Kevin’s purple hoodie flaps around his lime green headphones as he bobs his head to the beat. According to his bio, his first hip-hop single just went platinum. And on this sizzling Monday in July, he’s lip synching for a camera crew at the WCET studios in Over-the-Rhine.
Word is that legendary hip-hop stars Dr. Dre and Eminem inspired Kevin’s new song, “Five Thousand Dollars.” It’s a call-and-response rap with singer/songwriter Megan Piphus, who lauds her costar as a “talented musician.” She drops a hint of drama, though, saying, “Kevin’s imagination tends to run wild.”
Director Colin Scianamblo wants more dancing, and Kevin responds with enthusiastic gyrations. He twists his body in time with the beat, lifts his arms when the music swells, and closes the song with a beatbox flourish. Kevin leans into the microphone, his mouth mimicking the percussion rhythm. As the music fades, Scianamblo shakes his head. “Kevin really looks real sometimes,” he says with a sigh.
Kevin is not real. At least, he’s not flesh and bones. He’s a puppet, a cloth-and-glue embodiment of Scianamblo’s imagination and a puppeteer’s sleight of hand. His musical abilities are a projection of Piphus, who sings both her own and Kevin’s parts on the “Five Thousand Dollars” soundtrack. On a different stage in a different city, she’s the voice of Gabrielle, a 6-year-old Muppet on Sesame Street.
If Kevin could speak for himself, he’d certainly credit Piphus and the CET team for his artistic flair. He’d also tell you he owes his existence to a number-crunching economist, Julie Heath, who laughs when I mention Dr. Dre and Eminem. “I’m more of an oldies person,” she says.
Heath’s motives for giving Kevin life are all about money, but don’t get the wrong idea—that’s a good thing. Kevin may be the key to her ambitious plans to foster a generation of financially healthy consumers. Along the way, he and his puppet castmates are unlocking creativity both in front of and behind the cameras.
Julie Heath arrived as director of the Alpaugh Family Economics Center at the University of Cincinnati in 2012. The center had already established itself as one of the largest in a network of about 200 economics education centers across the country. Peter Alpaugh and the Alpaugh Family Foundation had just committed to a $1 million gift to support financial and economic education online. Heath saw an opportunity.
Research shows teaching finance to kids reaps money-savvy adults, says Chris Caltabiano, chief program officer for the Council for Economic Education, a national organization representing financial literacy centers. “They have better credit scores and lower loan default rates, and they go into less credit card debt while in college,” he says. Those kinds of outcomes prompted state legislatures in about half of the U.S., including Ohio and Kentucky, to pass laws requiring personal finance courses or programming for high school graduation.
Heath supports high school classes in financial literacy, but she also fears they’re too little too late. Spending patterns are set by age 7, she says, so she lobbies for introducing financial values to kids as young as 3. By the time students get to high school, they’ll be able to grasp increasingly complex ideas, that, she reasons, “will have something to stick to rather than being introduced in a vacuum.” She smiles wistfully. “That’s the dream.”
In 2016, Heath’s dream led the economics center to invest in $martPath, a free digital financial education platform. Stories about cartoon bears, skunks, and robots illustrate how to save money and distinguish between cash and credit. The target audience: elementary kids. The approach: age appropriate.
“We’re not teaching a 5-year-old to write a check,” says Heath. “We’re teaching a 5-year-old that if you borrow something, you give it back in the same condition they gave it to you. We’re teaching a 5-year-old that if you choose this, you’re giving up that.”
Financial literacy isn’t about vocabulary, she explains. It’s a way of thinking. Heath recalls visiting a fourth-grade class in Memphis after launching Tennessee’s financial literacy program in the mid-2000s. She asked a 10-year-old named Kobe what he’d learned. “He said, I’ve learned how to make good choices.” Impressed, Heath asked if the stuff he’d learned would help him in the future. “He said, Oh yes. Now I know I shouldn’t join a gang.”
Heath’s perspective shifted that day. “There was nothing about gang membership pros and cons in the curriculum,” she says. “I went up to the teacher, we stepped out in the hall, and I cried a little bit. I asked the teacher, Did you make that connection at all? She said, No, he did that.” Heath pauses. “That is the power of economic and financial education. When we give children the tools to make good decisions, when we give them the critical thinking ability to think through whatever their life is, we give them hope.”
