In the gentle world behind the polka-dot door, stories were read, songs were sung, tissue boxes were fashioned into castles and stuffed toys were earnestly consulted as though, some day, they might actually answer back. That world was the creation of long-time children's television producer and educator Ted Coneybeare, who died Jan. 16 after a long battle with cancer. He was 86.
Leo Howard Coneybeare, who created Polka Dot Door for TV Ontario and produced it from 1972 to 1984, was born to a farming family in Essex County in 1925. He attended Essex High School before graduating from the London Normal School with his teacher's certificate. He worked briefly with the Armed Forces in Canada at the end of the Second World War before he took up his first teaching job in a one-room school house in the hamlet of Oldcastle, near what is now the Windsor airport. He would wear his uniform to class on the first day to intimidate the students. He went on to teach in the Windsor public school system, increasingly using audio-visual aids and crafts in the classroom, while continuing his studies in education. He graduated with a bachelor's in education from Wayne State University in 1952, specializing in art education.
After an itinerant career teaching in Toronto, Peterborough and then in England, he eventually settled in Toronto in the early sixties and joined the Ontario Ministry of Education's teacher education branch, transferring into the new educational television branch in 1968. The ministry launched TV Ontario, the country's first educational channel, in 1970, and Coneybeare was in on the ground floor: It was as Ontario's assistant superintendent of pre-school programming that he created Polka Dot Door.
In contrast to the brasher tone and aggressively educational material of Sesame Street, which had been playing on PBS since 1969, Polka Dot Door took a quiet approach animated by rotating pairs of hosts, one male and one female, who chatted with each other and with the stuffed toys in a vocabulary carefully limited to that of children five and under.
"I think one of the biggest compliments is that people say, 'It's written?' Yet I cross every T and dot every I," Coneybeare told a Globe and Mail reporter in 1984. "Deliberately, the shows are not that polished – there's a hesitation, a naturalness. But it's designed specifically for the child, especially the child watching alone."
That child-centred approach was key, said Jed MacKay, who wrote scripts for the show under Coneybeare and took over as producer from 1985 to 1993. The hosts' chatter with the toys, an element that was sometimes parodied as the long-running show was picked up by PBS and provincial broadcasters across the country to became a fixture in Canadian life, actually replicates the way a child talks to toys, MacKay pointed out.
"Ted was the best friend that a child every had as far as TV goes," he said. "He really got kids. That was the secret of the success of the show."
Coneybeare's talent for visual arts education was also central to the show's success, MacKay said.
"Ted was a genius at the art side, the creative side for children. Any craft we made had to be with things every household would have: The joke was we were always making castles from Kleenex boxes," he said, suggesting Coneybeare's childhood on a farm had taught him to improvise with what you had at hand. "We had great props people who could build fabulous castles from Kleenex boxes, but we always made sure when the host did it looked more or less as it would if a child did it … We always tried to engage with our audience."
Initially inspired by the long-running British series Play School, the simple format featured stories, songs and crafts from the hosts as well as brief educational videos on topics such as how flax is made into linen or how firefighters battle fire. The content placed a great emphasis on the child's imagination – especially the kind of imagination that could conjure up a multi-coloured kangaroo-like creature in a muumuu who only spoke one word: Polkaroo.
Polkaroo appeared one day a week and never when the male host was present – which has led to many knowing jokes as the generation raised on Polka Dot Door grew to a less innocent age yet retained great affection for the iconic figure. Coneybeare himself was forced to play the role once, during a photo shoot for a Polka Dot Door album cover, when the actor who showed up was too large for the costume. To this day, Polkaroo is TVO's mascot, although the show itself went off the air in 1993 as program production was outsourced to independent producers throughout the TV industry.
Coneybeare received several awards for his work in arts education and television, culminating with the Gemini Awards in 2010 where Polka Dot Door, the first Canadian children's television show ever to go into syndication on a commercial network in the U.S., was the Masterworks honouree.
Coneybeare officially retired from TVO in 1982 but remained as producer until 1984 before he took up a life of travel with his long-time partner Raymond Snell, cooking and playing uncle to a lifetime of friends and relatives. He and Snell had been together since the late 1960s but only married in 2007 after same-sex marriage became legal.
He was predeceased by Snell, his sister Bernice and brothers Keith and Verne, but leaves his sister-in-law Phyllis Coneybeare and a large extended family of nieces and nephews, many still living in the Windsor area.
A memorial service will be held April 27 at 2 p.m. at The Metropolitan Community Church, 115 Simpson Ave., Toronto.
Editor's note: Peggy Nairn Liptrott was the originating producer of the TVO children's program Polka Dot Door, which began airing in 1972. She oversaw the first 30 shows before the program's educational consultant, Ted Coneybeare, took over.