Meet Lenny Larsen, an internationally recognized producer and director of entertainment and experiences ranging from theme parks and live theater to film/television and interactive technology. With undergraduate and graduate degrees from Carnegie Mellon University in theater and entertainment technology, Larsen’s unique blend of imagination, technical savvy, and steadfast leadership places him among the leading creative visionaries in the entertainment industry. He is currently the executive producer behind two upcoming television series, owns two production companies, and is a sought-after speaker at conferences across the country and around the world.
Originally from Chicago, Larsen got his start directing and designing live stage productions for theaters throughout the Midwest. His passion for creating worlds on-stage led to a broader ambition for creating worlds where an audience could completely immerse themselves. Larsen entered the themed entertainment world working as a lead artist on Expedition Everest at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Just a few years later, he would find himself traveling the world to meet with royalty, government officials and billionaire investors to cast creative visions for projects in their early stages of conception. Shepherding those visions as they moved through the design process from imagination into reality quickly became Larsen’s forte.
At 30 years old, Larsen was one of the industry’s youngest executives, leading a creative design and production company of more than 100 artists, designers, technologists and producers shaping the creative vision behind a $1.5 billion entertainment destination in the Middle East.
“I got a call one day and they said ‘they tell us you’re the guy to run this thing.’” Larsen recalls. “Two days later, I was on a plane bound for the Kingdom of Jordan to meet the Board of Directors with a mandate to launch and grow a theme park design firm.”
Seamlessly shifting from one genre of entertainment to another, Larsen is equally at home on a soundstage directing for television, on a construction site providing in-field art direction, or hashing out revolutionary toy technology with computer scientists. In his world, there is never a dull moment:
“On Monday I might be collaborating with writers on a film script and by Thursday I could be in the Middle East sitting with a sheikh discussing a new theme park development.”
That said, one would never guess that this now 39-year-old globetrotting entertainment executive is a ventilator dependent quadriplegic.
How did that happen, one might ask? Larsen is a man of many talents; while serving as the executive producer/creative director for theme park projects throughout the world, he was simultaneously maintaining a second career as an internationally competitive springboard and platform diver with eyes focused on 2016 Olympic trials. Then the unthinkable happened. A trampolining accident in 2013 resulted in a catastrophic spinal cord injury, rendering him paralyzed from the neck down and dependent on a ventilator to breathe.
“I was living a life that most of us only imagine: I had my dream job, I was traveling the world, I was creating things that would inspire generations to come, and I was madly in love with a truly amazing guy. In an instant it was all gone.”
The last thing he remembers was being wheeled into the emergency room and being put into traction. Several surgeries later, Larsen awoke to find himself completely paralyzed, unable to speak or eat, and breathing air from a hose attached to his throat.
“I still have no idea how my parents made it from Chicago to Los Angeles so quickly. My mom was the only person in the hospital who could read my lips and translate for everyone else; my dad didn’t leave my side for more than two months.”
After nearly three months in the ICU at Huntington Memorial Hospital in Pasadena, California, Larsen finally was stable enough to transfer to the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago for a year of intense physical therapy. In a matter of weeks, he was speaking, eating, using a computer and exploring the hospital, all without the use of his arms and legs. It was time to take charge of life again. First thing on the agenda: get out of the hospital. Second: fly to Thailand to try stem cell therapies and implant an experimental spinal cord stimulator that would prove there was still some connection between his brain and his body. Third: get back to Los Angeles and get back to living.
For many, this type of tragedy results in simply giving up, but with Larsen’s resiliency, determination and ingenuity, he refocused to rebuild his life, his career and his body. With the help of an outstanding support team, advanced technology, and creative ingenuity, in less than 18 months Larsen was back. Not just back to creating entertainment, but also back on the pool deck putting his experience as a diver to work as both a coach and an official (showing up, unannounced, at national championships ready to judge). Projects were back in development, his home was being renovated for accessibility, invitations to speak at conferences were pouring in, and Larsen needed a team.
