Miracle Homes

There are but three destination spots in southern Washington County that would make a passerby turn off the ignition. Two of them were built by Tom Hignite, owner of Miracle Homes. First, there is Hignite’s personal residence, all 7,500 square feet of it, a countrified manor with a basketball court, movie theater and a bookcase with a trap door that opens to a secret hallway and antechamber where Hignite stores part of his massive collection of Disney paraphernalia. For the last two years, the home has also run a 2-D animation studio, where 13 professional artists worked to create cartoons…

There are but three destination spots in southern Washington County that would make a passerby turn off the ignition. Two of them were built by Tom Hignite, owner of Miracle Homes. First, there is Hignite’s personal residence, all 7,500 square feet of it, a countrified manor with a basketball court, movie theater and a bookcase with a trap door that opens to a secret hallway and antechamber where Hignite stores part of his massive collection of Disney paraphernalia. For the last two years, the home has also run a 2-D animation studio, where 13 professional artists worked to create cartoons featuring “Miracle Mouse,” the Miracle Homes’ Mickey Mouse-like mascot.

In building this house, Hignite placed a gravel path over a designated wetland without the requisite permits and was fined $125,000. But that was okay, for glory is not without its costs, and Hignite truly felt he had created something, well, heavenly. The home’s backyard boasts a giant lagoon named Angel Pond, and in the center of Angel Pond is Angel Gazebo. Nearby is Angel Trampoline, Angel Sauna, Angel Jacuzzi and Angel Bath House, where the male/female restroom icons have little halos above their heads.

A mile or so down the road sits the illustriously named Grand Bay, Hignite’s $1.9 million showpiece model home that, while less than half the size of his own residence, is even more impressive. The entranceway is accented with a stained-glass mosaic leading into a living room that domes 30 feet high and is covered with $30,000 worth of carefully tiled wood flakes and rhinestones. Want more? A theatrical design company fashioned the interior walls to look like relieved stone. More still? The home theater has a soda fountain and popcorn machine.

Further down that same road is the cedar-and-stone cathedral, Cabela’s, the hunting and fishing supply store and mausoleum of stuffed animals that opened in October amid much hubbub, its bright neon sign now casting an astral glow to all Gore-Tex lovers within a 300-mile radius.

These are creations of grand scale, all three, designed to capture the magic of the Middle American dream. Out here, where the roads are called things like Paradise, the land is still cheap enough to imagine four bedrooms and three-car garages, and maybe, just maybe, granite kitchen countertops.

Tom Hignite seemed to understand the deepest yearnings in this dream. Which perhaps explains why, within the last several years, as people have trickled into Richfield (population: 11,000ish), many called upon him to build their dream homes, with white siding and red brick, with French doors leading to the den and ceramic tile walls in the master shower.

Since it was founded 13 years ago “on a wing and a prayer,” as the company proclaims, Miracle Homes has grown exponentially, manufacturing well over 1,000 homes across the state on lots from the Fox Valley to Kenosha. The company sold $42 million worth of homes in 2004, as the real estate market was peaking. Miracle Homes’ commercials, in which Tom, wife Jacquie and their two sons frequently appear, have become well-known on local television and radio stations.

A born-again evangelical, Hignite advertised his operation as a Christian-based company. The claim of godliness resonated with consumers desperate not to be screwed, but it has also invited high expectations that can quickly sour. Last February, for example, former customer Michael Mantei created a Web site called NotMiracle.com, in which he documented his rancor with the company over the construction of a handicap-accessible house. In a 2003 homebuilding survey by Milwaukee Magazine, Miracle Homes placed 23rd out of the 46 area builders rated.

“Any skirmish with a client gets magnified because you are Christian-based,” Hignite notes. “You should be perfect. And we’re not. We’re so far from it. It’s a good thing and a bad thing. We’re trying to give credit to God for bringing us to where He brought us.”

