“Look up, wayyy up.” So began The Friendly Giant, an extremely popular Canadian children’s show that ran for almost 30 years and is still loved by many today. Starring actor Bob Homme, The Friendly Giant featured a giant named Friendly (Homme) who lived in a castle with his puppet friends. There was Jerome, a giraffe, and Rusty, a rooster who lived in a book bag hung near a window.
Even though The Friendly Giant was simple and easygoing children’s fare, there were still plenty of on-screen moments and off-air controversies that got fans riled up. Some were good, while others may have you scratching your head. The last bit of controversy will leave you speechless.
While The Friendly Giant hit its stride with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, it actually had its humble beginnings in the United States. In 1953, the program played in Madison, Wisconsin on a radio station that was based in the University of Wisconsin. It didn’t stay long and moved to sister station WHA-TV. Some episodes got the attention of Fred Rainsberry, then CBS’s head of Children’s Television, and he later invited Homme to move the show to Canada. That move turned out to be the right decision since The Friendly Giant would later become its flagship children’s show.
Jerome The Giraffe
After entering the castle, Friendly would often have a chat with two puppets that lived with him. It may seem strange now, but many kids loved the idea when The Friendly Giant aired. The first puppet was Jerome, a Giraffe that would often stick his head in the window in order to talk to Friendly. Jerome was the more rebellious of the two puppets but never took his act too far. During the musical sequences, Jerome did the singing and would conduct. Jerome’s colorful personality was also matched by his pastel-hued appearance. So who else lived in the castle?
Rusty The Rooster
The second puppet that lived with Friendly was a rooster named Rusty. The youngest of the two puppets, Rusty was more inquisitive in nature than Jerome the Giraffe. This is probably why he chose to live in a book bag that hung on Friendly’s wall. Rusty was also musically talented and would play the harp and guitar during the musical sequences. Both Rusty and Jerome were used to imitate how children would behave. The three made quite an ensemble, and their easygoing chemistry gave the show a gentle, feel. Of course, behind every puppet is someone else’s hand.
The Man Behind The Puppets
While many children probably thought of Rusty and Jerome as two separate characters, they were actually played by the same person. Rod Coneybeare was a puppeteer and voice actor who also worked on some other popular kids shows. In addition to The Friendly Giant, Coneybeare loaned his voice to the character of Avalanche for the X-Men animated series, additional voices on The Adventures of Super Mario 3, and on the also well-known Magic School Bus. Coneybeare was also a writer, and would often work with Homme to create the dialogue. Together they appeared to make quite a team.
The Original Plan For Rusty And Jerome
While Coneybeare did an admirable job playing both Rusty and Jerome, this wasn’t the original plan. Another actor was supposed to play Rusty, yet the plans for that fell through. Coneybeare was then asked to take on double duty, which he did for the rest of the 30-year run. It is also rumored that someone else was going to play Jerome as well, however, his arm wasn’t long enough to go through the window. According to Coneybeare, when Jerome would enter with the other actor, he had to be slumped down and looked too much like a horse or a cow.
The Giant Himself
Though he developed a love of music as a child, Bob Homme didn’t start his life as an entertainer or a children’s show host. Homme spent time in the Army during World War II, then moved on to earn a degree in Economics from the University of Wisconsin. His actual career in broadcasting didn’t begin until he started working at a campus radio station. After The Friendly Giant was canceled, Homme became a Canadian citizen and was made a member of the Order of Canada in 1998. Homme died of prostate cancer in 2000 at the age of 81.
Where Did The Idea Come From?
So how did the idea of The Friendly Giant come to fruition? As the story goes, Homme began working at a campus television station on a children’s bedtime show. Because it was for children, the set was made up of tiny pieces of furniture. This meant little beds, chairs and such were just lying around the set. One day Homme caught a glimpse of himself with the small pieces in a mirror. He noticed his giant hand moving the pieces around and thought of the idea of a giant. The rest, as they say, was history in the making.
Never Seen In Public
When you star in a children’s show, it is pretty much guaranteed that young minds might think you are real. It’s only natural, especially when they have yet to distinguish reality from fantasy. Homme took this to heart, which is why he never made any public appearances as the Giant. His audience thought that he was huge, and he wanted to keep it that way. The sense of wonder was a bond he just could not see himself breaking. That showed great commitment and a respect for his audience, more reasons why the show touched so many hearts.
Music Was Front And Center
One of the more notable aspects of the show was the inclusion of music. Homme introduced children to different types of genres, including jazz. He often would play instruments, such as the clarinet or recorder. Jerome and Rusty would accompany Homme, but once in a while, the trio would be joined by the Jazz Cats, another set of puppets who helped bring the music to life. The show’s music was composed by the resident harpist, John Duncan. Keeping the music was just one way that Homme wanted to stay true to his formula for success and staying true to his audience.
