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Feature article published in The Independent, as it appeared in the Independent’s website prior to the newspaper's sale to Northumberland News in 2007.

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March 11, 1999

Looking back with Grafton's Friendly Giant

Special to The Independent

Children of all ages are familiar with the lilting notes of "Early One Morning" as a castle comes into view, gates opening wide. Who could resist the invitation to "Look up, way up"? No other TV show could boast of having a Giant, a polka-dot rooster and a harmonica-playing giraffe in the cast.

Today The Friendly Giant is only seen in re-runs, but Grafton residents sometimes catch the show's creator playing clarinet in local venues. Robert Homme, who was invested in the Order of Canada last fall, has enjoyed a summer home in Northumberland County for almost 30 years, and has lived near Grafton year-round for the past decade.

The Friendly Giant was already running on educational TV in the U.S. when a one-time invitation arrived from the CBC. Wisconsin-born Homme came to Canada in 1958 and did his act live on a Sunday afternoon special, hoping it would be his shot at the bigtime. "The CBC was Shangri-La to Americans in the business. It was already a big network then," he says. Back home in Wisconsin soon after the stint, he was offered the opportunity to work at the CBC on a freelance basis. He signed a 26-week contract, sold his house, packed up family and belongings in the station wagon, and headed for Toronto ten days after his youngest son, Peter, was born.

One minor setback. His puppeteer decided to stay behind. Luckily Homme happened across the CBC radio program, "Out of This World", written and performed with multiple roles by Rod Coneybeare. Homme relates, "Rod was a gift from heaven. He could act, had imagination, and could play more than one part. He was ideal."

At first Coneybeare was reluctant to even try on a puppet, but a dramatic change came over him when he screen-tested in a studio. "He just came to life, like a lot of kids do when you give them a make-believe role," says Homme. "He was perfect with the voices of Rusty and Jerome. Without any rehearsal at all we fell into an ad-lib act like we'd been doing it all our lives. We clicked right away."

The show also clicked with viewers when it began airing September 1958. It ran on CBC 28 years, signing off with a last original show in March 1985.

The show's name originated when Homme worried his character might be too frightening for children. "Not if he's a friendly giant," said Esther, Homme's wife of 51 years.

Esther also created the first giraffe neck of Jerome, using a buckram-lined reddish beach towel, dabbed with blue spots, attached to a custom-made head. Homme knew the only logical character a giant could speak eye-level with was a giraffe. "Jerome was 16 feet tall - my height," he smiles.

The rooster made his screen debut first, while Jerome was being perfected. The polka-dot puppet belonged to Homme's four-year old son, Richard, who'd named it Rusty.

He thinks the show's popular success came from limiting each 15-minute program to one subject, book or music, and gentle presentation. He explains, "Early TV like "Howdy-Doody" was shouting at kids. The standard formula was "hit kids over the head, be loud, be funny". But I wanted to speak kindly and intelligently as though to my own son; I would never speak down to a young audience. I think it was the best way to convey the "considerateness" we wanted to encourage - to show how to be good through being thoughtful."

The Hommes first became aware of the Grafton area in 1958 on drives east from Toronto.

During numerous trips to Expo '67 they felt drawn by signs like "Shelter Valley Road", becoming curious enough to investigate Northumberland further. In 1969 they purchased 50 secluded acres, thick with fir trees and rolling hills. By 1970 construction was complete on a cedar log cabin (which has since sprawled into two stories and a coach house), set atop a steep knoll, well in from the road. Perfect for a giant's weekend and summer hideaway. "I didn't work during the summer anyway. It was great for four kids, and had an excellent trout stream," says Homme.

In a ceremony in Grafton last fall, he was awarded Member of the Order of Canada by Govenor-General Romeo LeBlanc, whose office stated he was "an icon of childhood." Homme, who has been a Canadian citizen for the last five years, says "It's a great honour, considering there were a great many nominees."

At 79, he's still a busy man. He (on clarinet) and neighbour Shelagh Purcell, an accomplished pianist, occasionally headline at the Grafton Village Inn. "Shelagh & Bob" rang in this New Year's Eve at the Oasis Bar & Grill in Cobourg.

Homme and his wife are often seen in Brighton at Wine Café Louisa, one of their favourite dining spots. He'll just give his quiet smile, and perhaps sign an autograph, if he's recognized while out and about.

After all, it's the considerate thing for a friendly giant to do.

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