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  • Annette Dawm

Creating a Positive Impact with Patty Sullivan

For nearly 30 years, children across Canada have grown up with Patty Sullivan on their TV screens. As one of the original hosts of TVOKids’ The Crawlspace, Patty then ventured onto Kids’ CBC (now CBC Kids) for 13 years. Although she is no longer a host at the station, she can still be heard in the new CBC show, Mittens and Pants. The live-action show features several animals, which makes sense since Patty originally wanted to be a veterinarian!

“…. This is not what I had planned on doing initially.” Sullivan explained. “I wanted to be a veterinarian when I was younger …. It was extremely different. So for anybody who’s like, ‘I don’t know what I want to do’ in high school, or they could even be in in their 20’s and 30’s and think, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore’, it’s fine. People change their minds all the time and life can take you to some weird and wonderful places if you let it!”

Patty’s television career began at TFO, the French version of TVOntario. While working behind the scenes, she saw an ad regarding an audition for The Crawlspace: “They were looking for hosts for a kids’ show.” She continued. “You had to make an audition tape and send it in. Then they narrowed it down. I’m not sure to how many, but eventually they narrowed it down to five people. I was told that they took those five tapes and showed them to kids. It was the kids who voted on who they liked best. So, knowing that I was picked by my audience felt really good.”

In the early days of The Crawlspace, Bill Nye the Science Guy came for a visit. He recalled his time in Toronto during a recent interview with CP24 Breakfast. Patty was blown away by the shout out, which also included her first co-host, Kevin Brauch:

“Oh my gosh! This literally just happened…. It was insanity! ….Bill’s show was produced by Disney so that in and of itself was huge! He was hugely popular. His show was immediately a hit when we had it on in The Crawlspace. So for him to come onto our little show—which had really only been on the air not that long, like, less than a year—he kind of gave us some legitimacy. Somebody like him coming on our program was amazing! He was such a nice guy!”

“We were able to spend a whole hour just having fun and taking phone calls and doing science experiments. It was live TV for an hour which was a little bit intimidating, but he was great! We all had such a great time and we ended up going out dancing! I wonder if maybe that’s why he remembered us because we were all just kind of like friends afterwards. It’s amazing! It’s nice when you meet people who you admire and they’re as nice as you hoped they would be.”

Patty also met Ernie Coombs (Mr. Dressup) and Marc Brown. In her mind, she thought of them as “icons”, but once she met them in real life, she realized that they were also just regular people:

"Ernie Coombs was the icon of children’s television. So having him on the show was just like a dream come true for somebody who’s in the business! Marc Brown was just so full of life and he was fun and he taught us how to draw Arthur (or as Joe Motiki called him, ‘The Phenom’)!” She added, “We didn’t meet anybody with big egos or anything like that. Everybody was so kind!”

Other than Arthur, Patty said that she really enjoyed watching Pingu. However, she was not as fond of Kitty Cats (a puppet show about two cats named Ricky and Tango). The series ran in the early 1990's:

“I liked Pingu! I thought Pingu was hysterical! When I first started on TVOKids, we had a show called Kitty Cats…. I don’t know what I thought was odd about it. I just thought it was a little bit strange. Maybe it was the style. It was an old fashioned type show. It didn’t look like everything else on the air and that’s fine. Everything comes from somewhere before and everything changes. It just came from a different era than what I was used to... but Pingu was odd in a good way! All of the shows had their own little quirks which made them fun and enjoyable. You could even say that Barbapapa was strange but it was much loved!”

Another beloved character from Patty past was Tumbleweed, an actual hamster. Tumbleweed was voiced by another co-host, Phil McCordic. Tumbleweed went onto star in Tumbletown Tales. Sullivan said the hamster inspired Phil to create Mittens and Pants “for sure!”

“Tumbleweed kind of came from the days of ‘Hammy Hamster’. Tales of the Riverbank was a show from a long time ago and it was basically a town filled with guinea pigs and hamsters. Tumbleweed was an homage to it. I think Phil was like, ‘Well, why can’t we have a Hammy Hamster type of town with all animals? Why does it just have to be rodents?’"

"I’m sure a lot of people thought, ‘Because it can’t be done!’ Well, yes it can!” She laughed.

