For a time, it was the longest running children’s show in the world. Debuting before Mr. Dressup, Mr. Rogers and Sesame Street, The Friendly Giant helped set the example for what children’s television could be.
Today, I’m looking at the iconic children’s show that ran for 27 years on CBC until it was unceremoniously cancelled.
To talk about The Friendly Giant, we first need to talk about Bob Homme.
Homme was born in Stoughton, Wisconsin to high school woodworking teachers, Raymond and Roselyn Homme on March 8, 1919.
He would spend his childhood in the community and would graduate from the Stoughton High School in 1937. As a young man, Homme, who grew up in a musical family and he would do a vaudeville act in the community with his father.
Homme would enroll in the University of Wisconsin, majoring in Economics. While at the university, he also played in the school band. Following his graduation, he would work at a bank until he joined the Air National Guard prior to the start of the Second World War.
In June of 1941, his unit was activated, and he was soon promoted to Staff Sergeant. Homme would not serve in any active military zone but was instead given the assignment of studying psychology at Cornell University, and then at the University of Wisconsin.
By the end of the war, Homme was processing and classifying discharging servicemen. One individual who he discharged from the military was John Huston, son of Canadian actor and Academy Award winner Walter Huston, and father to Anjelica Huston, another Academy Award winner. John would of course also win an Academy Award four years after he was discharged.
Once he was out of the military, Homme took a job with the University of Wisconsin State Radio Station WHA, which is where he began to develop his idea for what would become The Friendly Giant.
Homme would marry Esther Eleanor Anderson, and together they would have four children, Richard, Ann, Ruth and Peter.
While he was working at WHA, Homme would often drive from Madison, Wisconsin to Chicago where he would watch rehearsals of a new television show called The Dave Garroway Show. Described as a casual program of music, songs and chatter, it debuted in 1953 and only ran for one year but it would have a deep impact on Homme. He would begin to develop an interest in television programming and the idea of a children’s show began to form in his mind.
One aspect of the show forming in his mind was of a giant, which at the time were often portrayed as scary and evil. He would tell his wife that he wanted to change that view, and instead create a friendly giant. For Homme, taking something that was scary and making it nice made the character doubly nice in the process.
Homme would go to his superiors at WHA and ask them if he could create the children’s show. Even though the station was still six months away from getting their television license, he was given permission.
For the next six months, Homme began to work on the project, while also working full-time on the radio.
The Friendly Giant debuted on WHA at the University of Wisconsin on May 8, 1954.
Music was an important part of the show, considering how much music played a role in the early life of Homme. While he became famous for playing the recorder on the show, Homme was actually skilled with the clarinet and saxophone. He had purchased his first recorder as an inexpensive replacement for his larger instruments while he was stationed in New York City during his time in the military. As it would turn out, the recorder would become his signature instrument because of the show.
Seeing the potential for the show after viewing it, Fred Rainsberry, the head of Children’s Television at the CBC, would ask Homme to bring his show to Canada, offering him a 26-episode contract. As it turned out, he would have over 10 times that many episodes air.
The show would debut on CBC television in 1958, the permanent home for The Friendly Giant. The show would continue to run in the United States until 1970.
The show would always begin with the camera panning to the left of a detailed model of a village, farm or other location until it came to the Friendly Giant’s boot at the edge of the village.
The show broke with television convention when Homme did that with the perspective of the camera. By putting the miniatures of the set at camera height and then placing himself above the set, it prevented the viewers from seeing a full-sized person walking around a miniature set which would have given it a feeling of Godzilla. Homme kept his giant character somewhere in the shot to emotionally reassure preschool audiences and to minimizing the jarring effect of the miniatures and the full-sized person.
The Friendly Giant would then say, Look Up, Way Up and he would then invite the viewer to the castle telling him that he would get Rusty the Rooster, and open the drawbridge. The traditional folk tune, Early One Morning, began to play on the harp and recorder as the camera moved towards the Giant’s castle and the draw bridge dropped down.
The camera would then switch to a miniature furniture set, where the Giant’s hand would arrange the furniture for the viewer to sit at.
The camera would then pan up, and the Giant would call Rusty the Rooster, who lived in a book bag that hung on the wall next to the Giant and the window where Jerome the Giraffe would poke his head through. The bag that Rusty lived in was similar in concept to the Tardis of Doctor Who, in that it held anything the Giant needed and seemed to be much larger on the inside.
Both puppets were manipulated and voiced by Rod Coneybeare, although in Wisconsin they were manipulated and voiced by Ken Ohst. Coneybeare would handle the puppets on the show throughout the entire run-on CBC of The Friendly Giant. Coneybeare would say he got the job because he had a great voice, but more importantly, he was tall and that allowed him to operate both puppets with his long arms at the same time.
