Wednesday, September 11, 2019

I Remember Rod Coneybeare

So there I was at The Hamilton Spectator in September 1971 and it was my first day on the job as TV critic.
My wonderful first features editor, Alex Beer, said he wanted me to start by surveying the state of children's TV and he even had the headline: "Sunshine Supermen".
And so the next morning I was on the bus to Buffalo to interview Commander Tom whose show for kids ran afternoons on WKBW-TV.
A day or so later I was on another bus --this time to Toronto to interview Bob Homme of CBC's Friendly Giant as well as Ernie Coombs who was Mr. Dressup.
That's my long winded way of saying I first met puppeteer Rod Coneybeare on the set of Mr. Dressup.
First shock: the series shared a studio up Jarvis Street with Knowlton Nash's The National news.
"We have to be out of here by 5 p.m.'' exclaimed Rod with that wry smile of his.
And so I spent a leisurely day on the set of this wonderful show. I saw the castle and the other sets.
I watched an unhurried taping as Homme said the introduction "Look up! Look way up!"
Friendly Giant was one of CBC-TV's greatest ever hits.
And yet Homme resolutely refused any commercialization of the show --there were no dolls or other accoutrements mass produced to sell to the kiddies.
"Guess I'm old fashioned," Homme smiled. "But the show is for kids and not the advertisers. I'll fight any effort at commercialization."
I loved watching the great rapport between Homme and Coneybeare who was the puppeteer and supplied the voices for Jerome the Giraffe andRusty the Rooster.
"I see Jerome as a kind of slow drawling Jimmy Stewart," Coneybeare said with a bit of a smile.
'"One thing we must never do is talk down to the kids. We treat them with kindness and courtesy and it has always worked out very well."
Homme came out of Wisconsin TV in the early 1950 as did his pal Mr. Rogers.
And I was surprised how much rehearsal went into every 15-minute show.
"We teach a little bit, we entertain a bit,"Coneybeare told me that day.
"And it works. By the time they go into Grade One we've lost them as daily viewers. Hopefully we've educated them and sent them on the way to be good and thoughtful to everyone they meet at school."
"I think I have a wonderful rapport with Rod," Homme said with a wide grin. "He's here because he wants to be --it's not for the money."
But the show absolutely had to be finished by 5 p.m.
"After that time they roll off our sets," Coneybeare told me. "And they roll in the set for The National."
Coneybeare also produced a CBC quiz show for a while --Yes, You're Wrong. And in later years he wrote for the Don Adams sitcom Check It Out which was produced in Toronto.
I had one later meeting with Coneybeare in the early1980s.
Toronto's Crest Theatre had been converted into a repertory house for old MGM flicks and I went one  Saturday afternoon to watch The Philadelphia Story.
I found a seat and looked up and there was Coneybeare smiling at me in the next seat.
"You have great taste in old movies," he cracked.
Coneybeare was 85 at his death and leaves his wife and several grown children and grandchildren.

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