He made a national name for himself creating creatures on Syfy’s “Face Off” special effects reality show.
He was a media and special effects teacher at Capital High School then, a position he accepted following an encouraging career stint in LA.
He did well out there, training at a famous makeup school, even working on several movies. Family concerns eventually called him home.
In Hollywood, they know him by his stage name, RJ. Back home in Charleston, he’s Robert Haddy, the kid who grew up on the East End where his dad and uncle operated Haddy’s Prime Beef across from Zegeer Hardware.
A lifelong fantasy fanatic and special effects artist, he basically lives in Halloween mode all year. Now he’s pouring his considerable creative talents into a new multifaceted facility located in the vast former home of the family meat market.
The renovated building will house production space on the top floor. Below, he’s constructing several elaborately themed Escape Room adventures. In the back, in the special effects shop, respected practitioners of the craft will teach classes to students 13 and up. Oh, yes. The escape rooms also will serve as sets for a film he’s producing.
Sound a little far out for Charleston? This 40-year-old kid-at-heart loves living on the edge. The dynamic persona, that wild, wacky imagination and all that contagious enthusiasm will not be denied.
Build it, he says, and they will come.
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“I grew up on the East End, the Bona Vista area off Oakridge Drive. Between there and in this neighborhood where my grandmother lived, we spent most of our days. Dad worked here at Haddy’s Prime Beef as a food service salesman. My uncle and dad started the business. My grandfather had the grocery on the corner of Washington and Ruffner where the Shop ’n Go is now.
“I’ve always been a lover of fantasy stuff, magic. I was always artistic. I’ve always been a Halloween kid. I lived for Halloween. It was always a big deal, and I would try to outdo last year’s things.
“In high school at Capital, I had a wonderful teacher, Molly Robinette. She taught me about everything I could have wanted to know about this stuff. I started winning all these trophies. I thought it was so interesting. I wondered if it was a job.
“It was mostly puppets really. Then I started messing around with special effects makeup. I could disguise my entire face. I would pull pranks in makeup, just run around as an old person or a monster. I’m definitely not the average person.
“I started substitute teaching in the valley and got on at Capital. The principals came to me and said our television instructor just retired and would I like to take that job next year.
“I’d been to California and back by that point. I was out there about five years, about ’95 to 2000. I went to Joe Blasco’s makeup artists training center.
“While that was an excellent education, Molly had just about taught me everything they did, so it was a vindication to her that she was teaching Hollywood stuff to a bunch of high school kids in West Virginia.
“I always thought that was a great thing to try to maintain. Just because something is advanced doesn’t mean that someone who’s a beginner can’t learn and understand that concept. That’s what we try to do here on our weekend course, a beginner’s look at advanced techniques.
“After I graduated high school, I went to LA. I worked for a bunch of people out there. We did a lot of movies. I worked for Tony Gardner and Alterian Studios and Amalgamated Dynamics and did a lot of acting and freelance stuff.
“Acting is the whole reason I got into this. I wanted to wear this stuff. I didn’t give a crap about putting it on somebody else.
“Dad became ill and I wanted to come home. I was teaching television, film and multimedia at Capital. I taught the special effects makeup class and had a couple of kids win some film festivals with things they had entered. Our theater department was second to none in the state for many years.
“I taught at Capital about eight years. The kids in my department pushed me to audition for ‘Face Off’. I didn’t want to do it, but they said no, this is what you’ve been teaching us for years. We made a goofy video and sent it off and they called us the same day I posted it online. The rest is history.
“What won me the spot was, they had me come out for a special challenge during the San Diego Comic-Con in 2011. I won, and that’s how I got on the show. I ended up on Season 2 and being a finalist and a fan favorite for the season and almost won.
“After the show, I started teaching around the country. I love to teach. I love that ah-ha moment. ‘Oh, that’s really cool. Thanks for showing me how to do that.’ That’s very gratifying.
“The adults I teach wanted so badly to do it when they were kids, but they were more practical and went off to become doctors and lawyers. Now they have the disposable income to learn this stuff. They say this is for me now. They’re so enthusiastic and passionate.