Over the last six years, $martPath has spread hope to more than 2 million kids and the curriculum has won five national awards. But in 2017, Heath went looking for more. “If a product doesn’t develop and grow,” she says, “it becomes stale.” Soon, revelation struck.
Reading The Cincinnati Enquirer, Heath’s eyes stopped on a photo. Megan Piphus was lying on her back, flashing her trademark radiant smile, in one of those heads-in-a-circle poses. The other heads were puppets. The article provided an update on the self-taught ventriloquist from Cincinnati who traveled the country as a teen singing at schools and churches. She graduated at the top of her Princeton High School class in 2010, then earned a bachelor’s degree in economics and a master’s in finance at Vanderbilt University. Her recognition as a ventriloquist grew, spurred by a 2013 run on America’s Got Talent. She launched a career in real estate finance in 2017, but she never gave up performing. The story headline read: “Given a choice between finance and ventriloquism, she chose both.”
“It was like I’d been hit with a bolt of lightning,” says Heath. “She was so captivating. And the picture with those puppets all around her head—my eyes were just opened. I knew that it had to be puppets. How fun is that? Thank goodness she agreed.”
Heath shopped the idea of financial literacy videos featuring puppets to potential partners. Kitty Lensman, CEO of CET/Think TV public television in Cincinnati and Dayton, immediately wanted in. The project fit the station’s educational mission and filled a programming gap for young children. Heath’s puppet vision sealed the deal. “I’m thinking Sesame Street meets financial literacy,” Lensman says.
But funders were not as enthused. “I assumed, I don’t know why, that it would be easy to get funding for this,” says Heath. “Can’t everybody see how cool this would be?” She submitted applications to multiple arts and financial education foundations for a year and a half, with no success.
A 2018 e-mail finally changed her fortunes. Heath saw the message during a hiking trip with her husband at Glacier National Park: “Call me right away.” She didn’t recognize the name and delayed responding. So it took several days to get the news that she’d won the Lighting the Way Award, sponsored by the SunTrust Foundation to recognize nonprofits working in financial education. The prize included $75,000. Heath calls it “manna from heaven.” She told the award contact, “I’m going to use this money to make puppet videos.”
Heath’s ability to frame financial literacy concepts for children has earned national acclaim. But none of her experience prepared her for producing high-quality puppet videos. “I was clueless,” she says. Staff at CET shared similar naivete. “We’re not puppeteers,” says Lensman. “We’re storytellers and producers.” But Scianamblo, who had joined the station in 2015 to produce interview shows and documentaries, found the puppet challenge intriguing. It brought back childhood memories of watching PBS broadcasts of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. “I felt like it was an opportunity to continue that tradition,” he says.
Scianamblo took charge of CET’s production process. It consumed him. He huddled with leaders of Madcap Puppet Theater, based in Westwood, and scoured the internet for puppet-making experts around the world. He studied YouTube videos on credit debt and consulted his girlfriend (now wife) for help sketching character designs. He also organized the building of five elaborate sets, including a pirate ship. And, like Kevin, he let his imagination run wild.
Scianamblo dreamed up the majority of $martPath’s characters and storylines, drawing inspiration from curriculum cartoons for characters like Blackbeard, a pirate who learns to conserve limited resources as he faces a dwindling supply of cannonballs. Other ideas came from life experience. Good Boy is a sheepdog who distinguishes between goods (dog food, chew toys, dog bowls, leashes) and services (proper training to keep him classy, grooming and brushing to keep him fancy). Scianamblo’s third-grade teacher had a sheep dog named Jack Benny, whom everybody loved.
An Australian puppet builder shaped the dog’s shaggy-but-loveable look. Bootsy Collins, Cincinnati’s Grammy-winning funk superstar, produced his song and provided vocals: “I will sing out ruff ruff when you buy me stuff stuff.”
