- Andrew Olsen
Hatched Purple: The Designer of Barney
You may not know her name, but you undoubtedly know her work.
The true designer of Barney has gone unrecognized, and unnoticed for nearly 34 years. Her credit and stories have largely been forgotten about, until now.
So who do we have to thank for the design of everyone’s favorite purple dinosaur? Jamie Ruth Conner.
In May of 1988 pre-production on Barney and the Backyard Gang was ramping up. Producer and director John Grable needed an art director that he could trust, and someone he knew would be able to get the job done. After difficulties working with the hired production designer for the series, John reached out to his friend, Jamie Ruth Conner.
He and Jamie had previously worked together in the early 1980s on the children’s show, Sunshine Factory. He had great respect for her, and she, him.
Without so much as a traditional job interview, John hired Jamie on the spot. He knew perfectly well that she was more than capable to get the job done with the tight schedule they were working with.
One of Jamie’s first assignments given by John was to work with the hired costume builder, Irene Corey.
Barney the Jurassic Reptile
The Lyons Group was connected to costume shop Irene Corey Design Associates by The Richards Company, a Dallas based advertising firm. Given Irene’s extensive experience in theatrical costume design, the production team believed that she would be a great fit for what they needed.
From the outset there was a disconnect between Irene Corey and the producers of Barney. Irene’s vision of the character was that of a traditional dinosaur with scales, fangs, and claws. The producers of the videos made their opinions clear to Irene that what she was building was not what they were looking for. Frustrated, she left the project in the hands of her niece, Suzanne Lockridge and moved on to other projects. (Irene was also working on a life-like dinosaur display for a museum at the time so didn’t feel too bad leaving the project).
Meanwhile, John tasked Jamie with creating the storyboards for the videos. John Grable made it clear that the Barney he wanted in his videos needed to be “soft and cuddly,” and a character that could be easily embraced by toddlers. After she had completed storyboards for the videos, Jamie brought her drawings to John to show him how she envisioned the character. At first glance, John pointed to Barney and said, “That! That’s my Barney, make him look like that!” The design was then subsequently approved by Sheryl Leach and Kathy Parker.
Irene’s Barney was just about complete when Jamie showed up to the Irene Corey Design Associates workshop. She and Suzanne Lockridge worked together on removing the old head, replacing the claws on the feet with ping pong balls, and making major body alterations. The resulting dinosaur turned out to be nothing like the fierce original.
After the entire costume was complete, Suzanne then spray painted the suit Barney’s original signature royal purple color (which Jamie selected the color palette for as well). Why color Barney purple? Jamie simply stated that that particular shade of royal purple happened to be popular in the late 1980s. Jamie also came up with the genius idea of putting green spots on Barney’s back.
And yes, Jamie affectionately nicknamed Barney “purple meat.”
Not only did Jamie design and help build the original Barney costume, she also designed and built the very first studio doll. Just a few weeks before filming began the producers realized that a Barney plush doll was needed for the shoot. Luckily, Jamie had a background in puppet design and construction. Having worked on a couple other puppet television series in the past, she volunteered to build the doll. In only two days time she put together the very first Barney plush by tracing some simple shapes on quilting fabric, sewing everything together, then turning him inside out and stuffing him. What makes things more impressive is the fact that the Barney doll she built was the first plush toy she had ever made!
Shooting and Beyond
In my eyes, those first three videos filmed in the summer of 1988 were the most important in Barney’s history. It was in those videos that the character was truly explored and developed. Jamie Conner, John Grable, Frank Olsen, and so many more were responsible for creating Barney’s look, developing his personality, and setting the foundation for all that would come after.
The vast majority of the crew members involved with the 1988 production of Barney were brought in by John Grable. Prior to working on Barney, John had worked extensively in Christian and ministry television. Thus, much of the production’s staff were heavily grounded within the Christian value system. In fact, Barney was originally intended to be created as a Christian based video series–but that’s a story for another day.
Many crew members that worked on the original
Backyard Gang trilogy did not come back in 1990 to work on the second set of videos. When John did not return, his contacts that he had brought in did not either. Jamie was among those who did not return for the series’ second installment. Very few people, even among the cast and crew that came after know the full story behind the design of Barney, simply because no one was around to accurately tell it. For over thirty-four years she has gone uncredited, unnoticed, and unrecognized. However now you know the full story behind the designer of Barney the Dinosaur, Jamie Ruth Conner.