Beyond her wildest dreams

Mary MacKay
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Emmy and Gemini Award-winning producer Cheryl Wagner of Charlottetown has created a new webseries, Bunny Bop!, starring an adorable rabbit puppet named Buddy Bunny.

A back-to-the-land dream led Cheryl Wagner to Prince Edward Island in the 1970s.

What happened next was an entirely unexpected journey into the world of children’s entertainment as a puppeteer, working with Jim Henson on Fraggle Rock and Ernie Coombs on Mr. Dressup and more, including creating and producing the smash preschool hit series The Big Comfy Couch, which went on to win a Gemini and Emmy.

Wagner was recently awarded the 2011 WIFT-Atlantic Wave Award for outstanding contribution in the field of children’s entertainment, which she continues to create to this day.

“I’ve had this amazing journey and it isn’t over yet because here we are with Bunny Bop!” grins Wagner, who launched her new preschool web series on Feb. 3 of this year to coincide with the Chinese Year of the Rabbit.

It all started in the early 1970s with that idealistic back-to-the-land idea shared by Wagner and her then husband, Ron Wagner, who at that time lived in Toronto, Ont.

The newlyweds had hitchhiked through the Maritimes prior to that and had fallen in love with P.E.I.

“We had a broken down red Volvo, 100 pounds of brown rice, a dog and a cat, a case of tuna and a case of ketchup because he was addicted to ketchup. And $100! And we decided we were moving to P.E.I,” she laughs.

“We rented a house for $80 a month so we were down to $20. We bought half a cord of wood for $11. Can you imagine? We were so young and silly. We had our rice, (so we thought) we were fine.”

Both were university graduates, but work was not as plentiful as they’d hoped.

However, karma was certainly on their side because the federal government of the day had a Local Initiatives Program (L.I.P.) that offered people grants to try projects that would be new to P.E.I.

“So we scratched our heads and kept coming up with ideas,” Wagner says.

“One day Ron came home . . . and said ‘I’ve got the idea! A touring puppet company theatre! We’ll go to schools and old age homes and everything.’ “

There was one little glitch in this mind-blowing plan — neither had one iota of experience.

But that didn’t stop them. They put forth a proposal anyway.

Christmas was approaching so they scraped together enough money to get back to Toronto by train. When they arrived they had just 10 cents to their name and that was to call his father from a payphone to pick them up.

“We couldn’t even buy a cup of coffee. To me, it was like defeat . . . ,” Wagner says.

But an early Christmas gift soon changed that. On Dec. 23 they got a call from P.E.I. informing them they’d been awarded a $25,000 L.I.P. grant to do a touring puppet theatre for a five-month period.

“Can you imagine? That’s like $100,000 now!” Wagner says.

“I really do think — and this sounds corny but here it comes — I think there was a destiny involved in this: that we were useful to some power that wanted us to start this world we entered into. And it turned out that we had talent. And who knew it?”

The Wagners formed the P.E.I. Puppet People and began using puppetry to present their positive message shows.

There was one problem with this fledging performer.

“I was morbidly shy. When we first started these puppet shows . . . I was so shy the other puppeteers were not allowed to look at me while I did my puppet and I couldn’t come out for a bow,” she says.

“It’s difficult to believe (that of me) now. But puppetry saved me (from that extreme shyness).”

By chance they later attended a Puppeteers of America festival, which was an eye-opening education in the art of puppetry for them.

This Gemini Award-winning producer did her first puppet television show on P.E.I.

“We had to shoot it overnight after the news ended and then go (until) morning when they needed the television studios again. And we did a Christmas special. It was crazy, but that was our beginnings of learning a little bit about TV puppetry,” Wagner says.

It was when they had two small children and were living in Halifax, N.S., that the business of clowning around came into play.

“Ron decided to dress up as a clown, he went out on the street to the delight of the neighbourhood and discovered his true calling as a clown. I remember going ‘What? We have two kids and you’re going to be a clown. . . ?’ But it was beautiful,” Wagner remembers.

They went to see a spectacular travelling Circus Minimus that was wrapping up its tour with a final clown show in Halifax.

“We were very impressed with one of the clowns . . . and we invited him home for a bath and a piece of blueberry cake and he stayed for six months and trained us,” Wagner laughs.

And so the Wagners founded the Merrytime Clown & Puppet Company in 1977, which in the beginning was just the two of them and a bunch of puppets.

 

Organizations: Volvo, Jim Henson, Merrytime Clown Puppet Company Periscope Pictures Independent Production Fund Island Media Arts Co-op

Geographic location: Prince Edward Island, P.E.I., Toronto, Ont Halifax Charlottetown America British Columbia Canada Abu Dhabi Scotland Ghana Japan New Zealand

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  • Adelle
    April 25, 2011 - 11:00

    What a great story!! My 9 month old daughter and I absolutely LOVE Bunny Bop!!! Educational and Hoppy:) Keep the clips coming!!!

    • Karen Berrouard
      April 28, 2011 - 23:10

      What an amazing story!. Congratulations to Cheryl, who never stops loving and, being loved.Happy Year of the Rabbit from China!