In all, $martPath videos feature about 20 puppet characters. Heath introduces me to a few when we get together in June. “It’s kind of creepy,” she says as we enter a small breakroom in the Alpaugh Family Economic Center’s office at UC. Heath points out the refrigerator and coffee machine next to the stack of plastic bins containing puppet figures. “We don’t stand much on ceremony around here,” she says.
Heath opens a bin, digs through foam nuggets and uncovers a big-eyed Flea the Frog. She sticks her hand in Flea’s back and wiggles his mouth. “I don’t know why his name is Flea,” she says, patting his head like he’s a family pet. More plastic boxes reveal Bebe the Parrot and pirate mateys who report to Blackbeard. She spots something else. “Blackbeard’s in here!” she says with delight. “Blackbeard is a favorite because of all the aarghs.”
Back in her office, Heath offers insights on the cast. “They have their own personalities,” she says. “Some of them are sassy, some are shy, some are kind.” She doesn’t hesitate when I ask if she has a favorite. “It’s Kevin.”
According to Scianamblo, Kevin’s models were a young Barack Obama and singer John Legend. “He’s a great communicator but also a great musician,” he says. Heath sees a bit of Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow in him. “He has the same non-arrogant swagger,” she says, shrugging. “I have no idea if Joe Burrow would be pleased with that comparison or not.”
$martPath celebrated the release of its first six puppet videos with a red-carpet event in February 2020. Published on the $martPath website, YouTube, and PBS Learning Media, the 5- to 10-minute clips and accompanying lesson plans proved instant hits among kids, teachers, and parents. They also won three regional Emmys and were spotlighted on CNBC.
Heath’s vision has continued to grow. Last year, the economics center adapted the lessons to be accessible to children with developmental disabilities, including autism and down syndrome. “I can’t think of a population of students for whom teaching good decision making is more important,” Heath says. Success led to requests for a second series. Analytics showed viewers preferred singing to dialogue, so the new videos will be 3- to 4-minute music clips. Recording began with Kevin on that July day at CET.
In his first video, Kevin is a wannabe rapper who tries to buy candy with street cred. The “Five Thousand Dollars” video picks up his story as hip-hop success brings new money hurdles. In the opening narration scene, Piphus stands next to a baby grand piano in a mock music studio; Kevin peers through a recording booth window behind her. On a side window, Lorenzo Jackson acts as the fictional sound engineer. His role isn’t a stretch. Jackson, who is Piphus’s cousin, produced the music for four of the first six $martPath videos and has a long recording history with Piphus. “We did ‘Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star’ when she was 12 years old,” he says. “It was not traditional, more like a hip-hop version.”
As the camera rolls, Piphus leans against the piano. “Meet Kevin, a talented musician who just earned $5,000 to turn his latest hit into a music video. Kevin’s imagination tends to run wild. But does he really understand how much everything costs?” Scianamblo’s crew records these lines six times with different camera angles and lighting. “I think we’ve got a winner there,” the director says after the sixth take. “But let’s start back on the other side.”
Heath stops by at mid-morning, just as Kevin lets his infamous imagination spin in the rap’s first verse:
I’ll make a music video of my dreams
My grand ideas will go on the big screen
I made some cash from recording melodies
How much can I spend for videography?
Kevin’s fantasies for his $5,000 video escalate to include dancers, a marching band, and a yellow Lamborghini (Put it in turbo, my fans go loco). Piphus responds with calls for financial restraint.
You have a list of things you need to buy
So make a plan to divide your five
Your music video has a price
So split up your five right
Know your costs and you might
Have funds left over for your next worldwide hit!
As we watch this back-and-forth song, Heath says, “The goal is to get the lesson across to little kids that it’s exciting to have money and exciting to spend money, but you still can’t have everything you want.”
It’s a lesson for adults, too. During a lunch break, Scianamblo confides that Kevin’s wild imagination reflects his own fanciful musings. “If I had to pick what to put in a music video to make it big, bold, and exciting, I would choose back-up dancers, a marching band, and a sports car,” he says. Standing up to clear his plate, he asks, “Want to see my Lamborghini?” Of course I do.
