There was a day when the national media buzzed around Doug Hall like proverbial flies, thanks to Hall’s role as a judge on the ABC reality television seriesAmerican Inventor. Or reporters were pestering him about his much-publicized dog-sled expedition to the North Pole. Or journalists were calling him about hisBrain Brew talk show, airing in 26 cities each week on public radio.

“That’s old news,” Doug Hall says now flatly, a serious-as-a-heart-attack expression on his face.

Hall is seated at his kitchen table, dressed in black. An apt metaphor. For the guy who was once crowned the Sultan of Silly, the P.T. Barnum of the Patent Office, is now on a mission to save the American manufacturing sector.

“It’s brutal out there,” observes Hall, who just returned from a 35-city “Made in the USA Tour” sponsored by the U.S. Department of Commerce. “Such as a company that makes firefighter gloves, losing half its business to Pakistan.”

If Hall isn’t quite so playful anymore (he once posed for the cover ofINC. magazine in what was then his trademark Hawaiian shirt, and showed up barefoot for a USA TODAY photo shoot), he still can’t totally shed his gleeful showman’s persona. Not when the cover of his book Jump Start Your Brain features Hall mugging it up with a glowing lightbulb stuck in his mouth.

Even a casual glance around the great room of his Eureka! Ranch think tank in Newtown belies his somber new image as well.

An arrow sign on the wall points north and reads “North Pole 3,523 Miles.” Tanks of multi-colored jelly beans line the walls. Skeet Ball machines and arcade pinball games are in abundance. And a sign reads “No Whining Anytime.”

But when it comes to the threat against American manufacturers, Doug Hall wants to hammer out a message: China is ramping up to do what the Japanese did to the American rust belt 30 years ago.

As Hall tours the country, he slams home his sermon-on-the-mount in lecture after lecture. In Buffalo, he tells manufacturers: “Folks, what you saw from the Japanese is nothing compared to what’s going to come from the Chinese.” And in Denver, he charges that “It’s a mess. In our business culture, stupidity is winning. Absolute madness. There’s an 0.01 percent chance of a company getting a new idea to market.”

Hall believes he has an answer for America’s small and medium-sized businesses, that they represent the future. As Hall sees it, all hope lies with these more nimble, smaller firms. “The only way we’re going to get out of this recession is through small and mid-sized companies.” And definitely don’t look to the Fortune 500 to innovate or create new inventions and processes, he says.

Tough talk for a guy whose clients have traditionally included top-level executives at corporate giants such as Coca-Cola, Bank of America, Walt Disney, Nike, P&G, Frito-Lay, HoneyBaked Ham, KeyBank, Johnson & Johnson and Ford Motor Co.

Hall has made his way from the corporate suites to the machine shops, or as he puts it, taking on “real companies that make real stuff” as clients.

Again, he returns to the foreign threat, citing the numbers by rote. “China is graduating three times more engineers than America does each year, expressly to reduce dependence on foreign technology to below 30 percent.” He suggests China has potential to lay waste to segments of the American manufacturing industry, just as Japan turned the state of Michigan into “the Vietnam of manufacturing.”

Hall worked for a decade as “master marketing inventor” (his actual title) at Procter & Gamble, and claims the average American household has 18 consumer products that he’s helped develop. His first boss at P&G labeled Hall “a high maintenance subordinate.” Perhaps make that insubordinate.

After he left Procter, he started his own business: “I had major venture funding behind me,” he jokes. “International companies. A VISA, a MasterCard and a VISA.” Hall introduced that first company by mailing a packet to the news media that included a board game and a card proclaiming himself “the King of Elves.” (You had to be there.) Now his mission is to cultivate creativity where it might not have existed before, on the manufacturing floor. In the factories, large and small, in America. “We’ve found ways to turn the art of innovation into a reliable science,” explains Hall, by quantifying and measuring the processes to guarantee creativity on a reproducible basis.

Hall currently partners with the Department of Commerce to convert his “Eureka! Winning Ways” program to work for medium-sized and small businesses, especially manufacturers.

Take Kansas City’s Brunson Instruments, an 81-year-old specialized provider of industrial measurement tools. Brunson was the first company in Missouri to participate in Hall’s “Winning Ways” program. Brunson general manager Richard Powell credits Hall with helping the company launch three new products, expected to generate $750,000 in new sales in the first year (a pretty good return on the $12,000 spent to hire Hall). “The program helped get us focused,” observes Powell, “so rather than just constantly talking about 20 products we’d like to make, we’re actually getting some products out the door.”