According to Patty, Phil had been thinking about Mittens and Pants for a decade: “It’s been in his brain and he’s wanted to do it for so long! I’m so glad to see it come to life! I think people need to know that these things take time! You can have a great idea and it takes time to get it made. What’s lovely about it is it’s just about everybody getting along, no matter your background or where you’re from or what you look like. That’s the whole thing!"

"….Pants is a puppy who was adopted by bunnies. So it has all of these other things that it touches on very subtly. It’s not thrown in your face, but it touches on a lot of things that matter! They are important for kids to realize when they’re young. We can all get along no matter what your family looks like or who you are… and of course there is always humour in there! Whenever you work with Phil, there has got to be humour!”

Pants’ long list of friends includes Mittens the kitten as well as a wide variety of tortoises, hamsters, guinea pigs, chickens and even a fish! The first season was filmed during a time of COVID restrictions, so unfortunately Patty has not been able to see the animals for herself yet.

“I was always in the voice booth working with people there, but Phil told me many stories. It was very difficult. You’ll write a script and then the animals don’t do what you’d hoped. So you have to change the script…. Everyone who came in and did voices were just as excited to see it. So were the audio engineers. Everybody was just like, ‘I can’t wait to see this show!’ That is when you know you’ve got a hit, when the adults and kids want to see it!” Currently, there are 39 episodes available for free on CBC Gem and filming for season two is underway.

However, this was only one of many projects that Patty and Phil have collaborated on: “I’ve worked with Phil quite a few times over the years, behind the scenes. When I moved to CBC from TVOntario, I was there for 13 years and five of those years, he was in charge! As the head producer, he came up with a lot of the great content I did on CBC. People don’t realize this. Then he did a show called Zerby Derby, with motorized cars. I got to write some episodes of Zerby Derby….

Sullivan noted that with the Canadian television industry being so small, people tend to work together “again and again”. TVO and CBC are usually regarded as the main outlets for children’s television, especially in Ontario.

“TVOntario is provincial, so the next logical step is CBC, which is national. They’re both public broadcasters. So if you enjoy doing educational television, those are the two places to be, unless you’re in other provinces, because there’s Knowledge Network out west.” Most provinces have an equivalent to TVOntario as well.

That being said, Patty admitted that the television landscape has changed. Because of social media, children don’t connect to television as much as they used to. On the other hand, social media is also the reason Patty stays connected to her fans today:

“It’s been amazing! I run into people on occasion just out and about. That’s always nice, but what I love about being able to connect on social media is that it’s allowed me to reconnect with people who maybe don’t live in the same city as me. Or people who maybe grew up watching me on CBC, not just TVO ….I’ve even had people from The U. S. who were able to watch us through satellite or some other means…. You realize that what you did made a difference. You always want your work to have a positive impact. So hearing from people and knowing what we did had that effect is so important and so heartwarming.”

“I think back to when I was a kid, when I was 8-12, and those are really the years when things stick with you. I don’t remember everything from when I was a preschooler, but I certainly remember stuff from my preteen and teen years. So that’s what I mean with having a positive impact on those formative and impressionable times. It’s so different now! I don’t think young people have the same interactivity with TV…. This was all before the internet even existed! So we got actual mail that we opened! It was so different! We got in just under the wire of the whole social media craziness! I like that we had the ability to touch everybody’s stuff and hold it and open it and show it. We don’t have that anymore.”

As the television industry continues to shift, Sullivan shared that she is excited to see what else she can do: “I’m open to trying new things and I think that’s important too. No matter how old you are, you are never too old to try something new…. I think that we’ve all learned through the pandemic that we kind of have to enjoy ‘the now’. We’ve spent so much time going, ‘Well, in 10 years I want to be doing this’ and ‘in five years I want to be doing this’, or whatever…. It’s good to have goals and plans, but I think people miss out on now. I’m trying to enjoy the process of what’s happening in the moment.”

Finally, when asked about her career advice for others, Patty Sullivan replied: “If you’re someone who wants to be on camera, it is really great to get experience behind the scenes first, because the more you appreciate everyone around you and what they do, the better you will be at your job…. You will be a more well-rounded performer and team-player…. It’s a very collaborative environment and it’s important to be able to understand everybody’s role in the process….”

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Photo courtesy of Patty Sullivan/Pierre Gautreau.

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