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Saturday, June 29, 2013

The Friendly Giant

Well, we are off to a great start this Canada Day long weekend. For those of you just tuning into this blog for this weekend, July 1 marks Canada's 146th birthday, and in celebration of the day on Monday, I thought that I would make the whole weekend Canadian themed. After all, I am Canadian myself, so I almost feel obligated to make this blog as Canadian as back bacon.

You know what I mean, eh?

So, for the last Saturday Smorgasbord of June, I thought that since it is the author's choice over what I feature in this space that I would feature a children's television show that aired on CBC for many, many weekday mornings.

But, here's a fact that might actually shock you. Although this program attracted many generations of Canadian viewers over several decades, you might be surprised to learn that the program (and host) originated in the United States!

Ah, well...the fourth of July is fast approaching anyway. Besides, this entry is MOSTLY Canadian content so I think that I can get away with it for today.

The year was 1953, and the setting was Madison, Wisconsin. Back in 1953, television was still a form of entertainment that was considered scarce in several households. Case in point, my mother's family didn't get their first television set until 1956. So, people still turned on their radios and listened to some of their favourite programs on the air.

One of those programs was marketed towards children, and it began on WHA-AM via radio. Production of the show would be later moved to WHA-TV sometime within the program's first six months on the radio. For the program's first five years, local audiences around the Wisconsin area were treated to this wonderful and magical children's show, not yet realizing just how huge a phenomenon the program would soon become.

Somehow, kinescopes of the television series made their way to the official offices of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) in Toronto, Ontario, where then head of children's programming Fred Rainsberry invited the host/creator of the program to move his show to Canada, where it would air nationwide.

It was an offer that Bob Homme could not refuse. The then 39-year-old Homme was excited to have the opportunity to present his show to a wider audience, and he jumped at the chance.

Who knew that when he made the decision to relocate the show to Canada in September 1958 that he would end up hosting the show for an additional twenty-seven years, and would eventually become a dual citizen of both Canada and the United States.

All because he told a bunch of children to look up...look waaaaaaaaaay up.

I see the smiles of remembrance on some of your faces right now as you watch the above video (well, okay, not really. Just humour me here). Yes, we're going to be taking a look at the classic Canadian/American television series “The Friendly Giant”, the show that began SIXTY years ago (can you imagine?) in a little Wisconsin studio and grew into a Canadian cultural icon throughout the sixties, seventies, and early eighties.

And, I have to admit that I am giddy about the opportunity to talk about this program, because I really loved this show. Even though the show quit making new episodes when I was still a little boy (the series wrapped up production in March 1985), reruns aired frequently on a variety of different channels over the years. It wouldn't surprise me if episodes of “The Friendly Giant” still aired on some cable channel somewhere in the world, even though the man behind the “giant” passed away in May 2000 at the age of 81.

So, how did the show manage to eke out an extraordinary run of nearly thirty-two years combined in the United States and Canada? I have a theory.

When I was growing up, a lot of the children's shows that I watched constantly changed their styles, and their presentation. “Sesame Street” was always a show that kept changing their formula every couple of years, and while some changes were not well received, the majority of them worked. But, I think that “The Friendly Giant” remained very popular because of the fact that it didn't mess with what many called “perfection”.

Every episode of the show began almost exactly the same way. We would see a panoramic view of a small town, a farm, or a beach setting as we heard a narrator describing what was going on in the scene at the time. What was really freaky growing up was that as a little kid, I thought that the town set kind of resembled my hometown's main street. And, I think that was the idea...the town set was so generic looking that it was meant to represent everyday Canadian living in a neighbourhood that looked familiar.

As the camera panned over the town streets, the viewer would soon become surprised by a huge boot, which was a bit out of place, given that I didn't ever recall any buildings in town that were shaped like a boot. But then we heard that familiar voice telling us to “look up, waaaaay up”, and when the camera panned upward, we were introduced to a giant, giant man!

(Though, looking back on it, Bob Homme was really 5'11”...which is three inches shorter than I am now. But, he was still taller than the average man.)

But, this giant wouldn't harm a fly. In fact, if you were really nice to him, he would invite you into his castle for a fifteen minute visit!

And, what a castle it was. To this day, I still have absolutely no idea how they managed to make that castle set so elaborate. I especially liked the drawbridge being lowered and seeing the words “Friendly Giant” written across the front gate. I still get tingled with excitement whenever I watch the opening titles of “The Friendly Giant”.

Now, once we were all inside the giant castle of “The Friendly Giant”, the giant was so friendly that he would make sure that all of us were comfortable. Though, I suppose that it seemed kind of strange that he would only have enough seats for four people when in all actuality, an average of several million people probably watched the show at any given time. But, at any rate, the giant would have little pieces of miniature furniture for us to sit down in. There was a comfy chair, there was a double chair for two people to share, and there was always a rocking chair for those who liked to rock.

(I always imagined myself in the rocking chair, as at the time, my family did have a rocking chair in the living room that I had the monopoly on during the majority of my childhood.)

And, once we were settled and comfortable, we would look up...waaaaaaay up, and we would be introduced to the friends of “The Friendly Giant”. We would meet Jerome, a gigantic blue and orange giraffe who would poke his head through the window of the castle. And, there was also Rusty, a rooster whose home was a bookbag hanging off the wall.  There was a reason why Rusty would choose a bookbag as his home inside the castle.  It was because his bookbag literally held all sorts of books, stories, toys, and games that he would share with the giant (as well as us at home).

TRIVIA:  I absolutely had no idea about this until recently, but practically every single episode of the series was ad-libbed!  The actors improvised their lines from a one page summary about the episode.  Learning that, I respect both Bob Homme and Rod Coneybeare (the puppeteer behind Rusty and Jerome).

In addition to the games and stories that were played and told, children were treated to the occasional musical performance as well.  In those performances, the giant, Rusty, Jerome, and occasionally the cat duo of Angie and Fiddle (the Jazz Cats) would play and sing various musical instruments.  It was a real live concert band at the castle!

TRIVIA:  The majority of the music composed for the show was composed by John Duncan, who played the harp during the opening and closing credits.

Of course, not all good things could last forever, and when it came time to end another visit with the "Friendly Giant", the giant would let us know that it was time to leave.  He would pack up the miniature furniture for another day, and we would go back home until the next time we paid him a visit.

Weirdly enough, I never quite understood how a fifteen minute visit could start when the sun was out, and by the time we were ready to leave, the cow was jumping over the moon in the middle of the night sky.  

(And, would you believe that viewers once responded with disappointment and anger when there was one episode that DIDN'T show the cow jumping over the moon?  And, that the incident spawned several hundred phone calls to the CBC?  Let this be a lesson to not forget to have a cow jumping over the moon.  Ever.)

As mentioned earlier, "The Friendly Giant" wrapped up production of new episodes in 1985, but it wasn't exactly Bob Homme's choice to do least depending on what story you believe.

The fact that CBC slashed their budget in 1984 was one hundred per cent the truth.  But CBC executives to this day maintain that the cancellation of "The Friendly Giant" had nothing to do with the budget cuts.  And when "Fred Penner's Place" was brought on to replace the show in the mid-1980s (admittedly another show I loved to watch), many people labelled Penner as a "giant killer".

Regardless, the show aired an impressive three thousand episodes, and is still widely respected among Canadians today.

TRIVIA:  I'll end this blog off with one more fact.  After the show wrapped, Bob Homme was made a member of the Order of Canada in 1998.  The problem was that Homme was very ill when the announcement was made.  Being unable to travel to Rideau Hall, then Governor General Romeo LeBlanc brought the honour to Homme at his home!

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