The “Winning Ways” program begins with a team of employees participating in a one-day idea generation session, producing at least 50 ideas for products or services. The ideas are sorted down to the three or four best at Eureka! Ranch; a computer database compares traits with thousands of successful products to help determine the probable success/failure rate. Then, Hall and his associates create a 30-day “Trailblazer” action plan, to find the way to bring the prototype to market as inexpensively as possible.

“We’ve got a machine, a system,” enthuses Hall. “Where we used to do dozens of projects a year, we now do thousands a year.”

Hall’s eventual goal “is to help folks turn the American dream into reality.”

A casual peek at his calendar shows manufacturing is a key audience. April 23 was the Manufacturing Matters Conference in Milwaukee. May 7 is the Made in the USA: Choices for Growth event in New York City. May 13 is theCincy magazine MANNY awards (a rare public appearance for Hall in the city; see page 40 for ticket details). And May 21 is the 2008 Manufacturing Advantage Conference in Wisconsin.

Hall’s background is varied. He began his career at the age of 12 by creating and selling a line of “Learn to Juggle™” kits at Maine county fairs (earning $500 his first weekend out). He worked his way through college by do juggling and magic acts, earning a B.S. in chemical engineering at the University of Maine in 1981, and followed it up with an honorary doctorate of laws at University of Prince Edward Island in Canada a few years ago. (Hall holds dual Canadian citizenship, and he and his wife Debbie have founded a charity in Prince Edwards to provide bagpipe scholarships to local schoolchildren. “Some think this is an evil thing we’re doing.”)

Along the way, he’s written four books, includingNorth Pole Tenderfoot, which chronicles his adventures and misadventures while traveling to the top of the planet by dog sled, following in Admiral Peary’s footsteps. (The theatrical experienceNorth Pole Tenderfoot soon followed, premiering at the Victoria Playhouse in Victoria-by-the-Sea, Canada.)

One national business magazine summed up Hall as “a combination of Bill Gates, Ben Franklin and Bozo the Clown.” Indeed, Hall says his favorite inventor, his favorite character from history, in fact, is Benjamin Franklin.

Hall’s favorite Franklinism? “Up sluggard and waste not life.”

Anyone who watched the TV series American Inventor, which aired on ABC from March 2006 to August 2007, will remember Hall’s rally for a circular car seat to protect babies, as well as a restroom door clip and flush-pure toilet seat. “All three of them solved real problems. Some of them are problems that are small but frequent — as in Sharon’s — and some of them are big problems that happen infrequently, as in Janusz’s car seat. But all three of them solve real problems, and that’s why I picked them.”

Some critics lambastedAmerican Inventor as mean-spirited and tasteless. The Washington Post labeled it “an appalling amalgam of humiliating ridicule.” The Chicago Tribune wrote “The irony is, despite the likable presence of folksy real-inventor Doug Hall, who at least knows what he’s talking about in this realm of contraptions and such, the panel of judges onAmerican Inventoris just kind of ... blah.” Even the show’s producer, Simon Cowell ofAmerican Idol fame, called Hall “the most annoying man on television.”

“Did theDukes of Hazzard sully NASCAR?,” is how Hall creatively responds to his critics.

If you missed the series, the premise is simple enough: In the style ofAmerican Idol, would-be inventors paraded their concepts before Hall and his fellow judges. Products ranged from cooking implements to the “bladder buddy,” allowing men to casually urinate in public. Finalists received $50,000 to develop their inventions (plus repeated on-air exposure, as they were invited back on future episodes).

Hall himself championed the ultimate winner of the million-dollar prize, a gyroscope-like “survival capsule” car seat for infants invented by Janusz Liberkowski after his young daughter Anecia died in a car accident. The Evenflo Co. in Vandalia, Ohio, has the seat, dubbed Anecia, at the safety testing stage.

Ultimately, says Hall, Liberkowski— a Polish immigrant — represents the trait that will save American industry. “Courage. It’s all about courage. You have to do something dramatically different, an idea that breaks the rules.” nHow America’s inventor went from an ABC television series to the abcs of helping manufacturers develop new products.