The 15-minute episodes would never be scripted, and instead followed an improvisational style that both Homme and Coneybeare excelled at. There would be a one-page summary for the episode, but that was it. This type of improvisational technique was very uncommon for children’s entertainment at the time. The slow, gentle nature of the discussions between Friendly, Jerome and Rusty was also quite unique, and would later be adapted by Mr. Dressup and Mr. Rogers. The show would begin with a gentle, humorous chat between Friendly, Rusty and Jerome, followed by a story from the book bag, and then a musical performance. If extra instruments were needed for a song, then other puppets such as Angie and Fiddle, The Jazz Cats, Patty and Polly and The Raccoons would play instruments. For all the harp portions of the show, including the opening, the show’s harpist John Duncan performed.
To end each episode, Friendly would then play Early One Morning on his recorder and say goodbye to the viewers, Rusty and Jerome, as he put the furniture away. He would usually say quote:
Friendly would then wave to the camera as it zoomed out and the drawbridge was raised. The moon would be above the castle and a cow would jump over it to end the show.
Homme would say in 1982 of the formats of the show, quote:
“We try to hold a child’s attention for 15 minutes on one subject, which is harder than keeping him amused a minute at a time.”
The show was often compared to Mr. Dressup, the other behemoth of children’s television. In 1970, Maclean’s would write, quote:
“Friendly is the shorter and simpler of the two programs but the simplicity is deceptive. It masks a careful structure worked out by Homme and his puppeteer, Rod Coneybeare, that has varied little over the years. Every program is built around a simple theme, the concept of changing, the people wear hats, that is illustrated either by a storybook or by music. Friendly is an obvious father figure. The kids identify with either a rooster puppet called Rusty, representing an excitable younger child, or with Jerome the Giraffe, the know-it-all older brother.”
At its height, the show reached 800,000 Canadian children each week.
Homme would say quote:
“We try to create an awareness in the child…There is no great psychological theory behind the show. We use our intuition. I try to act as a reasonable parent with a couple of kids. The mood is one of quiet masculinity. You could say that the manner is the messenger. We assume kids like us.”
While known as a friendly and kind man by all those around him, he would become steely and protective of the show if any producers tried to interfere. Coneybeare said later, quote:
“There were some producers who came along and thought Oh boy Bob, here we can do this we can do that, we can have more sets, we can have more puppets. That guy probably wouldn’t be back next week.”
In 1984, the new Progressive Conservative government of Brian Mulroney came to power and put in deep cuts on the CBC. One of the consequences of that was the cancellation of The Friendly Giant, although CBC executives stated that the cancellation did not have anything to do with the cuts.
The Globe and Mail would print in an editorial, quote:
“Why, why do the budget wizards always draw a bead on quality?”
An editorial in the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix would state, quote:
“No Friendly Giant on television! That’s like telling Virginia there is no Santa Claus! All the bureaucrats in the CBC hierarchy survived the budget cut but the Friendly Giant wasn’t big enough and the voices of the millions he has befriended over the years weren’t to be heard. Ahh, now who will our little people have to look up to? And where will parents ever find a better morning babysitter than the giant?”
Letters would be sent to CBC and the House of Commons over the cancellation. MP Barry Turner, a member of the Progressive Conservatives in Parliament from 1984 to 1988, would state on the floor, quote:
“The Canadian youth of tomorrow will be deprived of an unmistakable element of pure Canadian goodness.”
Unfortunately, his efforts to save the show were unsuccessful.
He would say years later though, quote:
“It was extremely soothing and peaceful, non-violent. It was wholesome. If you compare the tranquility of the show, he had to this incredible violence we see on television today, there’s no comparison.”
It was believed by many fans who grew up with the show that the decision to cancel The Friendly Giant was to create public outrage so that the funding cuts were reversed. While there was a great deal of anger towards the cancellation, the cuts were not reversed, and no new episodes of The Friendly Giant were made. The show would continue in repeats until September 1987 when it was removed for good from CBC to make way for new children’s shows. In all, over 3,000 episodes of the show were made, of which 850 are currently housed in the CBC Archives.
As for Homme, he would say of the ending of his show, quote:
“I hate to see anything end but I like repeats myself. It’s like a good book, you don’t read it just once.”
Of course, there was also sadness mixed in with the loss of the show for Homme. He would say in December of 1984, quote:
“Many people are calling, just to say thanks. I have to say I’m disappointed it’s over. I still have many ideas left.”
He would add, quote:
“I find that kids, being given so much information these days, become readily bored. They’re quick and precocious. When I began, I wanted to involve viewers one at a time, to engross a child in listening, listening is not a passive experience.”
Arguably the biggest praise for the show came from the giant of Canadian children’s entertainment, Ernie Coombs, aka Mr. Dressup. He would say quote:
“It was a good show for preschoolers. Good relationship were modeled. Each was interested in what the others had to say. There was a strong sense of dependability. Good music and stories in the program. We occasionally played practical jokes between our show in Studio 1 and Bob’s in Studio 2. Bob created a quiet and trusting relationship with his audience. The gentle ending of each show was reassuring.”