And where Hignite has arrived is in many ways miraculous. Beyond his homebuilding company and animation studio was yet another outlandish project, conceived a few miles from his Richfield manor in the neighboring village of Holy Hill. After a “blessing ceremony” in September 2005, construction workers began moving dirt and blasting rock on an 80-acre parcel of land Hignite had purchased on the cheap to create his most ambitious project yet. It was to be called Miracle Village. A veritable Miracle Homes theme park, the project was to include a splendid new home for the Hignites, a 15,000-square-foot headquarters for the company and studio and a ring of 10 or so model homes displaying the industry’s latest and greatest.

“When you see my homes,” says Hignite, “my desire is to create an experience for people. I want to go beyond homes into creating experiences.”

But by the summer, Hignite’s ever-growing empire began to implode: Animators and other employees were getting laid off, the banks were balking, and Miracle Village’s construction stalled. But Hignite seemed remarkably unruffled through it all, imparting an almost child-like certainty that God or some kind of Disneyish happy ending would inevitably rescue him.

“Nothing really matters that much,” Hignite said the first time we met last May, as he sat beside his wife on their living room couch. “I live in a nice house now, but I’m going to be selling this house really shortly. I intend to put it on the market next month.” His soothing contralto made everything sound as if he were reciting a bedtime story, as though the real world was barely connected to the dreams he was weaving. “I have no attachment to the physical things, even though I have a lot of them. I can build a beautiful house and live in it and sell it tomorrow without feeling I’m missing out on anything.”

But why build so much if none of it really matters? What exactly was driving Tom Hignite? It was a question many of his employees would ask with wonderment and frustration but never with much resolution.

Growing up in Milwaukee, the second-oldest in a family of four boys, Tom was closest with his eldest brother, Don. The two spent their childhood summers together, shoulder to shoulder, polishing the brass and varnishing the wood on the family’s 41-foot sailboat. Their father used to tell them stories about the two embarking on fantastical adventures. How they would go to a junkyard and build a spaceship. How one time, the rain wouldn’t come and they would fly that spaceship up into the sky and investigate. Their father, Walter, hired an artist friend to illustrate these stories, producing three cartoons that Hignite displays in a playroom in his house: the adventures of Tom and Don. One summer day when Tom was 16, he was painting a mural of a cartoon circus on the nursery wall of his church. His mother phoned. There had been a construction accident at the Bayshore shopping center, she told him. His brother had been killed.

The family sought solace in the same place Tom was the day Don died, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church. They became born-again Christians.

Tom bounced around various art programs in town after high school, drifting for several years. He never earned a college degree but started a business selling inflatable rafts out of a vacated convenience store in Menomonee Falls. Within a few years, he says, he hit a couple hundred thousand dollars in sales, but bookkeeping troubles and misplaced checks caused a collapse.

“It was a cash business,” says Hignite, “and since I knew zero about accounting, I would simply have different people do accounting. I don’t want to accuse anybody because I don’t know how it didn’t succeed. Probably one of my biggest lessons and one of my biggest disappointments other than Don’s death was the business’ death.”

He continues: “You’re not just talking about rubber rafts and Tom Hignite, you’re talking about other people that Tom Hignite affected. And you have people out there, banks, to this day, that still haven’t forgotten about that. When I run across the bankers just through our normal course of business we had gone through at the time of hardship, still the memories are not good.”

Having been blistered in his maiden voyage and then seeing his father’s business suffer to the point where the bank repossessed the family home, Tom was content for a time to pull in a steady paycheck doing advertising at a marine supply store.

On the weekends, however, he began attending open houses and home-buying seminars sponsored by builders and banks. “And I’d go up afterward,” he recalls, “and I would just lay it on the line, and they would say thank you very much, get a free cookie on the way out, but we can’t do anything for you. And I would just go to the next one.” After scads of snubs, Hignite finally found, as he says, his “angel of mercy,” a banker at Wauwatosa Building and Loan named Lyle Larcheid. Larcheid gave him a home loan, and Hignite, by now married, built his first house in Richfield, hiring many of the subcontractors himself.

Meanwhile, his father had come into possession of some property in West Bend. Walter gave the lots to Tom, and Larcheid gave Tom a second mortgage on his home. And Tom designed a 2,500-square-foot house on a lake, had an open house in the dead of winter and sold it for $125,000. Thus it came to pass that Miracle Homes was born and in such an improbable manner that Hignite would consider it “God’s business.”

