On a typically hot, muggy Saturday afternoon in August, Patty Sullivan is outside Toronto's Rogers Centre, gamely trying to entertain roughly 100 kids and parents who are, for the most part, just killing time before a Blue Jays game.
In her act -- sandwiched on this day between a team of break dancers and a juggler -- the diminutive, unshakably perky redhead enthusiastically dances, sings and jokes on stage with a 6½-foot costumed version of children's TV character Lunar Jim, urging the youngsters in the small crowd to join in. All the while, she competes with yelling hot-dog vendors, souvenir hawkers and program salesmen, not to mention the general din of the crowd drifting into the baseball stadium.
Though her smile and her spirit show no evidence of waning, and though the youngest of her fans remain fixated on her with a combination of glee and awe, she's nevertheless losing the battle: About halfway through the half-hour show, almost a quarter of her audience -- a boisterous boys sports team, too old for this stuff -- ups and leaves.
"I think Lunar Jim and I made the best of a bad situation," Sullivan says. "It was definitely not our usual show."
She may not be a household name among baseball fans, but Sullivan -- host of Kids' CBC, the network's package of weekday-morning children's programs -- is a daily fixture in the households of many Canadian preschoolers, and the live stage show she does for Kids' CBC is a big hit with young audiences.
A 12-city national tour this year played to packed houses at every stop, with crowds of up to 2,000. The KidSummer festival at the CBC National Broadcast Centre last month drew 10,000 fans over two days of shows.
Those numbers are testament to how big a national star Sullivan has become with small viewers.
As national "anchor" for the programming package, Sullivan (known on the air as just plain Patty, or sometimes as her costumed alter-egos Power Patty, Presto Patty, Princess Patty, P.I. Patty and Prehistoric Patty) is an omnipresent force of youthful energy, filling the interludes between programs with funny, educational and musical vignettes with the help of four regional co-hosts.
Her easy smile, sense of humour and ability to connect with kids, both over the airwaves and on stage, have quickly made her the de facto public face of CBC Television's children's programming -- much as the late Ernie Coombs, as the beloved Mr. Dressup, was for a previous generation.
And with Mr. Dressup finally poised to leave the airwaves early next month after a remarkable 39 years on the national public network (the last 10 in reruns), Sullivan is about to step even more into the sizable shoes left in Mr. Dressup's tickle trunk.
On Sept. 10, exactly one week after Mr. Dressup's final airing ("The [ratings]numbers have been declining at a rapid pace," says Kim Wilson, creative head of children's and youth programming at CBC), Sullivan and her fellow regional hosts will begin their own half-hour weekly program, You're It. It will be the first half-hour preschool show produced in-house at CBC in five years. The show represents a new chapter in the network's rich tradition of in-house children's production -- a tradition that had lost its sense of identity before Kids' CBC was launched in 2003.
"It's a huge responsibility. That's why you need to tread lightly," Sullivan says. "I've had a couple of people say to me, 'How does it feel to be the next Mr. Dressup?' But I would never say that about myself, because I don't think that's possible. He was an icon, and he will always be an icon.
"But if I can carve out my own niche, that would be great. I would love it."
To see Patty on television, it's easy to think of her as a young pup straight out of school, propelled to the top by a network eager to establish a younger, hipper image. But she is, in fact, a veteran of 12 years of hosting children's programs in Canada, blessed with the kind of eternally youthful genes that only Dick Clark can fully appreciate. Even meeting her in person, the only hint that she might be older than her twentysomething appearance is the distinctive laugh lines around her eyes -- carved as much by her infectious smile as by the sands of time. (She won't say how old she is, but doesn't put up much argument when I suggest that she's 38.)
The Burlington, Ont., native had actually envisioned a career in news when she graduated from Ryerson University's radio and television program in 1990. "I thought I was going to be an anchor," she says. But after a couple of years working in news radio in Toronto, "it got to the point where I just found it depressing," she says. "There are never any happy stories in the news."
While working at TVOntario and performing in live theatre in 1994, Sullivan answered an internal job posting for a kids' show host, and spent the next nine years co-hosting the provincial public broadcaster's block of after-school kids' programs. She not only honed her on-air personality there, but developed an intensely loyal following. When TVO abruptly fired her in early 2003 -- saying she had put herself in a conflict of interest by hosting a documentary series on the W Network that aired at the same time as part of TVO's after-school block -- her fans launched a campaign demanding her reinstatement. (Sullivan never returned to TVO, but eventually received an undisclosed settlement.)
CBC-TV, which at the time was planning to revamp its children's package, didn't wait for the dust to settle at TVO. Kim Wilson, who had worked with Sullivan at TVO, saw the opportunity to add a major talent to the new package and was quickly on the phone to her old colleague.
"I got a call a day or two after 'the incident,' " Sullivan says, referring to her TVO dismissal. "Kim said to me, 'We're making changes here, you may fit into it, come down and let's talk.' Five months later, I had a job at CBC."
Wilson feels Sullivan is exactly the person she wants building on the tradition that CBC forged decades ago with the likes of Mr. Dressup and the Friendly Giant.
"To me, she is the next generation," she says. "I think she's the best children's host out there -- and not just in Canada.
"She's one in a million."
So, what makes Sullivan so special? Wilson says she has the intangible "sparkle and banter" that all great children's TV hosts have had -- a friendly, fun presence that automatically attracts children, coupled with an easy, direct communications style that speaks to kids as equals.
"If you break down what Patty has and what Mr. Dressup had, they're a lot of the same things," Wilson argues.
Praise like that can go to a performer's head, but Sullivan is intent on staying grounded. It helps that she's hardly being paid like a star -- her salary is based on union scales for her job classification -- and she and her husband of five years, Mike, live a modest lifestyle in midtown Toronto. "People don't get into this for the money. You get into it because you love doing it," she says.
Nor is Sullivan banking on the kind of longevity enjoyed by Coombs and other great children's-TV entertainers of the past. Indeed, her "humbling" experience at TVO has helped her appreciate simply having the gig.
"I never want to be one of those people who thinks they're all that, and thinks that I can't be replaced. Everybody can be replaced. You learn that," Sullivan says. "I appreciate every day that I get to work, because you never know when it's going to be taken away from you. It's the nature of this business. People say it's not a secure career, and it really isn't. But that's okay. I love doing it and I'm going to keep doing it as long as people let me."