Forty Years of Saturday Mornings
Nina Keogh was born into a puppeteer family. She spent decades bringing Canadian children’s favourite characters to life. Now, her beloved TV artifacts are on display in the Myseum’s new Mr. Dressup to Degrassi exhibition
As a kid growing up in Weston, Nina Keogh thought it was normal to have 300 puppets lying around the house. It was the family trade: her father’s parents started building marionettes in the 1920s, and their eight-foot-high creations were featured in the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s performances at Massey Hall, swaying onstage to Tchaikovsky. In the 1940s, her mom and dad built puppets in a barn on what is now Old Weston Road. They animated characters for window displays at Birk’s Jewellery before they graduated to the TV business in the ’50s.
It was only natural, then, that their daughter—at just 11 years old—went on to apprentice on the CBC kids’ show The Friendly Giant in 1958, providing extra hands for the puppets. So began Keogh’s 50-year career as a puppet builder, voice actor and puppeteer, bringing Canada’s most cherished children’s TV characters to life.
Now, puppets that she built and embodied in series like Today’s Special and Bookmice are on display at Myseum’s Mr. Dressup to Degrassi exhibition. Filled with nationally beloved objects from Keogh’s collection, the show features memorabilia from the golden age of Canadian children’s TV.
In the pre-streaming era, and particularly between 1954 and 1994, independent and public broadcasters were pumping out locally made shows with home-grown talent. During her career, Keogh worked alongside—or bumped into—bright lights like Jim Henson, Tina Turner, k.d. lang, John Candy, Dan Aykroyd, and more. She even dated Alex Trebek. “I remember necking on my couch,” she says. “He wore a black nylon turtleneck and was absolutely gorgeous.”
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The exhibition, on display until August 19, makes for a pleasantly bizarre trip down memory lane. It’s packed with memorabilia from ’50s favourite The Friendly Giant, ’80s hits like Degrassi and the mop-headed Grogs, the ’90s puppet troupe of YTV fame. (There’s even a polka dot door—but, sorry, you just missed Polkaroo.)
In a private tour of the exhibition, Keogh guided us through 40 years of Saturday-morning nostalgia.
The 1950s: A wall-to-wall timeline of Canadian kids’ TV doubles as a Keogh family history. “There was a very well-known show on the CBC, Razzle Dazzle, that started in ’61 and went on for five years. My father played Howard the Turtle—he was the main character. All the shows were live and in black and white. Hard to imagine now!”
The 1970s and beyond: By the ’70s, Keogh was firmly established in the Canadian TV scene—just as other big names were starting out. “I built puppets for a show called Dr. Zonk and the Zunkins. It had only one season, from 1974 to 1975, but my co-stars included Second City legends John Candy, Dan Aykroyd and Gilda Radner. I’ve never laughed so hard in my life. John Candy was the sweetest bear of a guy. He gave the best hugs. I just loved, loved being on that set.”
Degrassi Street: “This wall features TVs playing clips from Degrassi.” The show, which first premiered in 1979, spawned numerous reboots—including Degrassi: The Next Generation—and launched stars like Drake and Nina Dobrev. “The TVs are all from different eras, and I love the way they’re distorted—this is what TVs used to look like. You’d have to adjust the knobs to bring the visuals into focus.”
Today’s Special: “This was the big one and my favourite.” The kids’ show, which ran from 1981 to 1987, was set in a department store and was sometimes shot at the downtown location of the now defunct Simpsons retail chain. “It was the most expensive show that TVO had ever put on. I got to sing with Oscar Peterson, the jazz great, and we had Carol Kane, Bruce Springsteen, and Sharon, Lois and Bram on as guests.”
Muffy the Mouse from Today’s Special: “She was my character on the show—I operated her and did her voice. We once did an episode with a character who was an alcoholic and threatened Muffy. In that show, Muffy represented children who felt vulnerable and couldn’t say anything. Finally, she did say something, and the whole situation was resolved. We were nervous, since it was really controversial and heavy for the ’80s. But we thought, If we can empower one kid to speak up, we’ll have made a life happier.”
Today’s Special album, 1984: “We made an album of music from the show, which was nominated for a Juno in 1984. We went to the award ceremony, and all the nominees were in one section—to my right was k.d. lang, and in front of me was, rest in peace, Tina Turner.”
Mrs. Pennypacker from Today’s Special: Mrs. Pennypacker ran the store’s stockroom at night. “I built her out of reticulated foam—it’s the stuff in your furnace filters and speakers. It comes in big blocks, so I sculpted it, starting with an electric carving knife and then using progressively smaller pairs of scissors.”
Casey and Finnegan from Mr. Dressup: “They were Mr. Dressup’s friends on his show,” which ran on the CBC for almost 30 years, from 1967 until 1996. “They were supposed to be gender neutral. Nobody knew whether Casey was male or female, and Mr. Dressup never said he or she.”
Set pieces from The Friendly Giant: “This is a lovely recreation of the Friendly Giant’s castle—he’d put a big hand down and say, ‘Here’s two chairs to sit down in.’” The show aired on the CBC, for 15 minutes every weekday, for much of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. What looks like stone on the set is really a plywood wall held down by cinder blocks, which hid TV screens called monitors. “Puppeteers always use monitors because they have to see what the camera is seeing.”
Puppets from Bookmice: “After I did Today’s Special, I created three mice for a show called The Magic Library. They were so popular that they got their own show called Bookmice on TVO. Here, they’re posing with Exit the cat.”
Puppet video centre: “We’ve set up a camera so people can get a puppet and try working it.” The shot cuts off just above the puppeteer’s head, so only the puppet is visible on the TV. “The monitor reverses the shot, and I got used to that. But then I’d go in to do a TV commercial and the stagehands would offer to flip it for me, and I’d say, ‘No, no, no! I won’t know what I’m doing!’”
The Grogs from YTV’s The Zone: “These are the Grogs. They’re puppets that Jamie Shannon and Jason Hopley built for YTV’s The Zone, which still airs to this day—though the Grogs retired in 2009. It was a different era—the host was Phil Guerrero, but he went by PJ ‘Fresh’ Phil.”
The polka dot door: Polka Dot Door was a kids’ program that featured two hosts and Polkaroo, a large somewhat-abstract kangaroo who appeared when one of the hosts was off-screen (the show had only two actors). “It started in 1971, and I was a host for the first two seasons. That was fun! Lots of singing, though to call me a singer is to use the word loosely. I had to audition and everything—but luckily they still hired me.”