“If He wants us to succeed, great,” says Hignite. “If He wants us to do something else and not succeed, great, then that’s what it will be. We didn’t get married into this, we don’t have tons of money, we simply came here on a hope and a prayer and have gotten this far. You hear some people say, ‘You’re using your religion to sell a home, and that’s not right.’ There are all different opinions. I just keep going back to, at this point, if I was to go away from that Christian-based tagline, it would be like I’m selling out God.”

Within the industry, the financial underpinnings of Miracle Homes generated speculation. Some competitors who were contacted wondered how a guy without any previous building experience or personal fortune could flip his way to a multi-million-dollar company so quickly.

“It was an expansion situation,” says Larcheid, “build a couple and build a few more. As it went on, he went through times where I kept saying, ‘One of the main things you got to do is get good subcontractors and pay them within 30 days.’ Well, he tried to abide by that, and it worked for quite awhile. But because of his Christian-based tagline, some of the contractors and people [thought]… he’s a phony-baloney. I never felt he’s a phony-baloney.”

As the company grew, Hignite had all 80 or so employees working out of his Richfield home. It was claustrophobic, but Hignite preferred it, professing horror at the thought of his people laboring beneath the indignity of a drop-tile ceiling. But the insistence of town administrators that this area was zoned residential and the opposition of neighbors forced Hignite to move the company to the nearby Town of Polk.

The entire miracle homes marketing approach is appropriated from Tom’s hero, Walt Disney. A former employee recalls a period of months when boxes of Disney bric-a-brac would arrive daily, the harvests of late-night eBay binges. The stuff was consigned to every room of office and home, like religious mementos. The most prominent display in the Richfield foyer, for example, was a set of plastic figurines, not unlike those you’d find in the window of a Disney Store, of Three Little Pigs taunting an incarcerated Big Bad Wolf. There was another Disney stage set in the reception area of the Polk office, and Hignite had even consecrated the kid’s bedroom in the Grand Bay model the “Disney room.”

Two years ago during a family vacation to Disney World in Orlando, Hignite toured the back lot of an animation studio, where he was struck by the sight of empty desks. Hignite learned that the studio workers had recently been laid off. “It felt like death was over the building,” he recalls. With box office returns dwindling and 3-D computer animation on the rise, the old-fashioned hand-drawn style had been all but displaced. The bottom fell out in 2004, when Disney closed its shops in Orlando and Burbank, California. Instantly, hundreds of artists were unemployed and archaic professionals.

“I thought, boy oh boy,” says Hignite. Two years ago, he gushes, if he had knocked on the door at Disney and asked to hire these animators, he would have gotten nowhere. “They would have never said, ‘We’re going to Wisconsin and work in the cold weather and give up our job at a theme park.’”

Hignite decided his new mission was to save the dwindling art form. So he flew again to Orlando, and then to California to interview jobless animators, promising them steady work.

By late 2004, Hignite had landed his first three animators in Richfield, and by last July, the staff was up to 13. All but one had prior experience working at Disney or Warner Bros.

It was a bizarre scene: the group snuggly packed around a heaving setup of easels and computers in the in-law suite of Hignite’s home. Before entering, they were required to take off their shoes and put on blue medical booties to protect the floors. The lighting was poor and the ever-present FM pop music from the house’s intercom speakers was irritating. Nevertheless, these displaced, blue-footed, top-flight animators did their best to put to paper the visions that danced in Hignite’s head.

Chris Greco and Mike Lowry handled background painting. Troy Gustafson was in charge of special effects, while Peter DeLuca handled layout. Dan Daly, Sam Drake, Grant Hiestand and Greg Peters did rough sketches. Once they sketched the characters’ action, Stephanie Olivieri and Grant Hiestand would add the clean lines. Kathy Schoeppner was responsible for adding color, Mike Oliva worked with Gustafson on effects and Brian Tribble was in charge of story-boarding and character design. Tim O’Donnell, a 28-year veteran of Disney, had been hired in January to be the studio manager, coming out of his Florida retirement to work for half of scale.

