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Last Blast

Published: Aug 28, 2003


Stephen Murray, vice president of operations for Kazoobie, holds the parts of a kazoo: a round resonator made out of waxed paper, and the kazoo body and cap, which both come in 12 colors.

PORT RICHEY - To Stephen Murray, there's nothing like an American-made kazoo.

From its offices in Port Richey, Kazoobie Inc. is in an old-fashioned David versus Goliath fight against the forces of globalism, only the weapon is a plastic kazoo instead of a stone. Kazoobie is one of the last companies to make the unusual musical device in the United States. As far as Murray knows, most of the rest are made in China.

Kazoobie isn't making a fortune off its piece of Americana, but it is turning a small profit.

``The owner's opinion is, if we can't make them here, we'll do something else,'' said Murray, Kazoobie's vice president of operations.

Kazoos are quirky by nature, with a sound something like a duck call that's considered endearing by some and annoying by others. So it might be fitting that Kazoobie's owner, Rick Hubbard, is an entertainer. He travels the Southeast performing musical shows for schools and families, often holding kazoo recitals with children.

Hubbard initially based Kazoobie in Hilton Head, S.C., and began selling kazoos on a Web site - - purchasing kazoos from a Michigan manufacturer, but he bought out the manufacturer two years ago and started making them himself. Hubbard moved Kazoobie to Port Richey in July, Murray said.

Today the company sells about 300,000 kazoos a year. It sells them wholesale for about 30 cents apiece or retail on Hubbard's Web site for as much as $1.75, Murray said. Sales come to about $250,000 a year.

Kazoobie stores its kazoo manufacturing device at Ven-Tel Plastics of Largo, a plastics manufacturing company, and also uses Ven-Tel labor. Essentially, a solid plastic material is heated to 450 degrees and melted around a kazoo mold. After being cooled with water, the ``injection molding'' device shoots out kazoos in any of 12 colors, from black to neon yellow, Murray said.

Rock musicians have been among Kazoobie's customers. The band Weezer ordered 3,000 kazoos and sent them to British radio stations for the release of an album. Another customer was Jethro Tull's flute player Ian Anderson, who also releases solo albums, Murray said.

But as fun and quirky as kazoos sound, there is a serious side to kazoo manufacturing.

Last year, the company that owned the Original American Kazoo Co., which had been making metal kazoos in Eden, N.Y., since 1916, sold it to another New York state company, Woodstock Percussion. Woodstock moved its kazoo production to China, said Woodstock marketing coordinator Betsy Garthwaite. There is a kazoo museum in Eden, but it makes only enough kazoos to keep the museum's gift shop stocked.

It's unclear how many domestic kazoo makers exist, but on, Kazoobie boasts that its instruments ``are 100 percent produced in the USA. Other kazoos come from China.''

In fact, business consultants have told Kazoobie it should move its production to China, Murray said. For example, Kazoobie sells its kazoos wholesale for 30 cents each, but Chinese manufacturers can sell them for 12 cents, he said.

Steven Meitzen, vice president of sales and marketing for Ven-Tel Plastics, visited a Chinese plastics company a year ago. There, employees live at the factory and earn 17 cents an hour, Meitzen said.

Ven-Tel has to pay its people at least minimum wage and has other employee costs such as insurance, Meitzen said.

``In China, they don't have that,'' he said. ``So it's a 98 percent labor cost savings. It's an unfair field of competition.''

Kazoobie and Ven-Tel are hardly the only American companies battling Chinese competition. Lori Anderson is senior director of international and economic affairs for the Society of Plastics Industries, a Washington-based trade group. In 1997, the United States had a trade deficit of $4.2 billion in products containing plastic. By 2002 that had grown to a $14 billion deficit, Anderson said.

The downturn in high-tech industries and the stock market caused some of the plastic industry's recent troubles, but some came from foreign competition, Anderson said. China alone accounted for 55 percent of America's plastics trade deficit, she said.

Still, Kazoobie has no plans to move its production overseas, and Murray says its kazoos are better than the Chinese competition's. For one thing, Kazoobie's kazoos can be custom-made.

For example, Meitzen is president of the University of Nebraska's local alumni club. He ordered kazoos in red and white, Nebraska's team colors, with ``'' printed on them.

Plus, Kazoobie's small plastic kazoo caps cannot be removed and swallowed by children, unlike the competition's, Murray said.

Moving production to China ``would be cheaper,'' Murray said. ``But it's nice to be able to employ three or four people. And we get to help these guys [Ven-Tel Plastics] stay in business.''

Besides, there are intangible benefits to making kazoos.

``It's always a good conversation starter,'' he said. ``You do what? What's a kazoo?''

Tribune researcher Marianne Hoeppner contributed to this report. Reporter Michael Sasso can be reached at (813) 259-7865.

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