It's usually hard to resist booing upon seeing Ross Petty.
But meeting up with Toronto's No. 1 pantomime villain in his dressing room a couple of weeks before he is to step on stage at the Elgin Theatre for his last opening night, I'm surprised to find myself more worried about shedding a tear.
After 20 straight years of twirling his mustache shamelessly, the 69-year-old actor is retiring from performing after he struts his stuff as Captain Hook in Peter Pan in Wonderland this season. Petty will continue to produce his annual holiday musical at the Elgin Theatre, but you'll no longer see him spouting groan-worthy jokes with a hook on his hand – or in a dress and five-o'clock shadow.
Like many local families who have made his shows an annual tradition, I will deeply miss hissing him.
"I had a choice of either giving up performing or giving up producing after the blood, sweat and tears of 20 years at the Elgin," he says. "I had to give up what I loved best in order to keep the tradition going."
Karen Kain, the artistic director of the National Ballet of Canada who has been married to Petty since 1983, feels her husband is making the right decision. "Forty shows in a row, eight shows a week," she says. "I could see the exhaustion level was pretty extreme – for a week after they'd finished, he was a ghost of his former self."
While Petty's scenery chewing may be coming to an end, it's more important that he continue with the commercial producing that is his deeper contribution to Toronto entertainment – a career the Winnipeg-born actor stumbled upon almost by accident.
Back in the 1980s, a British producer named Paul Elliott produced Christmas pantomimes over at the Royal Alexandra – in a hoary old British style, with set, scripts and most of the actors sent over from England.
In 1982, Kain was hired as a token Canadian to play the Genie in a production of Aladdin and his Wonderful Lamp. Petty, fresh off an acclaimed run in Sweeney Todd at the Alex, came to see his fiancée at a fairly disastrous dress rehearsal – and his first reaction to the anglophile art form known as panto was not terribly positive. "Afterwards, Ross said, 'I don't know what you've got yourself into,' " Kain recalls.
But a bad dress led to a strong opening and a spark was lit. Both halves of the Toronto power couple starred in an Elliott production of Dick Whittington and His Cat the following year. In one scene, Kain dragged Petty off by the nose as he muttered, "Not tonight, dear, I have a headache."
Soon enough, Petty – who had performed on Broadway and in London's West End, but who was looking for a way to control his career and stay close to his wife – talked his way into co-producing the annual pantomimes, which gradually became more Canadian.
Then, in 1996, a few years after Elliott abandoned the Toronto market, Petty launched his own series at the Elgin – and the rest is history. Well, almost. The second year he lost his shirt – going $200,000 in the hole.
Since then, however, Petty has perfected a fail-safe production model in a country where commercial theatre of any stripe has never developed a strong foot-hold. He's outlived the likes of Garth Drabinsky and Aubrey Dan.
Every year, Petty puts together a new "family musical" – the British term "pantomime" is hardly used these days by anyone but critics – from scratch, selling about 50,000 tickets over a five-week run. But the enterprise needs to get $2-million to break even – and that means the for-profit producer spends much of his year going to Corporate Canada, hat in hand.
How Petty keeps his shows out of the red has not endeared him to all. He remembers one theatre critic who "tore the hell out of me" for thanking Sears on stage while handing out gifts to pint-sized audience volunteers. But it didn't deter him – and, indeed, he doubled down on product placement five years ago, beginning to project ads for sponsors on a screen between acts.
Crass as these commercial interludes are, they take place in an environment full of innuendo-filled one-liners, minor celebrities from children's TV shows and pumped-up pop where crassness does not feel out of place. And, truth be told, they're often the funniest part of the show.
Has Petty ever had any ethical qualms about plunking ads into a kid's show? "Never," he says, arguing the shows wouldn't exist without sponsors. "Why would I feel wrong about it?"
The slippery question of whether family entertainment – even commercial pantomime – should be good for you is at the heart of whether you appreciate Petty's work.
To me, the appeal of his family musicals is that, unlike most children's shows, they never feel message-laden and are unapologetically fun. With their interactive elements – such as the booing of Petty whenever he walks on stage – they're the ideal way to introduce restless tykes to the magic of live performance.
