CBC production designer, visual artist, jazz musician, father and devoted grandfather (‘Bubba’).
After 90 years of art, jazz, and television design that brought him around the world, Robert (Bob) died peacefully on Monday, May 13 not far from where he was born, at the Millwood Residence in Toronto.
Bob attended Brown School, Rosedale Public School, Jarvis Collegiate and the Ontario College of Art (OCA). His summers were spent as a camper and counsellor at YMCA Camp Pine Crest — where his grandchildren would later attend and work. He became a bellhop aboard the S.S. Noronic, a passenger ship that cruised the Great Lakes. He happened to have a night off when the ship caught fire while docked at Toronto Harbour in the early hours of September 17, 1949, killing as many as 130 people. Bob frequently reflected on his good fortune at having shore leave that night.
Travel was much better during the next decade. Bob hitchhiked through Europe with fellow OCA graduates Michael Snow and Murray Laufer. He got work as a drummer playing at jazz clubs in France and Yugoslavia, along with Michael on piano and trumpet. He also lived and painted in Màlaga, Spain, where he completed some of his best works. When he returned from Europe, he played Dixieland jazz with Ken Dean’s ‘Good Time Jazz’ band.
In 1955, Bob started work at the CBC as a scenic artist. These were the early years of television and people made it up as they went along, figuring out the brand new live medium. Scenic backdrops were painted by hand and special effects were improvised. He later became a set and production designer and over decades, he designed a huge array of shows during CBC TV’s halcyon days, including Juliette, Mr. Rogers’ Neighbourhood, Music Hop, Mr. Dressup, Tommy Hunter Show, Wayne and Shuster, I Married the Klondike, Fraggle Rock, Rich Little’s Robin Hood, Royal Canadian Air Farce, and Kids in the Hall. He even designed a geodesic dome in Studio 7 for an Anne Murray special. He also worked as a production designer with director Donald Brittain on several CBC/NFB co-productions including Canada’s Sweetheart and the King Chronicles.
During these years at the CBC, Bob pioneered a visual effect called the ‘glass-matte shot’, which involved painting an image on glass and placing it in front of a lens over a ‘real world’ live action shot. This allowed directors to add any desired backdrop to a scene and to build only partial sets. His innovative television career is catalogued at Ryerson University’s Library and Archives.
At the CBC, Bob met Marcia Spiegel, a costume designer. The two married and had a son, Ted. When Bob retired in 1993, he devoted his life full-time to Marcia who had multiple sclerosis. She died in 1997. Soon after, Bob was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, which similarly diminished his own mobility with every passing year.