During Ted Kryczko’s retirement party six years ago, one of his colleagues at Walt Disney Records revealed a statistic from the company database. Kryczko’s name was listed on more than 1,000 Disney music products, making him the third-most prolific producer in company history.
The two names ahead of Kryczko?
Mr. Walt Disney himself – and Mickey Mouse.
Kryczko, a 61-year-old Buffalo native, has a pair of Grammys and a stack of gold and platinum records amid a roomful of awards. His list of celebrity collaborators and projects stretches from Jimmy Stewart to Julie Andrews; Mary Poppins to Miley Cyrus.
He could have stopped right then in 2009, retired to his Burbank, Calif., home and called it a supercalifragilisticexpialidocious career.
But Kryczko wasn’t done. He set out on a search, one that would take him across the country instructing music and theater workshops. He came home to Buffalo last week for a three-day workshop with students from Bello Voice Studio in Orchard Park.
“I really love to teach,” said Kryczko, who started working annually with studio owner Debbie Monroe’s students a decade ago. “I like to see young talent. There’s a long shot that you find something really special.”
Many of the nearly 30 students who worked with Kryczko last week are hoping to be something special. They had multiple chances to make an impression: Kryczko was the guest of honor at a Friday night karaoke party and led small-group workshops Friday and Saturday. During a Sunday showcase at the Hard Rock Cafe in Niagara Falls, he sat at a front-and-center table. As the students performed Broadway hits, he took notes while nursing three tall cups of coffee.
“Sometimes they get nervous and shaky,” Kryczko said at the Hard Rock as he poked at a colorful Cobb salad.
Onstage, a 15-year-old girl who is normally a strong singer was struggling to stay on-key.
“Apparently, I’m a scary guy – by reputation,” he said.
Kryczko was joking, but only partly. He’s sturdy and broad-shouldered, with a neat gray beard and a professorial bent. He cuts an intimidating figure. But if his presence was all that mattered, the nerves would melt away once he starts talking. He has a soft voice and delivers criticism gently, with a spoonful of sugar.
During a Saturday afternoon workshop at Bello Voice’s studio, he listened to Canisius College freshman Anna Kubiak perform an original song inspired by her high school Advanced Placement literature exam.
Kryczko liked her voice. He talked with Kubiak, whose guitar was strapped around her shoulders, about her repertoire of cover songs. He encouraged her to keep playing live gigs. And he pointed out that her song wasn’t destined for the top of the charts.
“Some people will think that song is too long and doesn’t have a hook,” he said. “But that’s not necessarily right. That’s just – not everybody is going to love every piece of music.”
“Of course,” Kubiak said, nodding. “I don’t love every piece of music.”
“Right,” Kryczko said. “That’s all about staying true to yourself. That’s not a pop hit. It definitely has an appeal, I’m sure, to some folks, and if it appeals to you, that’s the best place to start.”
For these wish-upon-a-star singers, who ranged in age from 6 to the mid-20s, Kryczko’s presence isn’t just physical – it’s symbolic.
He represents Hollywood, and he’s proof that a guy from Buffalo can make it. He grew up in Lovejoy and attended the since-closed Bishop Turner High School. After a semester of pre-med at the University at Buffalo, he switched his major to match his childhood passion: theater. After graduating from UB in 1976, he headed to the University of California, Irvine. Two years later, master’s degree in hand, Kryczko returned to Buffalo and New York City before relocating to California permanently in 1980. After a couple of years of odd jobs centered on theater, he learned of a potential production gig working on a rerelease of music from the 1954 film “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.”
Kryczko landed the job by offering to work for free on a trial basis. The tryout lasted less than a week before Disney Records executives decided to hire him.
For the next quarter-century, Kryczko climbed the career ladder while working on the production of an array of musical storybooks, DVDs and other products for Disney Records. He learned how to cut tape by hand when his boss handed him a reel of a then-young Drew Barrymore narrating “E.T.” with a warning: Don’t mess it up.
Vincent Price screamed at him on the phone when director Steven Spielberg wouldn’t approve a deal Kryczko had brokered for Price to voice a “Gremlins”-related project.
He worked with stars. He collected Parents’ Choice Awards. After his retirement in 2009, Kryczko was vice president of A&R catalog development and had two Grammys, one for a Muppets Christmas album and another for a “Lion King” project.
Kryczko added to his Disney portfolio since leaving the company, producing projects on a contract basis through his company, Get Bizzy Entertainment. Aspiring performers from Western New York have benefited from his work: A few years ago, he had several Bello Voice Studio students sing backup vocals in Los Angeles for a “Camp Rock 2” recording.
At the Hard Rock, Kryczko toted a gift bag loaded with ribbon-wrapped Disney CDs and other trinkets. He would be handing them after the show to singers who stood out. The ones who went home with a prize tended to be the singers who grabbed his ear and his eye, the ones who not only sang the song, but felt it.
The chosen ones included Kubiak, the Canisius freshman who 24 hours earlier played her test-inspired original. Now she was wearing a fringed black dress and fishnet stockings to perform the sultry “Roxie” from the musical “Chicago.” The third line of the lyrics fit the occasion: “I’m gonna be a celebrity.”
For some of the singers (and their parents), the real goal wasn’t to nab a “Teen Beach Movie” disc. Rather, they wanted an endorsement from Kryczko – stated or tacit – that they had a future in show business.
During a decade working with Monroe’s students, he has found some with Hollywood potential. He has brought three to Los Angeles to record demos and audition for casting agents. None have struck big – yet. “It doesn’t mean they won’t,” Kryczko told a group of students and parents at a Q&A session. “I have hope for some I’ve met along the way who are still out there training and practicing.”
After the Hard Rock show, at various points through the weekend, parents and students questioned Kryczko about the reality of moving to L.A. or New York and taking that shot at stardom. This is where he answers carefully: It’s always a risk, he tells them, and the competition is incredibly intense.
“She can sing,” he recalled telling one family of a teenager. “So can 10,000 people in Los Angeles – and my Rolodex has 12 people that are really, really good.”
His implication: Those dozen on his call sheet sing “better than her.” But then again, the next big thing isn’t a sure thing. And though Kryczko may see it clearer than the rest of us, his instinct isn’t absolute.
“I can only give them advice,” he said.
And he does it just as the famous song from Disney’s “Mary Poppins” suggests: with a spoonful of sugar.