Hand-drawn animation is a remarkable thing to witness, a tempestuous pantomime of fingers flipping paper tablets back and forth, back and forth, making sure the precise pencil scratches match up from illustration to illustration.

“We could do anything that was handed to us in 2-D animation,” says O’Donnell. Still, by industry standards, the group was tiny. Gustafson once calculated that it would take them 125 years to create a full-length feature. But the animators were willing to overlook such practicalities and the more callow aspects of Miracle Studios simply to keep working at the craft they loved. As it became increasingly clear just how bizarre the setup and their leader were, they took to the profession’s time-honored rite of catharsis and caricatured Hignite. The drawings would be stashed away in secret places, safe from his late-night snooping.

Hignite’s wasn’t the only fledgling operation that opened in the wake of the hand-drawn-industry collapse, but it was perhaps the most curious one, both because of its location in Wisconsin and because of Hignite’s lack of animation background. In June, Los Angeles radio station KROQ-FM had Hignite as a guest to talk about his studio. The AP ran a story on the studio in August, and newspapers and Web sites around the country picked it up. The attention was all very exhilarating for Hignite.

When he was a kid, Disneyland had been the Hignite family’s unattainable “holy grail vacation.” Now middle-aged, with two teen boys of his own, Hignite had secured a piece of that grail. He would profess aloud his desire to be the next Walt Disney, several animators say. It echoed a bravado he expressed in a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel story two years ago: “There is no reason why Wisconsin can’t have the most successful animation studio in the world, other than the fact that nobody thought about doing it before.”

After the studio produced two animated commercials for Miracle Homes, Hignite set his sights on a full-length feature. It would be a highly moral antidote to the depravities of the modern world, as Hignite saw them. Even the new 3-D breed of animation, he felt, was tainted. His creation, by contrast, would provide something wholesome and optimistic. “I think if you ask people,” he says, “most people would say I wish we could have the 1950s back.”

Since a full-length feature would take hundreds of artists working for years, Hignite’s best hope, the animators agreed, was to present a story and drawings to potential investors who might bankroll a larger crew. But Hignite wanted to make animation, and he didn’t want to wait.

O’Donnell says that when he interviewed in December 2005, he suggested the staff do a short they would then submit to animation festivals to generate buzz and help make contacts. Hignite didn’t like the idea. O’Donnell recalls him saying he wanted to make a feature right off the bat because nobody had ever done this.

“He was trying to compare himself to Walt Disney,” says O’Donnell, “and I [told him that] before Walt had done Snow White, he had done 30 animated shorts.”

No matter. The studio was ordered to create a sequence for a full-length feature. “All I can guess,” says O’Donnell, “is there is somebody who, when he was doing these quirky homes, they compared him to Walt, and Tom took it to heart. And when he brought us in, he never gave anybody at the studio any freedom to do anything. At every stage, he made sure people did it the exact way he wanted it done.”

“The style of the movie changed near weekly,” recalls one animator. “One week, he wanted it to look like Cinderella; then it was Alice in Wonderland. The next week, it was Winnie the Pooh, then Brother Bear meets Winnie the Pooh, then Brother Bear meets Alice in Wonderland. Every time he watched a Disney movie, he wanted it to look that way.”

“He wants copies,” the animator went on, expressing a sentiment echoed by others. “He does not want anything original.”

Even before he begin imitating Disney, Hignite had created a logo for Miracle Homes that seemed suspiciously similar to that of Countrywide Home Lenders, with which Hignite had done business. Hignite concedes the resemblance but calls it a coincidence, “strictly pure luck.”

Not long after the animation studio started, Tom launched a Disney tribute Web site, SavedDisney.com, which replicated, almost to a T, a site Walt Disney’s nephew, Roy E. Disney, launched in 2003, called SaveDisney.com, after being ousted from the company’s board of directors.

