became a nearly 30-year-long career in advertising. While all his friends were away at college, Keith was working in an ad agency in Oak Brook, IL, creating ads, doing new client pitches, creating cartoons and animations for television commercials on million dollar accounts.
His experience doing pitch work later translated into promotional toy design for films and television show licenses at the world-renowned, Marketing Store (inventors of the McDonald’s Happy Meal), who hired Keith on a freelance basis to begin design work on the Star Wars Episode 2 pitch. The Marketing Store had already done two pitches and failed to secure the license, but after Keith was brought in, Lucasfilm personally chose Keith’s designs over the teams of designers from other competitors. After which, he was brought in, given an office where he worked for another year on the account, before being invited to attend a licensing meeting at Skywalker Ranch with General Mills execs. There, he got to watch an early cut of Episode 2, tour the grounds and met his life-long hero and role model, George Lucas.
It was the fulfillment of a dream. Keith had followed, “The Hero’s Journey”, as outlined by Joseph Campbell, which Lucas used as the basis for his saga, followed “his bliss”, as Campbell called it, and it led him right to the man who had inspired a little boy, all those years before.
But meeting his hero and achieving one of his life goals came with an unexpected price; Depression.
It was the equivalent of training your whole life to compete in the Olympics and winning the gold medal. Now what?
After some soul searching, Keith decided it was time to begin moving away from fulfilling other people’s dreams and begin using his talents in pursuit of his own dreams.
In the mid 1990’s, Keith had created a line of t-shirts, based on his childhood love of “Speed Racer” called, “Surfur Gurl”. To flesh out the backstory of who “Surfur Gurl” was, Keith began writing a backstory to these characters and pretty soon, had a detailed story outline that he knew would be great as an animated series.
At the same time, MTV had started running a show called, “Liquid Television”, which consisted of a series of unrelated animated shorts, from various creators and animation studios. It’s the show that spawned “Beavis and Butthead” and “Aeon Flux”. Keith knew that “Surfur Gurl” was a shoe-in for “Liquid TV”, and began production of a six minute pilot episode, using the knowledge he’d gained doing animations for tv commercials years before.
Unfortunately, technology wasn’t as fast (or cheap) back then as it today and it took nearly two years to complete the pilot. By then, MTV cancelled “Liquid Television”, so Keith shelved the project, knowing he’d come back to it one day.
While continuing to do illustration and design work, primarily on toys and movie license pitches, he was developing another property. This time, a horror story about a teenage girl who inherits an ancient cure on her eighteenth birthday, called, “Autumn Moon”. Originally written as a movie script, Keith neither had the money nor the facilities available to make a film, so, seeing that Hollywood was buying up comic book properties at a fever pitch, he decided to edit the film script down and format it for the medium of comics, hoping that it would be seen, picked up and produced as it was intended; as a film.
Although Keith is still very happy with the work he did on “Autumn Moon”, turning his movie script into a comic book remains one of the few regrets of his life. Having not been much of a comic book fan, himself, or having any real understanding of the perils the dying comic book industry was in, or it’s diminishing fan base, Keith soon found that outsiders who don’t worship the people who came before him, really have no chance of ever getting their book seen or lauded by those who control the comic industry, despite the contents or quality of the material. Still, despite that, the book sold well enough online, through Keith’s own website, to afford a second issue (completing the first story) and attracted a small, but loyal and enthusiastic, fan base, who still send Keith accolades to this day. The first book (of five planned) in the “Autumn Moon” saga can be read for free on Keith Klein Studios website. He hopes to make it into a film series, one day, as it was originally intended to be.
About the time the first “Autumn Moon” comic was published, Keith met someone and got married. A year later, they had a boy named, Phoenix, and Keith (who was already working from his home studio) stayed home and raised his son. This brought back memories of his own childhood and reminded him how much his own mother loved being home with him and being there to watch him grow up.
But the years were slipping away fast, and his dream of getting his own ideas produced were slipping away with them. In late summer, 2010, Keith put everything he owned into storage, packed his family, two cats and everything he could fit into the back of their Jeep Cherokee and headed for Hollywood!
He lived in the Valley for about a year and a half, just trying to keep fed, and eventually moved to the heart of Hollywood. There, he started doing children’s book illustrations for first-time authors and helping them get their books published to pay the bills, while he began the final stages of development on “Surfur Gurl”.
In the coming months, he will have set up his own animation production studio, and begin producing the first season of “Surfur Gurl”, with some top notch talent involved with the goal of it being on one of the streaming services, like Netflix, Hulu or Amazon Prime.