If you grew up watching such iconic Canadian children’s TV shows as The Friendly Giant, Mr. Dressup, or Passe-Partout, you have until the end of this week to visit with some fondly-remembered friends.
On Friday, September 1, the Canadian Museum of History in Ottawa is set to close down “From Pepinot to Paw Patrol,” their year-long salute to 70 years of children’s TV. I’m just back from visiting the exhibit and it is truly a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see clips, costumes, puppets and photographs, all in one immersive setting.
The presentation was the result of four years of planning and archiving directed by Canadian Museum of History curator Olivier Côté. Close to 100 shows were chosen to be represented at the exhibit, focusing primarily on programs for children ages 2 to 11. Many genres were represented, including such early live-action scripted fare as The Forest Rangers to episodes of The Kids of Degrassi Street.
Over 65 minutes of clips from everything from The Big Comfy Couch to Razzle Dazzle to Chez Hélène are displayed on dozens of monitors, many interactive, throughout the main exhibition space. The notes that accompanied many of the exhibits were done with thought and care. “At its best,” one card read, “children’s television makes us eager for whatever comes next, and ignites a spirit of adventure that never leaves us.”
When we spoke recently at the museum, Côté, an enthusiastic fan of the genre, explained that the displays were arranged thematically rather than chronologically. What he wanted to avoid was creating specific areas for Boomers here or Gen X-ers there. Colourful stalls with interactive monitors were grouped in settings representing living rooms and kitchens. Large, glass cases displayed well-preserved puppets from such very early shows as Uncle Chichimus and the French-language favourite Pepinot. A nearby case has Molly the doll from the ’90s series The Big Comfy Couch sharing space with some of the Fraggle Rock puppets. There’s even a “magic mirror” from Miss Fran that was used on the Canadian version of Romper Room.
About 15 per cent of the artifacts, figures Côté, belong to the museum. The original treehouse puppet set piece from Mr. Dressup, for example, was donated years ago and was carefully restored by museum artists prior to the installation. This is an older, 1960s version of the mid-’80s treehouse set still on display in Toronto on the ground floor of the CBC broadcast centre.
Not all of the little friends viewers may have grown up with are on display. The museum owns, and displays, four of the cool cats who jammed weekly on The Friendly Giant. Missing, however, are Friendly’s closest pals, Rusty the rooster and Jerome the giraffe. Mr. Dressup‘s Casey & Finnigan also also AWOL. On load to the museum is the full size Polkaroo costume from TVO’s The Polka-Dot Door, as well as the large Elephant costume from Sharon, Lois & Bram’s The Elephant Show.
Côté contacted the surviving producers, puppeteers and their estates in trying to round up as many puppet stars as possible. He had to respect the wishes of some rights holders, however, who, for various reasons did not grant permission to display the figures in Ottawa.
Several years ago, for example, the family of the late Bob Homme — beloved for generations as CBC’s Friendly Giant — loaned the castle with the drawbridge, along with puppet pals Rusty and Jerome, to CBC to display in a main floor children’s TV museum tucked inside the broadcast centre. A few years later, however, some of the artifacts were spoofed on a Gemini award broadcast. The family had specifically warned the broadcaster that making fun of these beloved creations was strictly verboten. Down came one of Friendly’s big boots, and the CBC had to immediately return the rooster, giraffe and other castle keepsakes.
Also missing from the Ottawa exhibit were many of the eccentric regional kiddie shows I remember from my youth. No Uncle Bobby, no Kiddo the Clown, two early productions in the ’60s out of CFTO in Toronto. Côté says fans of the Kitchener, Ont., kiddie show host Big Al let him know they were disappointed not to see their hero in the white cowboy hat represented at the Museum of History. Big Al’s Ranch Party was a staple throughout southwestern Ontario in the ’60s and well into the ’70s.
The problem with many of these local kiddie shows is that very few, if any, episodes still exist. In most instances, locally-produced children’s shows from the 1950s and ’60s were shot on videotape that was later erased.
The museum chose to concentrate more on the national shows, which, thanks mainly to the exceptional work done at the CBC archive, have plenty of surviving episodes to share to future generations.
The September 1 closing date is sad news for kiddie show fans who were unable to make it to Ottawa for the year-long run of “From Pepinot to Paw Patrol.” Côté says he has heard from Canadians in other regions hoping the exhibit may someday travel. The curator doesn’t rule it out, but notes that, for one thing, rights would have to be re-negotiated. Artists who contributed to the clips shown during the run of the show were compensated. In the meantime, the Museum of History should be commended for the first-class job they have done in saluting the proud, 70-year heritage of children’s broadcasting in Canada.
With the exhibit ending, there are a couple of ways fans of the genre can still re-connect with a few of their childhood idols. One such salute will be on screen in September at TIFF with the premiere of the documentary “Mr. Dressup: The Magic of Make-Believe.” Meanwhile, at the Myseum in Toronto, “Mr. Dressup to Degrassi: 42 Years of Legendary Toronto Kids TV” continues until September 23.