Don’t Mess With Success
Unlike most shows that try to reinvent themselves as time passes, The Friendy Giant kept things almost the same for its entire run. The show was fifteen minutes long and was made up of a story that would be read to the children, then a musical segment. The ending also had Homme putting away the tiny furniture while inviting everyone to come back. The consistency is something that Homme and others felt made a bond with the kids. Though this did form a recipe for success, all good things eventually come to an end and The Friendly Giant was eventually canceled after many years on the air.
Slashed Budget Equals Cancellation
The official word for the cancellation of The Friendly Giant was the usual network excuse: slashed budgets. In 1984, the Canadian government made deep cuts to the CBC, which led to some tough decisions being made. One of them was to end the run of The Friendly Giant, though the CBC stated that the cuts had nothing to do with the show’s end. Public outrage ensued, with many fans writing angry letters for the show to come back. It did in the form of specials, but never again as a regular series. However, not everyone was convinced about the reason the show ended.
Another Cancellation Theory
Sometimes networks make room for new shows in order to attract a bigger audience. Other times they do it to bring in something that is new and fits with modern times. The latter is what many feel happened to The Friendly Giant, and because of that, fans took it out on the show’s replacement, Fred Penner’s Place. That show also featured a host with puppets, and while it lasted for a few years, many people still felt that bringing this show on was what put the nail in the coffin for Friendly. Perhaps that is why Fred Penner’s Place was often referred to as the “giant killer.”
Awards House Call
When Bob Homme was made a member of the Order of Canada in 1998, he was extremely ill. This meant that he could not travel to Rideau Hall in order to receive the honor. When you are a treasured figure in children’s programming, simply mailing the award will not do. That is why then-Governor General Romeo LeBlanc traveled to Homme’s house. That way he was certain that Homme would receive his well-deserved recognition. While Homme was probably touched by this, he was a very humble man and often considered what would be in the best interest of his audience.
Many stars of hit TV shows (and producers) try to capitalize on their newfound success by licensing their show. This means that the images and characters will appear on t-shirts, books, records, and toys. But that was not the case with Homme and The Friendly Giant. Homme refused to license the show or his image, especially since he felt it would break the bond he had with his audience. The only things he let through were one book and two CBC albums. Other than that, you wouldn’t see a Jerome or Rusty the Rooster stuffed toys on shelves anywhere.
Making It Up As You Go
The natural, relaxed feel was not just dependent on the chemistry of Hommes and Coneybeare. In fact, that was just a small part of the show’s success. The reason why everything felt so natural was that Hommes and Coneybeare ad-libbed most of their lines for each show. They would meet up before filming, then go over what they would talk about in that episode. However, they were not completely unscripted, since a one-page synopsis was used to outline each episode. This method also added a sort of spontaneity that was uncommon for a children’s shows at the time.
The Opening Sequence
Homme was very particular when it came to certain aspects of the show. Since he viewed it as a quiet playground for kids, he wanted an opening that was simple for children to follow. The first two minutes were devoted to easing the children into the show, with a slow pan followed by The Friendly Giant offering “a little chair for one of you, an armchair for two more to curl up in, and for someone who likes to rock, a rocking chair in the middle.” At the end of each show, the sun set and the cow jumped over the moon.
Music was another key character on the show. Homme made sure to bring in different styles to introduce to his young audience; everything from Cole Porter to Elizabethan madrigals. Homme felt that children needed to hear different types of music, and many attribute their love of music to The Friendly Giant. This is probably why top Canadian musicians would also stop by to play some tunes. Names such as Moe Kaufman and Peter Appleyard made appearances, among others. Of course, the musical guests were not the only things people wanted to see. Other minor characters were just as important and definitely beloved.
What, No Cow?
Today’s viewers love to point out errors, but not fans of The Friendly Giant. They were okay with a fifteen-minute show that started with the sun out, then all of a sudden ending with a cow jumping over the moon. No seriously, people really loved that cow. How much? Well, one time the show forgot it, and several hundred people called to complain. Let that be a lesson to all you future showrunners; don’t ever, ever forget to have the cow jump over the moon. If you think that is crazy, that is nothing compared to what fans did when the show got canceled.
And The Show Lives On, Sort Of
While the show may live on only as a memory to some, those who wish to see a part of their childhood can still see some of the original set. Some pieces from The Friendly Giant were given to the CBC Radio and Television Museum, which is located in Toronto. That means anyone who wants to take a peek at the castle or the miniature chairs can view them to their heart’s content. There was a time when you could see Rusty and Jerome, however, something happened that caused the puppets to be removed; something no one would expect.
A Rare Bit Of Controversy
Sometimes what seems like a funny idea just doesn’t work out that way. This is especially true when it involves beloved children’s puppets. In 2007 at the Gemini Awards, Jerome and Rusty were used without the Homme family’s permission. If that wasn’t bad enough, the clip they used featured the puppets smoking, drinking, and having sex while in retirement. The family acted quickly and reclaimed the puppets, taking them away from the CBC Museum and to another location. The CBC did apologize, however, the son of Bob Homme declared that even if the CBC had asked for permission, they would not have given it because of the nature of the sketch.