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Environmentally entertaining

FRANKLIN LIVING—In 1984 Steve Trash was a recent college graduate from the University of North Alabama trying to make it as a street performer and busker in New York City. Today it’s not overstating the truth to say the Frog Pond resident is a world-famous international sensation.

His “act” is multi-faceted, magic and comedy swirled together with science, delivered with messages of environmentalism and good citizenship. In the end, perhaps the best way to describe Steve Trash is the title he chose for himself: the Rockin’ Eco Hero.

“I wanted some way to be really unique. You don’t want to be ‘a magician,’ you want to be ‘that recycling guy who does magic,’” explained Trash, who workshopped his iconic show biz character with UNA professor Bud Smith. “Trash” was a nickname he had earned from friends because of his interest in recycling and other environmental topics, and it wasn’t long before he hit upon the moniker as brand that would stick.

Steve Trash was “born” in New York City, but his love for performing preceded his days in the Big Apple. He first tried his routine on the street corners of Florence, Alabama, in 1980. As he completed his degree in theatre and took to the wider stage of NYC, he began to find his footing in the performance world. “It took a long time to be good at it, but now after all these years, you could drop me in any country in the world, and I would not starve to death. I could find props to do a magic show, and I could do magic tricks, whether I could speak the language or not … I know how to make a living anywhere.”

That wasn’t the case in those early days in New York City, which he calls “a really good training ground” for his future in live entertainment and television. “Those were tricky times, but I learned a lot,” Trash said. “If you can perform for people who are walking past and get them to give you money for your performance, your game gets much better very fast – or you starve to death.” While he never starved to death, he did feel the pinch when it came to housing. “I was so poor, it wasn’t really a case of renting a room; there were four of us in one studio apartment.”

The Texas native honed his craft for four years in NYC, where he learned to focus on how to truly entertain people – how to create something funny and magical. Every day was a rehearsal. He started out slow, first trying to perform on Wall Street during the lunch hour – “It was horrible. I couldn’t get anybody to stop, to watch, or to give me money” – but eventually gained confidence and found his sweet spots for performance near the Central Park Zoo and Washington Square Park.

From NYC, Trash next moved on to Los Angeles, but he found what he calls “God’s country” in rural Alabama. On a trip home to visit his mother in Florence, Trash visited a print shop, where he met Frog Pond native Dianne Grissom. The two just celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary.

They built a house in Frog Pond, a “remarkably beautiful part of Franklin County,” on 80 acres of family land, crossed by Big Branch Creek and Little Bear Creek. When Trash isn’t bringing magic to children across the world, he finds solace in his environmentally-friendly home in rural Franklin County. “It’s a pretty unusual day that I don’t get out and walk around in the woods and see something new – wildlife, mushrooms, a tree I haven’t seen before, scat of a coyote or bear, or a chicken snake,” said Trash, who enjoys roaming his property with 6-year-old Australian Shepherd Gracie.

The thing is, Trash doesn’t just perform a magical routine touting environmentalism. It’s also a message he truly believes to his core – and he said he couldn’t attract an audience if that weren’t true. “I think children can sniff out a fake pretty easily,” he said. “Early on it was important to me, if a child asked a question about recycling or solar energy, that I had a good answer and first-hand knowledge. Not only did I buy my solar array because I wanted to be making less pollution, it was also because I wanted to give children first-hand information.”

It might be the authenticity – and certainly the magic – that hooks his young audiences, but it’s likely the outfit that originally draws them in. Trash is distinctive in his apparel as well as his performance. “You’re playing the role of someone who can defy the laws of nature. Everyone knows you can’t; it’s just a role, and you play that role as convincingly and with as much flair as you possibly can.” To amp up the flair, Trash wears a top hat inspired by the Mad Hatter from “Alice in Wonderland,” patched blue jeans and a Wild West black duster. “The outfit I’m wearing is nutty. It looks totally wild. I’m 6-foot-3 without my hat, so it makes me 7 feet tall.”

And although Trash said some might worry his look would intimidate children, the opposite is true. “You’ve never seen so many hugs from children following my shows,” he said. “They’ll just come up… They don’t have any other way to say what they want to say to Steve Trash, so they just hug my leg. You know you’ve reached children when the only thing they can ‘say’ to you is to give you a hug.”