A “Tom Hignite” signature was drafted in similar-looking cursive to the famous Walt Disney stylized script, while the Miracle Studios logo called to mind the Disney castle emblem. A logo created for the company’s home show mimicked the Disney logo right down to the font style. Tom called the home show “The Happiest Home Show on Earth,” aping Disneyland’s “Happiest Place on Earth.” This drew the rebuke of Disney legal counsel. Tom kept the logo and changed the slogan ever so slightly. Meanwhile, Shamrock Holdings, Roy E. Disney’s investment firm, also contacted Hignite and requested that he change the name of his tribute Web site.

Then there was Miracle Mouse, Miracle Homes’ animated mascot. While he wore a hard hat, the animators believed he looked much too similar to Mickey. Several raised objections at once, knowing how fiercely protective Disney is of its intellectual property. “Nobody wanted to draw that mouse,” says a former animator. Hignite was unmoved. To the animators, he seemed much more receptive to criticism on industry message boards, particularly one called animationnation.com, where Miracle Studios became prime fodder.

Wags on that Web site immediately picked up on Miracle Mouse’s similarities to Mickey, one mockingly posting a picture of Mickey with a fish head, declaring it “Mackerel Mouse.” Despite the contemptuous tone of detractors, Hignite posted regular responses, much to the animators’ dismay. He seemed content just to be part of the discussion, part of this magically esoteric community, even if he played the jackass. For months, he politely retorted to every derisive comment, signing each reply with the valediction, “Blessings.” One posting by Hignite offered an elaborate explanation of how it was that Miracle Mouse could live in a tree if his business is to build houses.

As time went on and the online ridicule mounted, Hignite gradually caved in: He agreed to change his character’s color from black to brown and remove its white gloves. In August, when asked about the similarity between the mice, Hignite recused himself. “I’m too close to it,” he said. “I don’t see it. But then again, does anybody see their child as something other than perfect and beautiful?”

The animators were much less ethereal. For months, they had been hearing from friends at Disney that Hignite was on the company’s radar. One former employee said he was told by a Disney friend that scrutiny of Miracle Studios’ activities had reached the vice presidential level. They presumed Disney was waiting to see if Hignite turned a profit before its copyright beagles pounced on him in earnest.

By then, the staff had begun to wonder exactly what they’d gotten themselves into. More than a few would huddle around a computer during business hours, scrolling through psychiatric web sites searching for a medical condition that described their boss. Hignite’s behavior, some felt, had gone from idiosyncratic to alarming. “He would push it up to the limit until he got sued,” one animator says. “What bothered me was he was putting all our lives at stake.”

Tom Hignite had always been free with money: It was part of the corporate strategy, it made tangible the “Miracle” of Miracle Homes. “He spent like it was nothing,” says one former employee, who was familiar with the company’s financials. The employee says Hignite once spent $30,000 for custom drapery in one of the model homes and $27,000 for a grand piano in another. Hignite justified the expenditures along promotional lines. But some employees were unconvinced and were happy to see Hignite concentrate on the studio, leaving Miracle Homes in the more parsimonious hands of his wife.

Even so, there were signs of financial strain. The annual company trip to the Dells was scrapped this year, and the Christmas bonuses had shriveled. Was the studio eating up all of Hignite’s money? As the real estate economy slumped in 2006, Miracle Homes began laying off employees.

But Hignite seemed almost oblivious to such concerns, even as he planned the added expenses of Miracle Village. “This is the town center, which is a place you would go for color selections,” he bubbled, showing me pilot drawings during one interview. “Also, there’d be a theater down below.” In addition, there would be a place to hold company lunches. A barber shop. Party rooms for employees’ children. A company store where employees could “buy milk and staple items.” Some employees began describing it as cult-like development.

“When Disney first made Disneyland in Anaheim,” says Hignite, “it was a bunch of orange groves. It is now a mini-Las Vegas over in that area. I think people will travel here, as Miracle grows.”

The bi-annual Miracle Homes home show had always been a shot in the arm, both financially and psychologically. For Hignite, it was a chance to show off his toys to the gaping mouths and wide eyes of weekend home shoppers and their even more awed children. The previous January, the company had sold 60 homes during the show and received much acclaim for its gaudy home booth, which, among other rarities, had an animatronic cat perched on a false tree, purring and wiggling its tail.

