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.
“Now all the shy girl was hiding behind was this big blue clown nose,” she says. “But it was an epiphany because I just loved performing with and for the children.”
The Wagners eventually parted ways. He moved back to P.E.I and she stayed in Halifax.
One day in the early 1980s she got word that renowned puppet master Jim Henson was holding auditions in Toronto for Fraggle Rock.
She landed the job and worked for this successful puppet television series for five years.
She was literally Jim Henson’s “preferred right hand” when he performed on the series.
Wagner fondly remembers a day when she was working on the set of Sesame Street’s movie Follow That Bird, in which she played Miss Finch, the annoying social worker. She was stuffed inside a big bird costume waiting for the next scene.
“The scene is with Kermit the Frog and so we’re waiting and waiting. So Jim, as Kermit, starts fooling around with me, cracking jokes and I’m talking to Kermit and we’re just going on and on. All of sudden I thought how in the world did I get here!” she roars with laughter at the memory.
Her puppetry talent led her to the set of Mr. Dressup for three years in the early 1990s, where she puppeteered the character Annie, who came on the show scene because Casey and Finnegan had moved to British Columbia.
“Ernie Coombs, Mr. Dressup, was the most wonderful man to work with. What a gift,” she remembers.
In Fraggle Rock, puppeteers worked standing up, but it was the old school way at Mr. Dressup.
“They were still doing it like 1950s television, hiding behind something, live to tape. If you have to be in another (spot), they didn’t stop. You had to crawl and run behind things to get there and very rarely did they ever stop taping,” she says.
In the midst of this, she and Rob Mills, who had also been with Fraggle Rock, decided to produce The Big Comfy Couch, starting in 1992.
“We were figuring out ‘How do we make television? Let’s find out.’ So we successfully managed not only to get funded for the first season but we’ve gone on to make 100 episodes of The Big Comfy Couch,” Wagner says of this Canadian children’s television series which is now in reruns on Treehouse TV.
Plenty of television projects followed, both in Toronto and Halifax.
But when Wagner came to visit family here at Easter in 2006 the pull of P.E.I. drew her in again. She decided to stay and now lives in Charlottetown.
She was the P.E.I. Creative Development Representative for Super Channel from 2008 until 2010 when she and her daughter, Harmony Wagner, formed Periscope Pictures in Charlottetown.
Their first production is 15 five-minute episodes in the preschool webseries Bunny Bop! which features preschoolers in bunny suits playing and learning in a daycare setting and a bouncy puppet named Buddy Bunny.
“It was what I call my one last other great idea besides (The Big Comfy) Couch. . . ,” Wagner says.
“It was always sitting there and I had a girlfriend who loved it. She’d always say to me that’s the best idea. It’s a reality show for three-year-olds and when you’re three you can be a bunny.”
As always, Wagner’s life is an unexpected work in progress, but she likes it that way.
“I jokingly say I’m going to write my memoirs and it’s going to be called The Further Adventures of a Coward because I really was afraid of everything. But I just kept on, somehow, saying yes and then fate would scoop me up and away I’d go. So I’ve learned how not to be that terrified shy girl. I’m still the shy girl. I’m just not terrified and I don’t let it stop me. . . ,” she laughs. “If I ever had a tombstone, which I won’t, you could put on it ‘She made children laugh’ and at the end of the day what more could you want?”
AT A GLANCE
Bunny Bop! is a new webseries created by Emmy and Gemini Award-winning producer Cheryl Wagner of Charlottetown.
The series features the puppet character Buddy Bunny and real children — all local youngsters under the age of five — in cute bunny suits, playing and learning.
The show has viewers from across Canada and as far away as Abu Dhabi, Scotland, Ghana, Japan and New Zealand.
Bunny Bop! is made entirely in Charlottetown and is available free at www.bunnybop.com and on YouTube.
Wagner has a long track record in children’s entertainment, through her work on award-winning television series, including The Big Comfy Couch, Poko, Bo on the Go!, Panda Bear Daycare, Fraggle Rock and Mr. Dressup.
Wagner’s company, Periscope Pictures, has produced 15 five-minute webisodes of Bunny Bop! New shows are posted weekly. The site also features fun downloads such as free colouring pages. The first season of Bunny Bop! was funded by the Independent Production Fund’s Web Drama Series Pilot Program, with the participation of Innovation P.E.I. and the Island Media Arts Co-op.