Year Born: 1919
Year Died: 2002
Homme, Robert (1919-2002)
“The Friendly Giant”
For more than 26 years in more than 3,000 episodes, Bob Homme convinced at least three North American generations that giants exist, and they are friendly. As “The Friendly Giant” on CBC television, Homme (pronounced HOMM-ey) targeted the pre-school market, but also attracted the tots’ older siblings and parents with each 15-minute episode, featuring storytelling and music on his miniaturized castle set, with puppet sidekicks Jerome the Giraffe, Rusty the Rooster and the Jazz Cats.
Born in 1919 in Stoughton, Wisconsin, Homme launched the original version of “The Friendly Giant” in 1953 on WHA-AM 970 Radio in Madison at the University of Wisconsin. A year later, a television version of the show debuted on the university’s WHA-TV. In September 1958, Homme moved to Canada and began producing his show at the CBC.
With Rod Coneybeare both manipulating the puppets and performing the voices of both Rusty and Jerome, the pair rehearsed without written dialogue before going in front of the cameras to tape two or three episodes per day. Homme played wind instruments, such as the recorder, the tin whistle, or the clarinet, Rusty played harp (which was actually played by John Duncan), and Jerome sang along. Once a week, they were joined by the Jazz Cats, a pair of puppets who played a musical concert of their own.
Each show was usually introduced with the voice of the Giant saying: “Once upon a time, not long ago, not far away…” as the camera panned a miniature town until it stopped at an enormous boot. Then the voice said: “Look up. Wa-a-a-aay up…” as the camera tilted up to the Giant’s face.
The theme song, “Early One Morning,” played on each program on a tin whistle along with a harp, will always evoke images of the show for millions of Canadians. As it played, the Giant arranged “one little chair for one of you, and a bigger chair for two more to curl up in, and for someone who likes to rock, a rocking chair in the middle.”
An account of the show in Maclean’s magazine in April 1970, noted the puppet characters represented typical children and points of identification for young viewers. Rusty, who was small, and spoke rapidly in a high-pitched falsetto, was the excitable younger child, while the large, drawling, low-voiced Jerome was the know-it-all, older sibling.
The show’s run ended in March 1985 when the CBC instituted massive budget cuts. When the announcement of the cancellation was made in 1984, it prompted the Globe and Mail to question on its editorial page: “Why, why do the budget wizards always draw a bead on quality?”
Homme took it like a gentleman.
“I hate to see anything end,” he said. “But I like repeats myself. It’s like a good book — you don’t read it just once.”
He was honoured with the Order of Canada in 1998 with a rare procedure — Governor-General Romeo LeBlanc traveled to Homme’s hometown of Grafton, Ont., to present him with the medal in person.
Bob Homme died May 2, 2000 of prostate cancer at his home in Grafton, at the age of 81. Homme was survived by Esther, his wife of 51 years, their four children and numerous grandchildren.
Within hours of the news of his death, tributes were posted at such media Internet sites as Tvparty.com, where one man wrote of The Friendly Giant: ” My condolences to his family, and all 30 million of his kids… us.”
Puppets Jerome and Rusty, the castle, the little chairs and castle backdrop, as well as Friendly’s clothing, are on display at the CBC Radio and TV Museum at the CBC Broadcasting Centre, 250 Front Street West in Toronto.
Written by Joseph Chrysdale – April, 2005