July’s show was shaping up to be even more spectacular. After almost a year of work, the studio had produced a 75-second sequence. Tom had introduced it on the studio Web site in early July to largely poor reviews. (Internet comments panned it mercilessly.) But now he was about to unveil it to a live, presumably more kindly, audience. In addition, he was going to release a children’s book based on the film called Cranky’s Miracle. In it, Miracle Mouse’s boss, Cranky the Crane, is beset by an unwanted flock of ducks, which he initially bemoans but which ultimately provide him aid when a flood overtakes his home.

Back in March, Hignite convened the studio staff for a meeting on the book. The consensus was that the story was pretty feeble. Some animators proposed an entirely new treatment. Hignite didn’t like this, several recall. His tact in these moments was to go around the room over and over until no’s transformed into yeses.

He eventually budged on the book, shuffled through a few ghost writers and patch-worked some changes into the copy, but the staff reaction was still pretty negative.

“There’s really not that much substance,” opined one animator, referring to the Miracle Mouse character. “He’s not that endearing. There’s really nothing humorous or any depth to the characters.”

Though this was his first attempt as an author, Hignite ignored the veiled suggestions that he make a conservative first-print run, deciding instead to publish 9,000 copies of Cranky’s Miracle. On the back flap of the book, he enclosed a CD with an original score performed by a 36-piece orchestra in Indiana he had hired. Three months later, only 100 copies would have been sold.

On the opening Saturday of the July home show, one could sense a seething disquiet amid the pageantry. The tour was centered around the lavish Grand Bay model home and its not-quite-as-impressive neighbors, the Homestead V and Vista View. Parking attendants, salespeople and servers stood at the ready, bedecked in the company garb: blue denim long-sleeve shirts with Miracle Homes logos. There was a basket of blue booties at the front door of each of the houses. Holy Bibles had been placed in every bedroom and pamphlets of psalms were fanned across the dining room tables. Disney music blared through the speakers.

Visitors with kids coagulated into the Disney Room of the Grand Bay, for obvious reasons. There were Plexiglas-encased, hand-painted Disney displays across the room and assorted TVs playing Disney movies. There were hidden alcoves, a closet that spoke when you opened its door and a battery-operated monorail that glided around the perimeter. A ladder led to a hayloft where Hignite had anointed a shrine to the history of Disney, with displays of memorabilia to ogle while a baritone voice emitted from speakers spouting Disney trivia.

After some time, the visitors were led downstairs. As they shuffled along, Hignite’s recorded voice secreted from a hidden speaker. “The second floor of the Grand Bay is going to be really exciting,” it said. Downstairs, there was a second kitchen and a gallery boasting replica paintings of well-known Disney scenes. Hignite encouraged people to consider buying the art, claiming that it was less expensive than what you’d pay at a Disney theme park store. A character artist was doing sketches for $35. As Hignite suggested the kids check out the basement arcade, one youngster called out, “It’s just like Disney World, Mom!”

Soon all were gathered in the home theater of the Grand Bay, where animatronic statues of John Wayne and Marilyn Monroe flank the projection screen. The film began rolling and up popped Miracle Mouse, who introduced movie Tom, who began discussing the creativity of homebuilding.

Finally, the entertainment entrée was served, a few-minute clip from the animated film Ice Age, ironically enough, done in 3-D. The couch in the middle of the theater was tricked with a motion censor and moved along with the film. Movie Tom came on after the clip, reminding the audience, in a freaky stage whisper, that the Grand Bay was for sale. This got a giggle from a few teenage girls.

A few weeks later, the results were in: The home show was a dud. Desperate to sell 50 houses, the company pushed just 30. “We worked our butts off,” says Jamie Budiac, number-two salesperson at Miracle. “We were working 60-plus hours. He put a lot of money into the tour. He even had T-shirts ordered that had Miracle Mouse on them. We had over 1,200 people go through the models.” But the market had declined and people were not buying homes.

One month later, the company issued its third round of layoffs for the year. By then, the homes staff had shrunk by almost a third. Meanwhile, Hignite announced the formation of a new company called Home Basix, offering lesser-rate houses for low six-figure prices. He distinguished these homes from Miracle Homes, but it seemed to contradict his commitment to creating an “experience” for home buyers. Now, it just seemed like he was trying to make a quick buck.

