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CREATURES OF YBOR

As you enter the Creatures of Delight store in Ybor City, a feeling of entering another world overtakes you. Bizarre rubbery creatures gaze out at human intruders as if to say, "No trespassing."

You're brought back to reality as creatures creator T. "Tom" Oliver Kopian greets you. The somewhat shy 28-year-old assures you the creatures are just an offshoot of his wildly creative imagination.

Kopian opened his store at 1325 E Seventh Ave. this past Saturday. The native New Yorker has made Ybor City his headquarters for this highly successful animated business. Although the store just opened, the creatures have been part of the Tampa Bay area landscape for the past few years.

What started as a hobby has evolved into an international business. The creatures can be found in such national chains as Kmart, Wal-Mart and Toys R Us. He has established worldwide promotions with Kelloggs, Cadbury-Schwepps and Shell Oil. He even has a syndicated cartoon series in the works based on some of the characters.

It all started with a haunted house.

"I've always been into special effects types of creation," said Kopian. "Stuff that lets you be creative. Every year I transformed my parents' house into a haunted house at Halloween. I would make all of these papier mache type of creatures at the house."

The creations didn't go unnoticed. A Long Island gift shop owner said he would sell Kopian's creations if he could make them softer and squishier. Kopian found that using a combination of latex over paper towels instead of the papier mache made the forms more rubbery and solid. So even though his creatures would appear to be made of papier mache, they are bendable and durable.

After the formula was concocted, Creatures of Delight began to gain notoriety. He patented his designs, and through licensing agents and toy trade shows, Kopian's creations exploded on the market. During the past few years, his creatures have been sold in places such as Walt Disney World, Disney Village and Epcot. He also was contracted to do work at Universal Studios on the Ghostbusters, Back to the Future and E.T. exhibits.

All of this began with his original Creatures of Delight, a family of eight characters. Each has a distinct personality, ranging from Woody, a real "macho" type character, to C.B., an alternative kind of guy.

Kopian also creates smaller creatures along with a variety of rubbery animals. Manatees, penguins, dragons and pumpkins adorn the store.

The store in Ybor City is an outlet for Kopian and store partner David Barclay, 29. Yes, Kopian's creatures are available at local toy stores, but people can come to this shop and purchase original, hand-made objects. In toy stores, creatures will cost $10 to $16. In the shop, prices for originals range from $5 to $600. Kopian even will autograph the works for you.

Why did Kopian switch his headquarters from the business mecca of New York to the smaller market of Tampa?

"I think the answer to that is three-fold," said Kopian. "Basically, Ybor is cheaper. It looks like it can grow and if we grow and go pretty well, there's more of a chance for us to stand out more here. We're still going to do well in New York, we think, but we think we can get a bigger chunk of a small audience rather than a smaller chunk of a bigger audience. It's also a good P.R. move for us. People can come in to the store, and we can show them how all of this started."

So Kopian and Barclay will continue with their 70-hour work weeks and keep creating the creatures. They remain patient and cautiously optimistic, but the future looks bright. In the spring of 1995, they will have their own display at FAO Schwarz in New York. The creatures also will be displayed on the cover of Rice Krispies cereal boxes in Europe, and merchandised on watches, bags and Halloween costumes.

n Creatures of Delight is open from noon to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and from noon to 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday. For information, call 248-4167.

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