Every time I come to a month with five Saturdays, I like to use the last Saturday to release what I call a Nostalgia Episode. In the past I have covered the history of The Beachcombers, Mr. Dressup and The Littlest Hobo.
Today, I am looking at the Saturday cartoon nearly every Canadian from the 1980s remembers fondly, The Raccoons. At the end of this episode, I will also feature my interview with Susan Roman, who voiced Melissa Raccoon from season two to five.
The beginning of The Raccoons comes down to one man, Kevin Gillis, who conceived of the show in the 1970s when he was working on other shows such as Celebrity Cooks, which starred Bruno Gerussi of The Beachcombers. The idea for the show then evolved with Gillis working with Gary Dunford, and they would begin to develop the concept of Ralph Raccoon.
Eventually, Dunford would drop out of the project and Gillis would take it over and met with Sheldon Wiseman, an Ottawa lawyer who liked the idea of the series. Together, they would put together a group of animators, musicians and writers to create the first special that would star the characters.
The Christmas Raccoons broadcast on Dec. 17, 1980 and Canadians would receive their first glimpse at the Evergreen Forest. The story would follow Ranger Dan, along with his children Tommy and Julie and their sheepdog Schaeffer. Ranger Dan is concerned about trees disappearing in the forest and he goes off to investigate. Meanwhile, three raccoons, Ralph and Melissa and their friend Bert are preparing The Raccoondominium for Christmas and they soon see the news that the trees of the forest are disappearing. In the end, the aardvark millionaire Cyril Sneer is revealed to be the one taking the trees to sell them for lumber, but his son, Cedric, tries to talk him out of the venture. His father ignores him and chops down several trees, including the home of the Raccoons. In the end, the animals save the forest and thousands of seedlings had been planted overnight on Christmas Eve.
Several cast members who would go on to voice the characters in the show including Len Carlson and Bob Dermer took part in the special. The special was also narrated by Rich Little, the Canadian impressionist who is often called The Man of a Thousand Voices.
The special was a big hit and it would spawn another special, The Raccoons on Ice, one year later on Dec. 20, 1981. In that special, it is winter in the Evergreen Forest and while the Raccoons and Shaeffer the Sheepdog are enjoying playing hockey on the local lake, they find out that Cyril Sneer is going to build the Cyril Dome over the entire lake. To determine who owns the lake, the Raccoons and their friends play a game against Sneer and his bears on the ice. Bert and Cedric wore the jerseys of the New York Islanders in the game, as the Islanders were the powerhouse of the hockey world at the time, while the Bears naturally wore the jersey colours of The Boston Bruins. Cedric also wore the jersey number of 22, which was the same number Mike Bossy wore during his Hall of Fame career with the Islanders. The Raccoons win the game and the lake is saved in the process. The second special would receive good reviews, including from the New York Times that stated, quote:
“The Raccoons are an adorable lot, supported nicely by an attractive production.”
The Raccoons on Ice would also feature Danny Gallivan, who had spent 32 years beginning in 1952 as a play-by-play man on Hockey Night In Canada, primarily calling the games of the Montreal Canadiens. In the show, he played the play-by-play announcer for the hockey game between the Raccoons and the Bears, called Ferlin Fielddigger.
With the specials doing well, Wiseman was approached about making a 13-episode television series about The Raccoons but for now only specials would be made.
A third special would be released on Dec. 13, 1983 and it would be the first to develop the look and feel that would be seen in the later series. This special took on a science fiction feel and was heavily inspired by Star Wars. Originally, it was going to be a full-length film but it was instead turned into an hour long special. It was also well received. Variety would state, quote:
A fourth special, The Raccoons: Let’s Dance! Was also produced.
In 1984, CBC and the Disney Channel began to fund a new television series based on the specials, to be titled simply as The Raccoons. The cost to make the first season would be $4.75 million, or $10.6 million today.
On July 4, 1985, The Raccoons would debut. In Canada, it would spend its first season on the CBC on Monday evenings. With its debut at 7:30 p.m., The Raccoons became the first animated show since The Flintstones to be broadcast in primetime, beating The Simpsons by four years. For seasons two to three, it would be shown in the block of shows consisting of The Wonderful World of Disney and Fraggle Rock on Sundays. In its fourth season, it would move to Wednesday and share a block with the powerhouse The Beachcombers, before finally spending its fifth and last season airing on Tuesdays. The last episode of the show would air on Aug. 28, 1992.
Originally, the show was only supposed to run for one season, consisting of 11 episodes, with Gold Rush serving as the series finale. Instead, the show was such a huge hit that the decision was made to keep the show going, which it would for another four seasons.
While the first four specials were animated by the Canadian company Atkinson Film-Arts, as well as the first season, seasons two to five would see its animation handled by Hinton Animation Studios.
In the days before computer animation, all of the scenes were composed meticulously of hand-painted cells and background drawings, in which characters are drawn on a transparent sheet and overlaid on a static background. The entire run of the show would result in over 500,000 cells. The colouring department for the show alone had 25 people, as well as another six to eight people who handled backgrounds and 50 to 70 animators total depending on the episode. Sound effects were also done from scratch, including smashing watermelons to create the sound that was needed.
The show followed the same characters from the specials. There was Bert Raccoon, who was the hero of the series and the best friend of Ralph and Melissa Raccoon, the married couple he lives with. Energetic, he is impulsive with a kind heart who wants to live life to the fullest. Ralph and Melissa are the more grounded Raccoons, with Melissa serving as the voice of reason for the show.