The word “bankruptcy” began to be whispered beneath the drop-tile ceiling of the office in Polk. Hignite continued to deny this prospect but admitted that home sales were way off the past year’s mark and the lowest in four years.

The animators had sensed for a while the coming crisis, and by July, most had their feelers out for jobs elsewhere. By August, several had already left when Hignite announced lay-offs. The bank had told him, employees say, that there would be no more money for the studio. By the end of the month, only six animators remained, and Hignite had shut down the Disney tribute Web site.

Meanwhile, Miracle Village looked equally imperiled. Hignite had already taken out millions of dollars in loans, but the project was far from complete. In February, O’Donnell says, Hignite told him the bank was suggesting that he curb the spending on village construction. Instead, Hignite decided to kick it into high gear. “He tried to get as much done,” says O’Donnell, “so that when the bank saw it, they wouldn’t stop him. Instead, they would say, ‘Well, you’re this far, so go ahead.’” In October, Hignite admitted not that the project had stopped but that it had hit “an extreme slow-down.”

By then, Hignite appeared to be liquidating assets to stave off disaster: He put his big Richfield home up for sale at $2 million. The price of the Grand Bay was dropped by $700,000. And then came another round of downsizing, with more employees summarily dismissed, which only made the Christian tagline of the business that much more irksome to those caught in the maw.

On October 10, a story ran in the Journal Sentinel headlined “Miracle Studios seeking angels.” The paper reported that the studio was shrinking. But Hignite assured the reporter that it was not dead. The story had a characteristic photo of Hignite: his head cocked and his smile cartoon wide, almost maniacal. It was a familiar smile, one I had seen many times but one that had never failed to impress me with the ambivalence of its intent. Hignite called that morning, alerting me to the news. Miracle Studio was not shutting down, he insisted, but was becoming an “out-source studio.”

“We have a perfect business model to weather a downturn,” he said, “because we don’t own a lot of land. We still have to make payments on our houses and things like that, but we don’t have a lot of land that will saddle us down. We’re custom-made to handle a downturn.”

I went to see O’Donnell that evening. When I arrived at his apartment in West Bend, he was folding laundry. He wore a Wisconsin Badgers T-shirt and moccasins. Hignite, O’Donnell told me, had given the animators two options in a meeting a week before: Quit immediately and take two weeks’ severance pay or quit after three more weeks of salaried employment.

As a light rain pattered away outside, O’Donnell sat down in his rocking chair and took a sip of Pepsi. The moving van would be coming in a few weeks, and he was looking forward to seeing his wife and two kids. He looked relieved, relaxed and utterly heartbroken. “I’m darn glad I didn’t bring my family out here,” he said, recalling the decision last January not to sell his home in Orlando, against Tom’s urging. “I know there are people who did bring their families, and it’s killing them that they’re out of work, and their wives are furious.”

The previous weekend, the six animators who still remained in town got together for a barbecue. Hignite was not invited. While there, they got to talking about the caricatures. Over the two years the studio was in operation, perhaps 50 drawings of Hignite were created. The group decided to gather them and, in these last remaining weeks, scan them onto CDs, creating a memento of their times with Hignite.

Back in July, as he sat in his home office in Richfield, Hignite philosophized: “We built this house because we wanted to run a business out of it. I built a pond in the back so my staff could have a pond, so they could have nice experiences…It’s all about experiences…When we die tomorrow, the only thing they’ll recall at your eulogy are the experiences we gave to each other.”

Upon his departure, one of the former animators sent an e-mail to the crew of a T-shirt design he thought captured their unforgettable experience in the enchanted world of a strange fantasist’s house in southern Washington County. It was less a eulogy than an epitaph.

“I got tweaked at Tom Hignite’s Miracle Studios,” it read, followed by the tagline, “Live, Draw, Die.”

Daniel Libit is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer. Additional reporting by Katie Pelech and JD Rinne. Photographed by Peter DiAntoni