Canadian Theatre Legend Ross Petty, 76, Talks His Annual Holiday Pantos and Suiting Up as Captain Hook for One Final Run
Ross Petty poses on stage at the Elgin Theatre ahead of a 2017 production of 'A Christmas Carol.' This year marks the 27th and final year for Petty's annual holiday pantos. Photo: Andrew Francis Wallace/Toronto Star via Getty Images
Toronto theatre audiences have been booing Ross Petty for nearly a quarter of a century, and that’s the way he likes it.
The 76-year-old actor and producer has staged his beloved children’s holiday pantos in the city for the past 27 years — 25 of them live, along with two years of virtual pandemic shows. Each year, the pantomime revolves around a different fairy tale or famous children’s story — think everything from The Little Mermaid to The Wizard of Oz to Aladdin to this year’s offering inspired by Peter Pan — with Petty often playing the villain and relishing the jeers from the kid-heavy crowds.
But after retiring from the stage in 2015 to focus on producing the pantos, Petty is ending the holiday tradition for good this year — a bittersweet goodbye for the generations of fans who’ve grown up with the comical performances.
“Well, I appreciate the fact that I’ve had so many people contact me, and saying, ‘Hey, you know, we used to come as kids and now we’re bringing our kids,’” Petty told Zoomer via phone during rehearsals for this final run. “I mean, there’s been a real cyclical thing going on here with families, generation after generation. But, you know, there comes a time for everything to kind of find its way to the end of the road. I would love to have been able to carry it further, but I am of a certain age.”
Petty also noted that working year-round to secure funding for the annual show from corporate sponsors was becoming untenable.
“Even after 25 years, corporate Canada … still were kind of reluctant to be there,” he explained. “There were many companies, obviously, that supported me strongly over the years, but it was always like pulling teeth. Listen, if I were a sports franchise, they’d be lining up outside my door. But something about culture, and theatre in particular, was making it a bit reluctant on their part to come onside.”
So this year, for the last time, a Ross Petty production hit the stage at Toronto’s Elgin Theatre, with Petty himself coming out of retirement to play his favourite character — Captain Hook — in Peter’s Final Flight: The Pan-tastical Family Musical, which runs until Jan. 7.
Petty spoke to Zoomer about the decision to bring the curtain down on the pantos for good, his plans for retirement and why he loved playing Captain Hook.
MIKE CRISOLAGO: When you made the call to end the pantos — and 25 years is a nice milestone to mark it — how did it feel for you to know that that was going to be it?
ROSS PETTY: Well, essentially 25 years would’ve been before COVID hit [laughs]. I was ready to call 25 years at the actual 25-year date, which was around 2020. And so we’re now into our 27th year, but we were calling it our 25th live farewell. So, I didn’t think I’d be going into my 27th year, Mike, but it just had to keep it going because I couldn’t just end it all on a virtual show.
MC: You retired as a stage performer in 2015. What has it been like to come back and shake off that stage rust?
RP: So far, I’m having a good time. And, you know, they’re treating me very gently [laughs], my director and my choreographer and my music director. And the rest of my cast as well. So, I think they all know that it might be a little more difficult for me to get into the swing of things. But, listen, I’ve played Captain Hook I think maybe three times prior to this time. He’s kind of second nature to me anyway.
MC: Was it important to you to return to the stage for the final production?
RP: Yeah, really. And having been on stage for 20 of those 25 years, or 27 years, I had to come back. I think the audience kind of made me do it, if for no other reason because I think they would’ve been disappointed had I not made an appearance for the final time. And I’m having a good time. It’s fun to be with them again.
MC: I’ve read that Captain Hook is your favourite character to play. What is it about him that you enjoy so much?
RP: Oh, well, he’s an iconic villain. I mean, well, they’re all iconic villains. But there was something, about Hook and about his swagger. And … I mean the guy, he’s like Trump. Nothing can stand in his way. His ego is so immense. [Laughs.] So the ego is extraordinary. And he thinks he’s charming as well, at the same time. So, I mean, he’s kind of not tuned into exactly how silly and beyond the norm he is, actually, in the eyes of everybody else. [Laughs.] I think they have a lot of a similar attributes. Trump is still trying to say, ‘Oh, no. It was a fake election. I won.’ You know Hook would be doing the same thing.
MC: They’re both pirates in their own way.
MC: When you retired from the stage in 2015, you continued working as a producer. So when you bid farewell to these pantos, do you have other artistic pursuits planned or do you plan to retire for good?
RP: Uh, no, I’m planning on retiring for good. [Laughs.] I mean, my wife Karen [Kain, famed Canadian ballerina] has called her retirement [after] 50 years with the National Ballet of Canada as a wonderful dancer and then the artistic director for 15 years. And that was postponed for a couple of years because of COVID as well. So I just thought, with Karen stepping away and I’m stepping away, it was time. I don’t have any need or desire to continue with any further artistic pursuits at this stage of the proceedings. I say that now, but, you know, somebody might call the next day and say, ‘Hey, Ross, we got a great idea. Can you help us out on this one?’
MC: What goals or plans do you look forward to in your retirement?
RP: Oh, everybody says the same thing — I mean, we look forward to more travel. Our travel was kind of curtailed because I was always looking to find the funding for the shows during the year. So, yeah, more travel would be nice. We have a cottage in Caledon that we basically have only spent a few weekends at, but now we’ll be able to spend more time there. And, you know, just spend more time with friends. There’s always something hanging over you that says, ‘Oh, man, I gotta get this done. I gotta get that done.’ And, I think, from this point forward, we’ll be a lot more relaxed about that.
MC: Going forward, what legacy do you hope your 27 years of pantos in Toronto leaves behind?
RP: Well, the memories for those kids, as I said, has recycled through their own kids now. And what I feel has really been achieved — not that we were setting out to achieve anything with the shows other than entertaining people and children — but I think that we’ve instilled in them, through that first experience of this kind of interaction with the audience, an ability to make live theatre accessible to children so that it wasn’t something that was, maybe, uninteresting for them. But I think because it was so accessible with our shows that they became more in tune with culture in general — theatre, certainly, beyond the pantos. And I liken the fact to bringing new audiences to the Stratford Festival, the Shaw Festival, Broadway, London, the world, through the introduction of live theatre in our shows. That that’s the legacy that I think I will be most proud of.
Peter’s Final Flight: The Pan-tastical Family Musical runs until Jan. 7 at Toronto’s Elgin Theatre.
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