Cary News

Apex’s “The Rusty Bucket Kids” TV show explores past with eye to future

John Demers adjusts a monitor he uses to watch the action. His historically focused kids’ show, “History’s Heroes: The Rusty Bucket Kids,” films mostly in Apex. This episode, about Louisa May Alcott, is being filmed off Olive Chapel Road in the historic Maynard-Pearson House.
John Demers adjusts a monitor he uses to watch the action. His historically focused kids’ show, “History’s Heroes: The Rusty Bucket Kids,” films mostly in Apex. This episode, about Louisa May Alcott, is being filmed off Olive Chapel Road in the historic Maynard-Pearson House.

Inside the house, 19th-century writer Ralph Waldo Emerson greets novelist Louisa May Alcott.

Outside, cars zoom by on Olive Chapel Road, causing distractions. Rush hour waits for no one, not even some of America’s most beloved writers.

“Cut!” yells producer John Demers.

The actors playing Emerson and Alcott look miffed until Demers explains traffic is causing problems, not their acting or lighting or any other technical reason that could halt filming. They put a white screen at the window, covered by drapes. Time to try again.

This is “History’s Heroes: The Rusty Bucket Kids,” a television show filmed in Apex. The show has filmed infrequently and intermittently the past five years, but Demers is hoping to get it on a more regular schedule now. New episodes are being filmed this summer and fall.

The show is a rarity, a live-action television drama aimed at young viewers. It takes them to different periods of American history, with the titular kids traveling back in time to meet famous American figures when they also were teens.

Despite the focus on history, the show’s creators pride themselves on being at the forefront of technology, using social media to increase viewership, help raise funds and reach a more diverse audience.

In the Louisa May Alcott episode filmed earlier this month, the kids meet the “Little Women” author when she’s still undiscovered and simply tutoring the children of her next-door neighbor, Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Parts of the episode are filmed at the historic Maynard-Pearson House on Olive Chapel Road.

The show also films at The Rusty Bucket general store in downtown Apex, from which the show derives its name, as well as at the New Hope Valley Railway in the New Hill area. The historically accurate costumes are sewn at local alteration shop, Fleur De Lia.

Roxanna and JohnColeman Demers, the teenage children of John Demers, the executive producer, play the lead roles of the Peakssen children.

Roxanna, now 17, has been acting since she was 2, but never alongside her brother and under the direction of her father.

“It’s definitely different,” she said. “There is some tension, obviously, because we are related. It is easier to work with people you’re not related to. But at the same time, it is nice having family on set.”

Forward thinking

The show began five years ago, but because of a series of deaths and illnesses in the Demers family and others associated with the show, production has been delayed several times.

Despite the delays, the show has been critically recognized, garnering three regional Emmy nominations for the MidSouth region, among other honors.

This isn’t Demers’ first introduction to show business. He began acting in the 1970s, as a kid himself, at Raleigh Little Theater.

After a stint in the military, he started a limousine company and later worked as a financial securities regulator for the state. Then Demers went to Hollywood. He appeared in some NASCAR commercials and drove limos in motorcade scenes on “The West Wing.”

He then transitioned to producing and figured there were better opportunities for success in his own backyard – the family lives in New Hill – than in Hollywood.

“The Rusty Bucket Kids” is broadcast on WRAL. Demers had connections at the station, and legendary anchor Charlie Gaddy, now retired, plays the kids’ grandpa.

Demers said episodes typically attract between 30,000 and 35,000 viewers per airing.

“We do as well as ‘The Andy Griffith Show,’” Demers quips.

That’s about where the comparisons end, though. In addition to using graphics that Griffith and crew never could have dreamed of, “The Rusty Bucket Kids” has a thoroughly forward-looking approach to all aspects of show business.

Viewers can watch clips of episodes online, a trend that many shows have embraced. And the “Rusty Bucket” crew has taken things a step further, using the live video-streaming app Periscope to stream episodes, behind-the-scenes footage and outtakes to thousands of people in real time.

To make it work, they film the episodes as they normally would, then clear out all the equipment and film again, with the second time only using a smartphone running the app.

“I’m really into breaking glass ceilings in distribution models,” Demers said.

Online fundraising

That has helped the show thrive in a time when many haven’t, between the recession and the loss of state filmmaking incentives.

Social media also has helped Demers raise money. The independent project is holding an online fundraiser to raise $70,000 to send a film crew to the Louisa May Alcott home in Massachusetts. They ran a similar fundraiser to travel to Abraham Lincoln’s boyhood home for the pilot episode.

“I do like history and going to historical places ... so it’s cool that we get paid to go visit all these historical homes,” Roxanna said.

JohnColeman, 14, said he’s more into math and science, and less into history. He often learns as much as the typical viewer, he said.

“It was kinda funny with this last episode,” he said. “Right before, I was like, ‘Wait. Who is Louisa May Alcott?’ And they were like, ‘Dear God, JohnColeman.’”

Social media has allowed viewers to see those types of funny behind-the-scenes moments. It also has helped the show reach viewers outside of the Carolinas.

“I was able to control my message and get it out there how I want,” Demers said. “I was able to target historians, people like that. I have friends who want to be on Entertainment Weekly, but I don’t. ... I want to be engaging people who are interested in our product.”

So far, the show has found more than 6,400 of those people on Twitter, plus 1,000 on Facebook and thousands of views on YouTube.

Demers said even though the show is focused on history, its business model simply can’t afford to be stuck in the past. And he thinks he has identified something that more shows will move toward. He likes being the frontrunner for now.

“I’m going to grocery stores and walking around and seeing these young people on their devices,” he said. “And the parents are looking at their 12-year-olds and saying, ‘OK, how do I do this?’ They’re into learning more about it.”

Doran: 919-460-2604; Twitter: @will_doran

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