“Life as a quadriplegic is not something you do alone,” says Larsen. “The technology helps a lot in maintaining an illusion of complete independence, but what it really comes down to is the team I have supporting me.” Larsen “does life” with a handpicked, specially trained team of caregivers, each of whom have the energy, passion and courage to match his own. Larsen’s work in both the entertainment industry and in diving keeps him on a schedule that most individuals – with or without a disability – would not be able to handle, traveling extensively both domestically and internationally (one of a handful of ventilator dependent individuals able to do so).
“I don’t look at it as a job,” said Carlos Lopez, Larsen’s primary LVN. “It’s an adventure.”
As part of Larsen’s relentless quest to live life to its fullest, he has embraced technology to help him return to doing nearly everything he was able to do before his accident. Larsen’s one-of-a-kind standing wheelchair allows him to once again navigate the world at eye level, independently driving it with a pressure sensitive straw system. With the help of voice control software, Larsen is faster on a computer than most of us are who can use our hands. And, with new, state-of-the-art neurostimulators recently implanted on his cervical spinal cord, he is working with leading research scientists in an attempt to restore some upper body functions.
A passionate advocate for accessibility and the rights of disabled individuals, Larsen was recently in Washington, D.C., speaking with members of Congress, lobbying for changes to Medicare that would enable more people with mobility issues to have access to complex rehabilitation technologies like standing wheelchairs.
“We humans aren’t designed to be sitting all the time, just because we can doesn’t mean we should; we need to get more people standing up again.”
While in D.C. last year, Larsen also spent several hours with the National Leadership Fellows at RespectAbility sharing stories from both before and after his accident.
Larsen’s advice to RespectAbility Fellows: Never doubt the resilience, perseverance and determination that dwells within the human spirit.
“I’m disabled, not dead,” Larsen joked. “Those of us with disabilities need to understand that we are our best advocates and decisions about how we live our lives, what we can and cannot do, what should and shouldn’t be accessible, and how we are represented in the world at large can’t be made on our behalf. We need to stand up and get involved in creating solutions to the challenges we face, whether it be in our own personal bubbles or on a nationwide governmental level. Having experienced life at both extremes of the ‘ability spectrum,’ I’ve come to a very clear understanding that under no circumstances should healthcare policies be drafted without thorough consultation with those of us directly affects, able-bodied architects have no business determining what is acceptably accessible, filmmakers who believe they understand us enough to represent us on screen have no idea what they’re getting into, I could go on and on and on. I guess the point I’m trying to make is run for office, make a movie, become an architect; get out there and be the change you want to see.”
Life as a quadriplegic is harder than any of us could ever imagine, but Larsen and his team make it look effortless.
“It’s frustrating; it’s inconvenient; it’s painful; at times, it’s overwhelmingly depressing,” said. Larsen. “But, most of all, it’s lonely. I haven’t found love again, but I have hope that there is a courageous guy out there somewhere who can look past the wheelchair.”
Larsen refuses to be defined by his disability; within moments of “rolling” into a meeting full of strangers, the wheelchair disappears, and he takes command of the room. “I like to think that who I am overpowers what anyone sees,” he says. “I’m still the same wildly creative, world changing individual; I just happen to be in a wheelchair.”
Now, Larsen is participating in RespectAbility’s Summer 2019 Lab for Entertainment Professionals. This 5-week, nine-session innovative summer lab series for people interested in – and with experience in – development, production and post-production, including careers as writers, directors, producers, cinematographers, animators and other production roles, is taking place June 18 – July 18, 2019. Participants include diverse people with physical, cognitive, sensory, mental health and other disabilities. Larsen, serving on the mid-career track, also is mentoring emerging talent, to help continue building the talent pipeline of young professionals with disabilities looking to work behind the scenes.
Larsen is a man on a mission, and that mission is to impact the lives of everyone he encounters. “Limitations are challenges, and challenges are meant to be overcome.”