Which doesn't mean that I haven't done my fair share of criticizing Petty over individual gags that I felt were overly crass – or irresponsible – over the years I've been reviewing him.
Petty believes most of his more daring ad-libbed jokes go over the head of the children in the audience – and feels a duty to make sure that adults, who count for 60 per cent of the bums in the Elgin's seats, are laughing, too. "I'm sure that I or other members of the company have made jokes along the way that we regret, but none of them come to mind at the moment," he says.
Dan Chameroy, the Stratford Festival veteran who returns this year to Peter Pan in Wonderland as the endearing woman-child Plumbum, suggests there's more care taken not to cross the line than you might think from certain Rob Ford jokes of yore. "It's a tricky thing – and Ross and our director [Tracey Flye] make sure we don't ever go too far that we'll offend parents," says the actor, who has a nine-year-old daughter whose first theatre experience was watching her dad don drag. "Everyone has a different gauge when it comes to what's appropriate and what's not."
When it comes to that central question of responsibility, Petty does admit he instructs the writers he hires to take a feminist approach to the public domain source material, so Cinderella or Snow White aren't just pining after the prince. But his approach to diversity has been less consistent than, say, his non-profit competition over at Young People's Theatre – one of the first theatres to mandate colour-blind casting.
Indeed, last year I criticized Petty for, unusually, having an all-white cast in his Cinderella, set in modern-day, multicultural Toronto. This resulted in an angry e-mail to me and CC'ed to everyone up to The Globe and Mail's editor-in-chief, calling my comments "out of line" – and listing the many actors of colour he has hired over the years.
Meeting in his dressing room a year later, I wonder if Petty has rethought his position in the wake of the new federal government's "because it's 2015" stance. He hasn't. "I cannot hire somebody of a different colour just to satisfy a portion of the audience that feels they are not being represented," the producer says. "I need to hire the most talented people that there are."
This is a bit rich given that Petty's fairy tales have an agreeably shambolic, occasionally indulgent feel, where "excellence" rarely seems to be the primary goal. He also regularly casts actors for fame as much as talent – notably putting Bret (The Hitman) Hart in his nationally televised production of Aladdin. "If you want to call it stunt casting, I call it something that appeals to a specific core of the audience," he says.
Well, my point exactly: Beyond the ethical imperative of diverse casting lies a commercial one in a city where visible minorities are almost the majority.
If Petty can seem defensive or dated in his approach to some issues, his shows are always au courant with kids' popular culture these day. For Peter Pan in Wonderland – in which the denizens of Neverland accidentally end up down Alice's rabbit hole – he's cast several actor/dancers from the Family Channel series The Next Step. Jordan Clark, who inspired lineups for autographs at the cast door for The Little Mermaid in 2013, is back, along with her co-stars Lamar Johnson and Taveeta Szymanowicz.
Petty has no children – "that's the way it worked out; it wasn't a choice" – and there are no youngsters in his extended family, so he relies on trusted creatives such as writers Chris Earle and Reid Janisse, and director Flye to talk to the little ones in their lives.
This year, for instance, Janisse saw his six- and nine-year-olds join a group of children losing it on the dance floor to a song called Watch Me (Whip/Nae Nae) at a wedding. It's making it into the show in some form. Says the comedian and writer, in charge of the ads these year: "Ross will usually get us to explain what something is and then say, 'If you think the kids are going to be into it, I'll try it up on stage.' "
Janisse and Chameroy sing Petty's praises as a producer and collaborator; hiring local actors, writers and directors over the holidays when a lot of tours come to town makes him a much-loved figure in the theatre and comedy community. They don't need to worry yet – he'll keep producing as long as he can. "There isn't a backlog of people looking to take over," Petty says.
So who will step into Petty's shoes and/or his dress and play the baddie in 2016? "I don't know," he says. Then, he can't resist one of those politically incorrect one-liners that make you love or hate him. "There's a lot of talent out there – maybe even somebody of colour." Boo, Mr. Petty. Boo.