Although performing has become a profitable living for Trash, his purpose goes deeper. “I feel that I have ideas I can share. I create because I believe as an artist I have ideas the world needs to consider,” he explained. His shows are built on a three-pronged cornerstone of sharing with children how to respect themselves, others and the environment, building on a theme that everything is connected. “I’m lucky because I can present that theme in really fun, funny, magical ways so it doesn’t feel like you’re being ‘educated.’ You’re just getting the idea through the entertainment.”

In June, Trash’s ability to entertain and educate children grew exponentially with the debut of his Alabama Public Television show, “Steve Trash Science.” Airing on local PBS stations each Saturday morning, the children’s television show began as little more than a dream for the Rockin’ Eco Hero, who said he went into the APTV pitch thinking there was no chance. “The easiest answer for everyone is to say no. ‘No’ is the status quo,” Trash said. To his shock, they said yes. “They said ‘We love it, we’re in. How soon can you begin production?’ … They asked me could I have it done in six months.”

Six months was overly ambitious, but one year later, Trash and his production team had completed 10 episodes of 26 minutes and 45 seconds each, ready to air. Every episode is designed to be entertaining and educational, providing valuable information to children as well as teachers, who Trash said could use the episodes in the classroom as an introduction to a particular science subject. “I use a lot of stock video and stock images to make it fun and funny. There is nothing boring about these episodes,” he said. Each show includes two different science subjects as well as two magic tricks; Trash said he is carefully to draw the distinction between the two, characterizing magic as the illusion one can defy the laws of nature, whereas science, of course, is the study of how the natural world actually works.

“Steve Trash Science” comprised an intense 11 months for the magician. “There were days when literally I got up at 3 o’clock in the morning because that allowed me to work for three or four hours before I got to the fairgrounds and performed a show, and in between shows I would write episodes,” Trash said. He brought two science educators on board to help him ensure he had all scientific principles and terminology correct, and a team helped him produce each episode of entertaining, educational content. 4 Mile Post out of Huntsville provided post-production. “I’m extraordinarily proud of it,” Trash added.

The show has completed its first-run air through network affiliates across the nation, but episodes are still available through the APTV app, PBS app, PBS.org and at stevetrash.com. Viewers can access these platforms on their mobile devices and through avenues like Roku, Fire TV Stick and smart TVs. The show will also continue in reruns for five years, and Trash said he hopes to procure the funding to produce additional episodes.

Trash said he watched every episode 10-20 times during production to fix mistakes or make changes, but he still enjoyed them during their TV debut. “Watching them on my own television set, I still laughed out loud at the good jokes,” he said. “It’s awesome that you can surprise yourself with a joke.” As a huge fan of PBS, which he called a safe space for children, Trash said he was honored to air on the same channel as the likes of “Sesame Street” and “Kratts’ Creatures.” “I’m very proud to be a part of that legacy.”

Despite all his success over the past 35 years, Trash said in some ways he still doesn’t feel he has “arrived” when it comes to a secure future in the uncertain world of performance.

“The day after your gig is over, you are unemployed. It is a perpetual job to wake up and keep your career moving forward and growing. It is the entrepreneur’s life. Your business, your career, your ‘making it’ is falling apart if you’re not giving it everything you have every day,” Trash said. “I have tons of TV credits, and credits from traveling around the world, and there is some momentum to that, but I live my life trying to do everything I can possibly fit in … That feeling of having ‘made it’ almost never is present. There are milestones I’m proud of and that I work extremely hard for, but looking back and thinking ‘Wow, I made it’ – that’s has never happened.”

Trash said he spends about 200 days a year touring. When he isn’t touring, he’s planning, rehearsing, promoting and shooting shows. “I work more hours, longer and harder, than anyone who has what we in show business call a ‘straight job’ because I’m constantly trying to figure out what the next step is,” Trash said. “As difficult as that is, I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I personally love this job.

“On my best day, I am transforming the way children see their connection to nature. On my worst day, I brought some smiles to people that needed them. Who in their right mind wouldn’t work their butt off for that goal?”

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