Cedric Sneer is the son of Cyril Sneer and the best friend of Bert. He was originally subversive to his father at first, but as the series went on he became more assertive. Cyril Sneer was the villain of the series, who was a ruthless businessman. At the start of the series, he is villainous but as the series goes on, he softens but keeps his greedy nature. While he loves money, he has a deep love for his son and even a soft spot for the niece and nephew of Ralph Raccoon.
The henchmen of Cyril are the Pigs, who appear throughout the series. Never referred to by name typically, they are often bumbling and rarely help the schemes of Cyril.
Schaeffer, my personal favourite character, was the large sheepdog who was friends with The Raccoons. In the special he was portrayed as slow and dimwitted but in the series he becomes one of the smartest characters and would eventually open the Blue Spruce Café, where he served as the bartender. His person is Dan The Forest Ranger, who is the caretaker of the Evergreen Forest. He is shown to be a single father in both the specials and series, with no mention of a mother for the children.
The series was also able to hire the top voice actors in Canada at the time for their characters.
Len Carlson, who voiced several voices including Bert Raccoon, began his career in 1966 and would voice many famous characters including Ganon in The Legend of Zelda, Green Goblin in the original Spider-Man animated series, as well as in other productions including Beetlejuice, Donkey Kong Country, Rocket Robin Hood and more. He also served as the Kraft Canada TV pitchman from the 1970s to the 1980s. He would pass away on Jan. 26, 2006.
Michael Magee, who voiced Cyril Sneer, primarily worked on various CBC programs including Yes You Can, The Real Magees and others. He would pass away on July 15, 2011.
Bob Dermer would voice Ralph Raccoon and others on the show. He also voiced Sam Crenshaw on Today’s Special, and Grump Bear from the Care Bears.
Susan Roman is most associated with Melissa Raccoon, but she would come along in season two, replacing the previous voice actor from season one. In her career she would appear on The Care Bears, Mega Man Legends and she was one of the few voice actors to remain throughout the entire run of the Sailor Moon series.
Marvin Goldhar voiced Cedric Sneer, but spent forty years as a voice actor, beginning in 1963 and continuing until his death. He would voice Mr. Weatherbee in The New Archies, and also provided voices for Star Wars: Ewoks, Dog City and The Care Bears.
Schaeffer was voiced by Carl Banas, who voiced several other characters. Banas had worked as a radio personality in Toronto, but also voiced characters on many shows including Babar.
The show had a strong environmental focus initially, and it was never stated but most believe that the Evergreen Forest is located in British Columbia. The major theme of the first special after all was deforestation. As the series went on, the number of environmental theme episodes began to decline. This is likely because over the course of 60 episodes, it can be hard to keep finding new ways for Cyril to do something to the forest. There were still environmental themed episodes, such as Power Trip, when Cyril Sneer tried to build a hydro-electric power dam. Another interesting aspect of the show is that the villains of the show tended to be animals that were foreign to Canada, including aardvarks, rhinos and crocodiles.
When of the most endearing aspects of the show was the music, which featured a new wave soundtrack including the theme song of Run With Us, performed by Lisa Lougheed. The first season actually ended with a different version of the song that was not performed by Lougheed, but later seasons would be recorded by her. The songs were enough a part of the fabric of the show that an album would be released called Lake Freeze – The Raccoons Soundtrack in 1983. A soundtrack album was also released after the fourth special.
Lougheed was also a voice actor on the show, providing the voice for Lisa Raccoon. Lisa was the niece to Ralph and she would become a much more prominent character in season five, after her first appearance in season 4. She had received the job as a teenager after she was hired by Gillis, who was looking for a new singer for the show. In 1987, Evergreen Nights was released, with Lougheed not realizing that it was going to be released as an album as she thought the songs were only used for the show. Her version of Run With Us would peak at #8 on the Canadian Adult Contemporary Charts in 1988. The song has also appeared in many different places and in other films.
During the shows run, it would be nominated for several Gemini Awards, including for Best Sound and Best Writing. It would also win the Gemini Award for Best Animated Series. In 1990, Bert and Lisa Raccoon were also named the mascots of the Canadian Olympic team, although there were no Olympic Games that year. Over the course of the show, episodes were broadcast in 180 countries across the planet.
In 2017, a CBC employee ran an unofficial Twitter poll to find the most memorable Canadian tv show of all time. After 400,000 votes were cast, Mr. Dressup would take top spot but tied for 13th was not only another nostalgia show The Beachcombers, but also The Raccoons.
Could we see The Raccoons come back? Well, on July 4, 2017, Kevin Gillis announced there was a reboot in the works. Redesigned characters then appeared on YouTube on March 11, 2018.
Gillis would tell Global News, quote:
“I’d been thinking about it for the last four or five years but ended up spending a lot of my time developing interactive authoring platforms. Part of what’s really driving me here is we’ve had so many people who grew up on Raccoons all over the world who have been saying, wow I loved that show! It was great, it was fun, why don’t you do a new one? Because they’re all raising kids now.”
Apparently, a new special is scheduled for the Holiday season of 2021 called When Raccoons Fly, so we may be enjoying a whole new series of the show many of us loved.
Information comes from IMDB, ActiveHistory, CBC, Run With Us Productions, Wikipedia, Global News, Canada Through My Eye, Victoria Buzz,