- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 28, 2009

VIRGINIA BEACH | Don’t tell the children, but Dora the Explorer is right here in Virginia Beach.

At least her voice is.

“Dora,” along with shows such as “Cash Cab” and the A&E; “Biography” series, video games such as “Gears of War” and some popular radio jingles are all clients and products of Studio Center: Total Production, a Virginia Beach voice recording company. Studio Center does a little of everything, from radio spots and voice-overs to commercial postproduction and dubbing.

It has won a Grammy for work on one of George Carlin’s audio books, along with about 4,000 other awards. Studio Center does about 15,000 jobs a year.

It makes for a frenetic pace, but the office is laid-back. Everyone wears jeans and T-shirts. Fresh cookies and a stocked candy dish perch on receptionist Katie Cirilli’s desk. People bring their pets to work. And Chief Executive Officer William “Woody” Prettyman greets his employees with a fist bump.

Still, the production studio has seen at least 50 percent growth every year since Mr. Prettyman bought it in 2004. Despite the economy, Studio Center plans to open a seventh office in Richmond next month with five employees. That will bring Studio Center’s hiring for the year up to 13.

The company also has started helping its A-listers set up home studios as far away as New York’s Long Island, so they can live and work where they want.

Mr. Prettyman’s vision of the future involves words unusual in a recession, such as profitability, expansion and new markets. He said he plans to expand into new markets. And he predicted the company will grow to three times its current size in the next five years.

Though Studio Center’s growth has plunged to 6 percent so far this year, Mr. Prettyman expects a rebound to the double digits by the end of 2009.

When Warren Miller conceived Studio Center in Virginia Beach in 1966, Mr. Prettyman was 3 years old. The company grew to include three offices, then stopped. Mr. Miller liked the size.

When Mr. Prettyman bought it, the former executive at Clear Channel Communications saw other opportunities. He expanded to New York, Los Angeles and even opened a second Virginia Beach studio. Product offerings grew to include script writing, postproduction, acting and dubbing.

Such vertical integration allows the company to produce as much or as little of the product as a client needs, Mr. Prettyman said.

Each year, Studio Center takes on jobs as varied as Starbucks, NASCAR and Hanes clothing commercials. For “Dora the Explorer,” it voices the show’s characters. The voice for some “Dora” toys comes from a local actress.

The advent of digital audio and the Internet allow customers to sit in on auditions from around the world.

Amy Houck, vice president of DIA Inc., a Norfolk advertising firm, has worked with Studio Center for years.

“The talent’s exceptional, the people are local and they work 24/7, 365 days a year. That’s what an ad agency needs when you’ve got a deadline,” Miss Houck said.

It’s somewhat surprising that Hampton Roads would host so much voice talent, which typically requires a melodic, accent-free voice.

“Hampton Roads is an absolute hotbed of voice talent,” said Gigi Young, a voice actress there. “Maybe you wouldn’t guess, but we come from as far as Ohio, Texas and even the West Coast to do voice work here.”

Jessica Boone, another voice actress, agreed. She paid her way through college by voicing Japanese cartoons and performing Shakespeare. When her husband was transferred to the Norfolk Naval Station, Miss Boone continued voice work at Studio Center.

“I’ll do it until my voice goes out … til I’m 105,” she said. “I think we all feel that way.”

The talent’s faith in Mr. Prettyman is strong. Stephanie Thomas came to the area for graduate school at Regent University and took up voice acting full time in 2001.

“Woody’s got a phenomenal mind for marketing and growth,” she said. “I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.”

And work has shown little sign of slowing even as retail chains and car dealers across the country suffer.

“The way I see it, even if you’re going out of business, you need a voice to say, ‘We’re going out of business!’ ” Miss Boone said. “As long as there’s commerce in this country, we’ve got a job.”

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