Today, folks, I’d like to take you on a trip down memory lane. We’ll venture backward in time to the young childhood of this simple Canadian boy. I lived my first few years on this earth in a small house in Scarborough, which now forms the eastern part of Toronto. You may know it from various mentions on Orphan Black, or as one of Mayor Rob Ford’s electoral strongholds. But all that is neither here nor there, because the point is I grew up with the CBC, YTV, and TVO (Ontario’s PBS), and all three stations served up a wealth of locally produced programming for young children. Some of it was pretty brilliant. Some of it… haunts me.
To give you a mild sense of what we Canadian children were dealing with at the time, look no further than The Raccoons. It was a cartoon that ran all through the 80s, and continued airing in reruns right through the 2000s. The show was about a family of adventure-seeking raccoons and some other pink creatures with noses that looked like hoses. I don’t even remember the details of the series anymore, but if you take a look at the opening sequence I think you’ll understand why vague memories of it have persisted my entire life.
Cartoons have long been a staple of the Canadian TV industry, with numerous Canadian and Canadian-American co-productions having been made here, including Babar and Arthur. But really good stuff came in the live-action educational arena. The most famous of these was Mr. Dressup, which starred Ernie Coombs, who had worked with Fred Rogers, and was in many ways very similar to Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, though it started it’s incredibly long run one year earlier.
In a similar vein was The Friendly Giant, which, as you might have guessed, was about a giant in a castle who was friends with puppets. There were songs, and rambling conversations about all sorts of things educational, and most of all everything looked cheap as hell. In fact, if anything separates a Canadian children’s show from an American one it’s the clear lack of budget and resources.
Other examples of this included Under the Umbrella Tree, and the hippie friendliness of Fred Penner’s Place, which had a focus on getting kids active, usually through song and dance. Just one guy, a simple forest set, a guitar and the occasional puppet to interact with. The opening credits look like they were shot in one afternoon during a drive up to Muskoka, which is fittingly cheap for a Canadian production, and kind of charming. Maybe a little on the weird side is when Fred Penner climbs through a log to reach his secluded set. “Come on, children, follow the kindly bearded man through that log into a deeper part of the forest!”
Then there was Camp Cariboo, a show set at a summer camp somewhere north of Toronto where it a camp counselor named Tom indoctrinated kids into feverish renditions Canadian camp song staples. The worst part? They didn’t even have the decency to spell “caribou” correctly. Such flagrant disrespect for one of Canada’s national symbols
Sometimes the cheapness made things downright creepy. Take, for example the mid-90s series, Poetree and Friends, which featured a poetry-loving tree and his friends. Yes. There were also arts and crafts. This is what the tree looked like:
Are you beginning to understand? What we Canadian children were subjected to? Need more? Look no further than PJ Katie’s Farm, a show that apparently had a budget of about $5, in which Katie played out scenes with little children’s clay animals. It would be like watching a little kid play with her toys, only she’s a grown woman, and even as a child it seemed super creepy.
And finally we get to the true classic of Ontario television: Polka Dot Door, which was in fact a very accomplished and successful educational show, featuring weekly themes and daily activities based on those themes. But again, the budget was low and everything looked a little off, and often a little creepy. The breakout star of the show was something called Polkaroo, a bizarro-Big Bird, which I think was supposed to be a polka-dotted kangaroo, and is picture at the top of this post. I’m not joking when I say Polkaroo, that freakish giant animal thing, was a big hit. Kids LOVED him. There was even a spin-off in the late 90s that specifically featured more Polkaroo than before. Take a look at the video below for just a taste of the bizarre Canadian creation.
I was a big fan when I was young. I look back now and a shiver runs down my spine. The things we Canadian kids were exposed to… The stuff of nightmares.