Over the course of its run, the show was honored many times including receiving awards from the Children’s Broadcast Institute of Canada, the Ohio State Award and a Ryerson Fellowship. The Ryerson award committee would state the award was, quote:
“Rooted in our conviction that The Friendly Giant program’s elegance, gentleness and its uncompromising commitment to its audience of preschool children reflect the highest possible standard of integrity in children’s television programming. It is your work as creator, writer and principal performer that we wish to recognize.”
The Friendly Giant was replaced by a new show, called Fred Penner’s Place. As a result of replacing such a long running and beloved show, Penner was unfairly labeled as The Giant Killer.
Following the cancellation, Homme would settle down to a quiet life on his property near Grafton, Ontario. He would join the Cobourg Rotary Club and with Wally Reid, a fellow Rotarian, he would form the musical group Time Share, which performed music in the area at retirement and nursing homes.
Even after the show was off the air, Homme was protective of it. When a band called Friendly Giants came along, the lead singer Stephen Fearing received a phone call from Homme who kindly asked that he not use that name for his band. Fearing agreed and he and Homme would become friends for the rest of Homme’s life.
Homme could have become a millionaire from licensing the show, but he refused to do it. Coneybeare would say, quote:
“Bob wouldn’t commercialize his bond of trust with the kids. He opened no supermarkets; you know because he didn’t want to spoil the illusion for the kids. He didn’t want them to know he was an ordinary guy of ordinary stature.”
Homme would become a Canadian citizen in the early-1990s, and on Nov. 2, 1998, he was awarded the Order of Canada. He was unable to travel due to battling prostate cancer, so the Governor General, Romeo LeBlanc, made the rare decision to travel to his home to award him the honour. Homme would say of the honour, quote:
“I’ll always remember this day as a perfect cap on 30-odd years of just having a wonderful time being friendly.”
Many would look back on the impact that the show had on their lives. Don Cherry would state that people often mistook him for Bob Homme. He would state what the show meant for his family, quote:
“My kids remember Friendly when I was playing in Sudbury. We had driven up from Springfield to play the Wolves of the EPHL. Friendly, Rusty and Jerome were a hit, not only for Canadian kids but my American kids too. It makes you wonder why they would not keep going with such a great show. Our family loved the music, the set, but mostly the lovely way Bob talked to the kids. I wish he was back.”
On May 2, 2000, Homme died from cancer at the age of 81. He would be buried at Fairview Cemetery in Grafton, Ontario.
Upon his death, Maclean’s would write, quote:
“At the end of each show, the sun set, and the cow jumped over the moon. In the Friendly Giant’s world, anything was possible.”
Letters flooded into newspapers as well. Samuel Wagar of Abbotsford would write quote:
“I can’t believe how upset I am. There are tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat. May the gods reward his sweet soul and kindness with rebirth into a life filled with happiness and joy.”
Douglas Cornish of Ottawa would write quote:
“Bob Homme served his country well and touched many Canadians’ hearts throughout the years, especially children. If anyone is wondering where this heavenly man is now, just look up, look wa-a-aay up.”
Coneybeare would say of Homme and the show, quote:
“It was so unusually quiet and normal. Bob, as a performer, was almost mesmeric. He would look at the camera and understand he was looking into the eyes of the little kids watching him. He got endless letters from mothers saying Thank you so much for those quiet 15 minutes. My kids just sit there and drink it in.”
His son, Robert, would say, quote:
“Producing shows for children was what he wanted to do all his life.”
In 2005, The Friendly Giant was honoured as a Masterwork by the Audio-Visual Preservation Trust of Canada. It is one of only 24 shows to be honoured as such. Other shows include The Beachcombers, Mr. Dressup and SCTV.
In 2017, during a ranking of the greatest television shows ever to air on CBC, conducted through a Twitter poll that received hundreds of thousands of votes, the Friendly Giant defeated several other iconic children’s shows including The Polka Dot Door before it lost in the Children’s Bracket final against Mr. Dressup.
Props, costumes and puppets were on display at the CBC Museum, but all items were removed from the museum in 2007 after Rusty and Jerome, without permission from the Homme family, appeared in a sketch at the 2007 Gemini Awards that the family stated was in poor taste and disrespectful of their father.
** Audio From Gemini Awards **
CBC would apologize for using the puppets in the sketch, stating quote:
Until 2017, the castle wall and window were on display at the CBC Museum. Currently, the railway yard used in the show’s intro is on display at the Pump House Steam Museum in Kingston.
Rod Coneybeare would pass away on Sept. 5, 2019, at the age of 89.
I will close out this episode with a quote from Coneybeare, who spoke on the death of Homme, quote:
“I think Bob Homme was one of a kind and it was my great good fortune and pleasure to have been able to share in his show with him. I think he was Canada’s greatest TV personality and writer, and he did it simply, authentically, with drollery and love. And we won’t see his like again.”
Information From Look Up Way Up, Canadian Encyclopedia, Macleans, Broadcasting-History.ca, Wikipedia, Edmonton Journal, Montreal Gazette, Ottawa Citizen, Saskatoon Star Phoenix,