We find the dream car parked on a table on a CET set. It’s 3½ feet long. Scianamblo bought this toy ride on Amazon, and his team cut a hole in the seat to accommodate Kevin and his puppeteer. “It’s the perfect size for a puppet,” says Scianamblo. “I looked into getting a real Lamborghini, but driving one up on our loading dock probably would have given me a heart attack. You know, I feel like Kevin and I are one in the same in that aspect. We’re both learning how to be financially responsible.”
With one difference. Scianamblo did get his marching band and dancers. Piphus connected him with her aunt and uncle, who lead the Kentucky State University dance team and marching band. They recorded Kevin’s dream scenes at CET in August.
Piphus’s connections, as well as her background in both musical puppetry and finance, have made her invaluable on the project. She appears as herself in all the videos and voices many of the characters, including Kevin, in the songs. She also writes all of the songs, adapting concepts like supply and demand and market equilibrium to musical styles from hip-hop and funk to jazz, bluegrass, and even cheesy pop ballads.
As of August, she’s written and recorded half of the six new songs. Besides “Five Thousand Dollars,” Piphus has created a funk pop tune debating the costs and benefits of competitive bowling and crafted a high-tempo number to accompany a pair of hungry rats racing through a grocery while choosing between bread, fruit, and cheese.
The $martPath team takes pride in running with ideas like singing rats in a grocery, but Scianamblo admits to occasionally wondering how far they should go. “There were times, like when you’re shooting in a farmer’s field with a herd of cattle, that the absurdity of it all hits you,” he says. “You wonder if this works.” He reminds himself of the project’s ultimate goals. “As you’re in that field with the puppets and the cows, you’re still teaching a lesson.”
Despite Scianamblo’s occasional concerns, $martPath’s ability to balance accurate information with zany storylines draws a lot of praise. It’s the reason the Georgia Council on Economic Education decided to support the project financially and plans to train more than 2,000 teachers to use the videos this school year, according to Executive Director Michael Raymer. “The number one thing is the economics and financial literacy concepts must be right,” he says. But puppets are the secret sauce. “You ask 1,000 elementary students, Do you like puppets? They all say, Yeah! To me that’s the hook. They’re going to remember Kevin, and they’re going to be singing his songs.”
Donna Beiting can attest to that. She feared her third-graders at Amity Elementary in Deer Park would find puppets too cheesy. Instead, they danced and beat their desks to the rhythm when she showed $martPath videos last spring. She recalls a lesson with Scarcity Cat pricing items in his store, saying, “When the video ended, kids’ hands all went up.” They talked about the price of Pokémon cards at Target and comparative shopping for toys on Amazon. Suddenly, smart consumer practices made sense. “It was way more powerful than anything I could have done on my own,” says Beiting.
Marsha Piphus, Megan’s mom and a speech pathologist for Cincinnati Public Schools, has participated in workshops and trainings provided by the economic center for decades. During the school year, she uses $martPath videos to enhance lessons. The kids love it, and she credits the puppet factor. “Our kids are so tech savvy,” she says, and animated educational materials generally can’t live up to the quality of video games like Minecraft. But when kids see a real person interacting with puppets, they’re fascinated.
Aretta Baumgartner, a Madcap veteran and national expert on puppets in education, says research supports Marsha Piphus’s theory. “It’s because children are so smart,” she says. Their brains see puppets like a canvas, and they long to create their own visuals and fill in the blanks. “It’s just like any good visual art—it’s in the eye of the beholder.”
Back at CET, Heath is immersed in that magical dimension as she watches a puppeteer move Kevin through human-like motions. “The intellectual part of your brain is going, This is a bunch of felt and a little bit of structure,” she says. “Yet, when you watch them, it’s like, Yeah, this is a person. And then you start thinking, I wonder what Kevin’s going to do next.”
Outside the puppet realm, Heath has many ideas for Kevin’s future—and her own. When $martPath begins releasing the second round of videos in December, Heath plans to retire from UC. But she won’t end her relationship with $martPath. The next step might be children’s books featuring the puppet characters, or gamifying the curriculum. And she’s up for another set of videos.
The number cruncher in Heath says Kevin and his puppet peers have awakened her whimsical side and unlocked creative ideas in other unexpected areas, too. She considers that concept for a moment. “I know business executives go through training and pay a whole lot of money to unlock their creative potential,” she says. “All they need is a puppet.”