“Like them, I always wanted to do this when I was a kid. My dad always said, ‘That’s a gypsy’s lifestyle. You need a job with benefits.’
“I can’t really do what I do in Charleston. There’s not a lot of films being produced here, and there will be even fewer thanks to our legislature. We brought in $54 million a year to this state. And I guess that revenue wasn’t something they wanted.
“I was working with some people I met through ‘Face Off’ to bring things here. This was supposed to be a production facility for the mid-Atlantic region, so if a production were to come to town and need office space, I have production space upstairs.
“Before they plant me in the ground, this is going to be like the MGM Studios of West Virginia. That’s my end goal. It’s called the Rad F/X Atelier. That’s a fancy French word for workshop.
“That’s the production facility. The escape room is called Out of Time Escape Rooms and my business is Rad F/X Co.
“I feel this neighborhood has gone downhill in recent years and I’m hoping bringing something of this nature will breathe new life into this neighborhood.
“What I want to do upstairs is phase two. The escape rooms came from needing a way to keep the lights on when there is no special effects work.
“I’m producing a film, too. All these escape rooms I’m designing are all going to be sets in that movie.
“Escape rooms are new to the United States. They were born out of escape room video games. Someone decided they should make it real.
“You lock people in this room for an hour and they have to search the room for clues. The clues lead to a puzzle and the puzzle opens a door and that gives you another clue. The rooms have different themes.
“When you go to most escape rooms, it’s like, ‘OK, guy, we lock you in for an hour and you find your way out.’
“Our room here is an entire adventure. The whole room is themed. You are going into the future in the year 2054. We have deregulated time travel and each door is a portal and we are going to send you back in time to a certain era and you have to retrieve a lost artifact.
“Everybody who works here is in character. That’s why we’re called Out of Time Inc. We are these time traveler scavengers who go back into time to find items and preserve them for posterity or sell them to the black market. It’s best to book a reservation online.
“A lot of these conventions are haunted conventions. Across the United States, Halloween is a $2 billion a year industry. When people find out that there are escape rooms here, they will come. People who like escape rooms are the same ones who like haunted houses. A lot of what you see in escape rooms was born out of the haunted house industry.
“The classes for anyone 13 and up happen in the back in the shop in the special effects shop. I’m going to be doing classes called F/X University like we did in Atlanta, a weekend boot camp-style training course with a bunch of special effects artists, including myself.
“We give you a challenge and you have three days to complete it. We help you every step of the way to make sure you have a good product. It’s all hands on. And I’ll be doing webinars out of here.
“You can make a living at this and it’s more accessible today because movies are being made all across the country.
“I started the idea about a year ago. Moving pictures don’t get made just in Hollywood anymore. Look at Atlanta. Atlanta is the new Hollywood. I’ve been burning up the miles back and forth to Atlanta just to work. I would never be able to afford something of this size in Atlanta.
“Because of the show, my name has a little national recognition, and if I advertise properly in production directories, I’m hoping to get more of the production business. I will go wherever anybody wants me. We will do the work and take it with us.
“This place should be fully operational this month. The workshop is Thursday and Friday, then we close that down and open escape rooms on 29th.
“I still sell airbrushes. I have my own signature airbrush. I’ve been selling those since I got off the TV show. I have my hand in a lot of stuff. I’m a workaholic.
“All this stuff swimming around in this brain is hard. A kid working for me said he’d like to be in my head one day just to see what it’s like. I don’t think I would wish that on anyone.
“I feel very blessed. Everybody has tough times and issues. You deal with it by sitting down and recognizing the little things you have to be grateful for.
“This has been an uphill struggle getting this place open. Struggles are part of life. Life can be kind of meaningless at some points, but you have to find meaning in life through interactions with the people you care about and being there for them.
“My mother needs me to help her with her medical care. I could still be in LA. I could be in Atlanta working on the next Avengers movie. I could get a job anywhere tomorrow. I don’t need to be here. I want to be here. This is my community, my home. I at least want to try it here.”
Reach Sandy Wells at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-342-5027.