WALKER — Bob Kramer has made a living out of entertaining people, first as a master of illusion on stage and later as president of a company that sells fun.
Kramer Entertainment Inc., the company he and his wife, Judi, founded in 1981, offers just about every kind of rentable attraction, from a popcorn wagon to professional hypnotist, from a 3-D motion theater to NASCAR racing simulators.
Kramer recalls the days when he worked in an office by day and a party store by night, while Judi taught piano. They had two kids and made $67.50 a week.
He began dabbling in the magic of illusion after learning a few magic tricks from Judi’s uncle. That led to his first performance as a magician at a church-sponsored father and son banquet, followed by a Halloween party for which he was paid $35 dollars plus a $20 dollar tip.
“It was a lot better than $67.50,” Kramer said of those early gigs.
Within a year Judi had joined him in the show and Kramer & Company was born. They started doing corporate events and conventions two to three nights a week in Detroit for $300 a performance. That generated additional bookings at colleges and universities.
Kramer eventually expanded his magic repertoire to include everything from transforming a pair of gloves into a dove to full-size illusions, building a reputation as a master illusionist with acts such as “The Levitation” and “The Sword Chamber.” Judi was the attractive “victim” of many of his illusions.
Over the years, the Kramers worked with most of the major stars of the time, appearing with Willie Nelson, the Oak Ridge Boys, Frank Sinatra, Johnny Cash, Lorretta Swit, the Guess Who, Rick Springfield and the Statler Brothers, among others. Kramer & Company also appeared on national TV shows, such as Johnny Carson, Mike Douglas and David Frost.
By the early 1980s the couple had begun tiring of life on the road, Kramer said.
“What was I to do — go from a standing ovation last night to selling shoes tomorrow?” he recalled asking himself. “Then we thought, well, why not open a little talent agency in town? We had made a very big mark in that market so a lot of clients knew who we were. So we phased out of doing the show and phased into opening an agency.”
They founded Kramer Entertainment in 1981 and started booking novelty variety acts geared to the college market, acts that grew to include comedy, singing, dancing, magic, ventriloquism, juggling and game-shows.
In the early 1990s, the Kramers were among the first to get into virtual reality and motion simulators. They slowed down a bit on the live acts started to concentrate on high-tech, interactive, mobile attractions.
“Everything evolved. We were one of the first to bring virtual reality into the United States and tour the college market. It’s just been about being able to feel or find what we felt the marketplace would buy,” Kramer said.
He designed and his company built most of the interactive equipment and touring trailers in his entourage. They’re built and serviced right at company headquarters on Lake Michigan Drive.
Cinemation Thrill Theater, for example, incorporates a three-dimensional panoramic screen, surround sound, a 12-seat motion base, heat, air conditioning, wind, rain and fog, “leg ticklers” and aromatic scents, such as “dinosaur breath,” for a full sensory experience.
“It’s the only one of its kind in the world,” Kramer noted.
The attraction offers a dozen different adventures and is completely self-contained within a 48-foot touring trailer equipped with its own generator — another of Kramer’s own inventions. One person can set up the entire system within an hour, he noted. His idea for the attraction went from a sketch on the back of a napkin to finished product in under six months.
The company’s NASCAR simulators are genuine, full-size stock cars on virtual motion hydraulics that immerse drivers in a life-like Winston Cup racing experience, complete with smoking tires and breakneck speeds.
The company has provided racing simulators for Coors/Sterling Marlin/Dodge, Miller Lite/Rusty Wallace/Ford, Pepsi/Jeff Gordon/Chevrolet and Valvoline/Johnny Benson/Pontiac.
These days Kramer Entertainment is a much copied, multi-million dollar company that tours more than 40 attractions over 100 different cities a week and stages more than 5,000 events a year across the country.
The company’s client base includes corporations, colleges and universities, military bases and major sporting events. Among its current and past clients are Coca-Cola, Disney, ESPN, FOX, NBC, Anheuser-Busch, Ford, Pepsi, Gillette, Miller, General Motors and the NHL.
The firm handles all aspects of tour management from scheduling, routing, delivery, set-up, operation, strike, liability and post-event follow-up. It has an in-house staff of 35 that includes 20 sales associates, three around-the-clock technical people, two accountants and a graphic artist.
As she always has, Judi Kramer remains very much a part of the act. She serves as company vice president.
In addition to interactive shows, Kramer attractions include two game shows, seven different live acts, the MJ12 band and jazz flautist Althea Rene. In the past six to 12 months the company has booked personalities such as Jay Leno, Bill Cosby, Ray Ramano, David Spade and Kevin James for events, as well.
The company’s non-virtual attractions include the Titanic Adventure Slide, Air Ascension, Bumper Car Bash and a full line of inflatable outdoor play equipment.
Last October the company unveiled what Kramer believes is the crown jewel of his attractions — the “Save A Life Tour,” a drunk driving simulator that’s intended to promote a life saving experience by letting people both see and experience first hand the devastating effects of drinking and driving. He dubs it “edu-tainment.”
Though completely sober, people behind the wheel of the simulator go through a sensory experience that takes them through progressive levels of impairment and loss of control. The system uses a 225 degree field of vision, “force feedback steering,” seat movement, sound, 3D graphics, shading and lighting effects and varying traffic and weather conditions. The drive usually ends in a serious accident.
Kramer came up with the idea. The market for the Save A Life Tour, he believes, is wide open — high schools, universities, police departments, driver’s ed programs, churches, health and mental health institutions, municipalities and more.
“This is probably the finest thing I will have ever done. It’s my baby,” Kramer said. “It’s the only one like it in the world. The frustration is in getting the word out to the world about it.”
He never imagined 40 year ago he would end up in the business he’s in today, but he’s happy with the way everything unfolded.
“I never let go of the brass ring. I guess I’ve been fortunate enough to make the right turns at the right time,” he reflected. “It’s been a wild ride.”