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How an Oxy Grad Helped Create a Musical Adventure For iPad and iPhone

“Cabby Cat & the Missing Cello,” an interactive picture book, is inspired by the hunt for musical wizard Yo-Yo Ma’s lost cello.

On a Friday night in October 1999, renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma got into a cab after an exhausting performance at New York’s Carnegie Hall and put his 18th-century Montagnana cello, reportedly priced at $2.5 million, in the trunk. Eighteen minutes later, he alighted at the Peninsula Hotel and forgot his cello in the Big Apple cab, triggering one of the most extensive (and successful) police hunts for a musical instrument in any of the world’s major cities.

For Timothy Brewer, a Brooklyn-based musician and painter who worked as an usher at Carnegie Hall at the time, the search for Ma’s prized cello had all the drama and excitement of a Hollywood movie. So when Brewer teamed up with Douglas Harsch, another Brooklyn resident who graduated from Occidental College, to produce an interactive storybook app, he created a world-famous cellist as one of the characters and thrust him in a comical version of the same escapade that created headlines 13 years ago.

Titled “Cabby Cat & the Missing Cello,” Brewer’s and Harsch’s creation is one of the hundreds of thousands of so-called “iOS” apps that can be downloaded on the iPhone and iPad.

In their rendering of the incident surrounding Yo-Yo Ma’s cello, however, New York City is populated by silly, sometimes cranky and endearing cartoon animals. In addition to a cab-driving cat named Cabby and a cello-playing pig named Mo-Mo Ya, there’s a sheep, a ditzy chicken telephone operator and a cantankerous music critic of a fox who gets the last word in the animated adventure.

The app’s story revolves around the hunt for Mo-Mo Ya’s cello on the night he’s scheduled to perform at Carnegie Hall, while a trio of hound dogs plot to “borrow” the instrument for their own performance at a local café. In the words of one iTunes reviewer, the story has “the makings of a New York classic.”

As with a lot of storybook apps, most of the screen images in Cabby Cat are “touchable” as well as “movable,” making them genuinely interactive. Each page in the app is hand-painted and layered in 3D. Besides Elgar's Cello Concerto in E Minor, original jazz and blues music, created by Brewer, accompanies the story throughout the app, which can be downloaded from the Apple iTunes store for $2.99.

Brewer and Harsch met on a Central Park playground in 2006, with their daughters, who were both two years old at the time. They discussed collaborating on various projects, including possibly writing a children’s book as a gift to pass on to their daughters.

When the iPad was launched in 2010, the two Brooklyn dads realized it was the perfect venue for combining their interests and skills. “I was struck by the idea of making your own book and coming up with an app for it,” says Harsch, a software programmer who works mainly on planetarium shows for the American Museum of Natural History in New York. “Tim has drawing and music skills, and talking about the iPad and new interactive books with him kind of got me excited about programming for them.”

The project, initially designed for the iPad1, took more than a year to complete. "We were waiting for the iPad2 to come out," says Harsch. "It was faster and had better graphics than the iPad1 on which, we found to our dismay, Cabby Cat was much slower."

For Brewer, who co-wrote and illustrated Cabby Cat, the first challenge was to come up with a suitable name for the story’s main character. “My daughter and I were going through the alphabet and making up silly names that rhymed with ‘tabby cat’, the subject of her first-grade reader,” he recalls. “We came up with ‘Shabby Cat’, ‘Flabby Cat,’ ‘Crabby Cat’ and then one of us said, ‘Cabby Cat,’ and it stuck in my head.”

Brewer's daughter Olivia and Harsch's daughter Jadan, both now eight years old, did some of the voiceovers in the story.

From the start, Harsch was enticed by the idea of exercising “total creative control” in an environment where “you’re your own publisher.” The project was great fun, “but it ended up being a huge amount of work,” says Harsch, adding: “It was a lot harder than we thought. We kept upping the ante—getting the graphics more involved, increasing the pages, making the whole thing more complicated.”

Harsch, who majored in history from Oxy in 1986 and got a masters in computer science at Georgia State University, doesn't have too many regrets about not making the Cabby Cat app for the Android smart phone.

“Had we started out with that in mind, it might have been more work in the beginning to get the app up and running,” he says. On the other hand, he adds, “children’s books are much more popular on the iPad and the iPhone.”

Click here to view the Cabby Cat & the Missing Cello website.

Click here for an iTunes link to Cabby Cat & the Missing Cello.

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