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Ross Petty, of Ross Petty Productions, is taking to the stage one last time as Captain Hook in Peter’s Final Flight! The Pan-Tastical Family Musical.Tijana Martin/The Globe and Mail

When Ross Petty talks about all the years he’s been booed by theatre audiences in Toronto during the holiday season, it brings a devilish grin to his face. Children gleefully booing at the top of their lungs, parents delightedly hissing alongside them. It’s been the cherished pleasure of Petty’s career.

So it’s perhaps no surprise that when he thinks about what it will be like to be booed one last time before the country’s most beloved pantomime villain retires – his swan song production, Peter’s Final Flight! The Pan-Tastical Family Musical, starts Saturday and runs until Jan. 7 – the usually chatty 76-year-old goes silent. The audience reaction is “the great pleasure of doing these villain roles,” Petty says. “I get very emotional even thinking about it.”

Petty had originally planned to retire in 2020, which would have marked his eponymous production company’s 25th anniversary of putting on pantomimes. He had already retired from performing in 2015, a needed break from the demands of producing and starring in the shows.

But the pandemic forced a change of plans. Petty did two years of virtual shows. Now that audiences can be back in the theatre, it is time, he says, to have one last go and call it quits. But he hasn’t really thought much about what he’ll do in retirement. There will be travel with his wife, Karen Kain, who retired from her role as artistic director of the National Ballet of Canada in June of last year, and plenty of time gardening at their cottage.

“I wish I could continue, but I have only so much mortal coil,” Petty says.

Born in Winnipeg, Petty got his start in theatre when his mother saw an article in the paper saying that a local theatre company was holding auditions for a production of The Student Prince.

“She said to me, ‘You’re a student. You could be the Student Prince,’” Petty recalls. “I blew the whole thing, but they did hire me for the ensemble for the chorus.”

He was 15 years old, and he was hooked.

“I just fell in love with that whole form of being with a company, the camaraderie, all the elements of show business,” he says.

A long acting career followed, including playing the title role in a touring production of Sweeney Todd.

But after marrying Kain in 1983 and performing together as “the token Canadians” in pantomimes from British theatre producer Paul Elliott, Petty was ready for a change.

“I was getting to the point in my life as an actor that I didn’t want to just be at everybody’s mercy. You know, you’re at the mercy of casting directors, agents, producers – producers, they’re the worst. And so I said, I wanted to take some responsibility and have some control of my life,” Petty says.

Petty chose Peter Pan as the final production because he will get one more chance to play his all-time favourite villain: Captain Hook.Tijana Martin/The Globe and Mail

He convinced Elliott to take him on as co-producer. When Elliott dropped the Toronto market in 1996, Petty took up the reins.

For the past few weeks, Ross has been preparing to perform for the first time since 2015.

“It’s kind of, you know, trying to get my chops back. My evil chops. But I think once I hit the stage, and that first audience starts to boo the hell out of me. Yeah, I think I’ll be back in the saddle.”

Matt Murray, Petty’s long-time writer, says this year’s show pays homage to Petty’s career.

“He has this unbelievable legacy. There’s no better way to describe it. It’s sort of unparalleled in our country, just a singular producing entity, consistently bringing something like this to the stage every year,” he says.

Petty chose Peter Pan as the final production because it gives him one last chance to play Captain Hook, his all-time favourite villain.

“He’s the most extraordinarily interesting, crazy villain you could ever possibly imagine. You know, full of arrogance. Couldn’t believe that anybody could be any smarter than him. He always had great ambition. He wanted to take over the world,” Petty says. “And the kids fall in love with him immediately.”

Kids falling in love with his villain, with the gleeful booing, with the show itself, is his legacy, Petty says.

“It’s been the greatest treasure of my life. To be able to do these kinds of shows, to have that kind of impact on a community, on a country, on a city where people just say, you’ve meant so much to us, to our children in particular, by introducing them to the magic of live theatre.”