by LORRAINE DMITROVIC
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
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
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
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
"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
headline at the Grafton
Village Inn. "Shelagh
& Bob" rang in this
New Year's Eve at the
& 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
After all, it's the
considerate thing for
a friendly giant to