DECATUR - Before Decatur native David Joyner took on the television role of streetwise children's performer Hip Hop Harry, he was known for being the first to wear the costume of another famous TV icon, Barney the Purple Dinosaur. Before "Barney," however, Joyner's line of work was radically different and more than a little unexpected-software analyst for U.S. military applications. The actor actually spent six years designing and fixing military circuit boards for Texas Instruments before leaving his profession to seek out a full-time job in entertainment. At the time, few believed he would go through with such an unusual change of careers.
"I actually told them when I first started that I wanted to quit after five years to pursue entertainment, but nobody really took it seriously," said Joyner, who has made a successful career as both a "man in a suit" and an unmasked actor. "Even my parents thought I was crazy. But a week after I turned in my two-weeks notice I got a fax from the casting director for Barney."
Joyner was completely inexperienced as a costumed performer, but the casting director knew he would be a perfect fit to play the purple dinosaur. The show's producers had seen the way that Joyner worked with children while acting during off-hours in his Texas Instrument days, and believed his natural athleticism would add a more energetic sense of movement to the character. Joyner was signed on to complete a few home videos as Barney the Purple Dinosaur, but their success quickly led into the creation of the "Barney & Friends" television show, which began broadcasting in April of 1992 and soon became a national phenomenon. Joyner said today that he never had any doubt the show would be popular.
"From the way kids reacted in our live shows, I knew that if the show ever got on television it was going to explode," the MacArthur High School graduate said. "I spent 14 years in total doing Barney-related appearances and training the new Barneys before moving on."
Joyner moved on from the character because he still felt a desire to "make it" as a noncostumed actor in Los Angeles. He was fairly successful in this regard, making appearances in television shows in recent years like "ER," "House," "The Young and the Restless" and "24". It wasn't that long, however, before he was contacted about getting back into costume, this time as the educational rapping bear, Hip Hop Harry. Joyner had to be convinced of the strength of the character and make a difficult decision about his desire to once again hide his face in order to be a children's performer.
"It was fairly hard to resist when they were telling me ‘You're the Michael Jordan of costumed characters,' " he joked. "I wanted to make Hip Hop Harry a very recognizably different character. Where Barney was happy and bouncy and jovial, Harry has more swagger to his walk; he actually has a little bit of street to him."
Hip Hop Harry, as the name implies, sings rap music to kids with an educational focus. While Joyner provides the dance moves and personality of Harry, the voice and songs are performed and written by singer/rapper Ali Alimi, who Joyner describes as "a musical genius."
"He can literally take any word and turn it into a song seemingly effortlessly," he said. "If you tell him to do a song on spaghetti, he'll have an entire rap for you in 10 minutes."
Unlike Barney before him, Hip Hop Harry possesses a fuller range of motion, stemming mostly from a more articulated costume. This allows Joyner to perform movements and dances he would not have been able to manage before.
"Barney's movement was pretty constrictive, so it's nice to be able to move more freely as Harry," he said. "It lets me make better gestures and make more personal contact with an audience. One of the big things is that I can move the head from inside the suit and look at an individual. I love the look on a kid's face when Harry looks right at them."
The "Hip Hop Harry" television show itself ran from 2006 to 2008 on TLC and continues to run in syndication, while Joyner continues to tour and perform live shows as the character while exploring other noncostumed roles at the same time. Ultimately, though, his love of entertaining always wins out, and he craves the spotlight of being on stage and getting kids excited.
"I can't wait to get up there and start dancing for them," he said. "Seeing the parents dancing with their kids is the reason I do this."