After 20 years of annual Christmas pantos, Ross Petty acts in his final production with the opening of Peter Pan on Friday. The co-writer of two of those productions looks back on the zany, fart-filled, and much-loved tradition.
In the summer of 2010—while our friends got drunk in bars and swam in lakes and generally enjoyed themselves without worrying about how to wedge another pratfall into a fairy tale—my girlfriend Lorna and I locked ourselves indoors, fought about the specific wording of fart jokes, and desperately tried to figure out how to make Ross Petty happy.
If you’ve lived in Toronto at any point during in the last 20 years, you’ve seen Petty’s face—thick with stage make-up, often in drag, plastered across posters advertising his latest pun-stuffed holiday show. Since 1996, Petty has produced his own local version of an English pantomime, that ancient theatrical form that takes a traditional fairy tale, filters it through centuries of repressed British sexual perversion, and produces a show thick with double-entendres, cross-dressing, audience participation, and appearances by local celebrities. Over the years, Petty’s pantos have starred his wife Karen Kain, wrestler Brett “the Hitman” Hart, figure skater Kurt Browning, and countless cast members of Air Farce, Degrassi and Canadian Idol. Petty always plays the villain, sneering from season to season, luxuriating in the boos of the children that fill the Elgin Theatre.
That year, Lorna and I were his writers. We’d put on our own goofy musical comedy that winter and, after learning that Petty was looking for a new writing team, we sent him a treatment of a fairy tale filled with gags and plot twists we thought kids would find appealing. It seemed like it could be a good, weird gig, maybe even one that paid. Against all expectations, he hired us. And so we spent the rest of the year fruitlessly trying to please him.
Petty worked from a gleaming office tower at Yonge and St. Clair—some sleek building that seemed to be made entirely of burnished surfaces and felt miles away from the gaudy world of children’s musical theatre. In person, without stage make-up or elaborate wigs, Petty looked older. In his youth, Petty had sung at Le Lido in Paris. He’d performed with Ginger Rogers in Anything Goes on Broadway and played Sweeney Todd in the Hal Prince version of the show. He was charismatic and intimidating. It was also very clear that he regarded us as children who were not to be trusted with his show.
In our first meeting, Petty led us into a boardroom and we sat awkwardly around one corner of the mammoth table. We pitched him our very best Beauty and the Beast idea. Petty frowned. We moved on to our second best idea. His frown grew. I looked down at my list of increasingly bad concepts—“Belle is journalist writing exposé on beast”; “Gaston and Beast are step-brothers”—and felt a new, very specific kind of terror.
For the next six months, we met with Petty to work on the show. (Just as an aside: is there a creepier children’s fairytale than Beauty and the Beast? The moral is: if you imprison a girl long enough, she will learn to love you, even if you’re a monster. It’s basically Room with talking flatware). We would get emails from Petty in the early hours of the day. “Woke up this morning and that’s the good news,” he wrote, before spitballing a couple ideas. He’d just seen Glee for the first time the night before: what about a performing arts school twist? Or, conversely, why not add more of a circus element to the show? One afternoon, deep into a first draft, Petty sat us down in his office with a new idea. “What if we make my character…the King of the Vampires?”
We spent that year attempting to please Ross Petty—not just because he was our boss—but because, it turned out, delighting Ross Petty was a genuine pleasure. We liked him. We wanted to make him laugh. Whenever we met, Petty was worrying over a different aspect of the production—trying to get another sponsor on board, busy figuring out how to order a new set of painted backdrops from his man in Quebec. The pantomime was his baby. He wanted so badly for it to be great and we wanted to help him.
We handed over a script and, a few months later, went to opening night at the Elgin. On stage, it was clear that our work was a total mess—a genuine shambles, with plot holes papered over with arbitrary acts of magic, an entire section in which we had Scott Thompson recreate his Queen Elizabeth act from Kids in the Hall, and a singing beaver called, yep, Justin Beaver. It didn’t particularly matter. The actors were charming, the kids whooped and hissed, a heartfelt duet between the heroine and her pet sheep brought tears to my eyes. And Petty was a man transformed. He stomped onto the stage in a ridiculous robe and soaked in the jeers. He insulted the children in the audience with a glint in his eye. The dignified middle-aged man who had been so intimidating in the boardroom was now capering around the set, shameless and spritely, growling out a Lady Gaga song with a louche casualness. He was as delighted as I’d ever seen him.
This winter, at 69 years old, Petty will perform his last pantomime. He’ll keep producing the shows—sending out teams of musical theatre vets and Canadian almost-celebrities to do the mugging that he’s perfected over the years—but the shows won’t be the same. Toronto doesn’t have many institutions. We’re still a young city and an impatient one, eager to get to the next thing. We tear down buildings because, well, they were cheap to begin with and there’s always room for improvement. Our performers inevitably leave for better places and if they don’t we treat them with suspicion. Who else has been around for 20 years? Who else can say they’ve mocked multiple generations of children from one of the city’s great theatres? Petty treats a silly art form with the utmost seriousness for 11 months and then, for a few brief weeks, unleashes the goofiest, hammiest performance he is capable of. It is, during this holiday season, best described as an act of generosity. The appropriate response is to go to the Elgin, accept the gift in the spirit it was offered, and boo the hell out of him.