How TV's The Raccoons went from a one-time special to a long-running cartoon

It started as a one-off holiday special in 1980, but The Raccoons became a long-running cartoon with an environmental bent.

The cartoon, set in the Evergreen Forest, was originally conceived as a live-action show

The animated series The Raccoons aired on CBC after an initial run of successful specials starting in 1980. (CBC Still Photo Collection)

Could The Raccoons be coming back?

The trio of animated woodland creatures who battled a greedy industrialist aardvark over the future of the Evergreen Forest made their TV debut in a series of specials beginning in December 1980. 

The first special, The Christmas Raccoons, was an immediate success. It not only aired on CBC but was also sold to broadcasters around the world, including in Australia, Denmark, New Zealand, the Philippines, Spain, the U.K. and the United States. 

Two more specials followed in subsequent years: The Raccoons on Ice in 1981 and The Raccoons and the Lost Star in 1983.

'Sophisticated music'

Creating the cartoon The Raccoons

37 years ago
Duration 7:06
Producer Kevin Gillis speaks with Midday's Valerie Pringle in 1985 about the success of the cartoon series he created.

But Bert, Melissa and Ralph were just getting started, and in the fall of 1985, The Raccoons began airing on CBC-TV. 

It didn't take long for it to become a "big hit," said Peter Downie, co-host of CBC's Midday, on Dec. 16, 1985.

"In its third week on the air, The Raccoons had more than two million viewers," he said. 

And that made it the ninth most popular show in the country, "American, Canadian or anything else." 

Midday showed clips from the cartoon while Downie described the series and praised its "pretty sophisticated music."

That music was composed by series creator Kevin Gillis, who had also written music for Celebrity Cooks with Bruno Gerussi and Three's a Crowd, a short-lived 1976 sitcom created by actor and producer Louis Del Grande.

Gillis also wrote the music for a show he co-hosted, CBC's sports program for youth Yes You Can.

Yes You Can with Kevin Gillis, Tammy Bourne and Trevor Bruneau on CBC-TV
Kevin Gillis, centre, is seen with co-hosts Tammy Bourne, left, and Trevor Bruneau, right, in a promo slide for the CBC-TV kids' sports show Yes You Can! (CBC Still Photo Collection)

He told Midday co-host Valerie Pringle The Raccoons was one of the "crazy ideas" he devised with writer Gary Dunford when both were working on Celebrity Cooks about 10 years earlier.

He said it was first conceptualized as a live-action show, but evolved into a cartoon.

"Originally, we looked at it as being a one-shot special," said Gillis. "And as the demand grew, we grew with it."

But the show was not an easy sell. 

"It was a very difficult concept to talk people into," Gillis said. "It was hard for people to visualize what the Evergreen Forest was going to look like or what [villain] Cyril Sneer was going to look like.… Eventually, after a few years we got it together."

cyril sneer
Villain Cyril Sneer wanted to destroy the raccoons' home in the Evergreen Forest. (CBC Still Photo Collection)

By the time Gillis was interviewed on Midday the show had a line of licensed products including T-shirts, videos, running shoes and stuffed animals. (During the interview, Gillis held a pink aardvark, which anyone familiar with The Raccoons would recognize: the aforementioned Sneer, the heroes' nemesis.)

And in the segment, Downie highlighted The Raccoons' "strong characters" and "plots that don't preach, although they do have a definite message." 

As the Toronto Star reported, The Raccoons won a 1991 Canadian Federal Minister of the Environment's Achievement Award for Communicating Environmental Awareness. 

The remastered Raccoons

Return of The Raccoons

5 months ago
Duration 0:44
The creator of the cartoon The Raccoons is planning a comeback for Bert, Melissa and Ralph.

In January, in a report on the return of Fraggle Rock, the CBC's Eli Glasner spoke to Gillis about the excitement over a Raccoons reboot currently in the works, including remastered music and art, and the possibility of new shorts. 

Glasner said Gillis had plans that would be welcome to the ears of the kids who grew up watching the show.

"We have wonderful fans all over the world who aren't ashamed to write things in — you know, do drawings, write songs" said Gillis.

According to the Toronto Star, the rerelease came at the behest of international distributors, who asked Gillis and his team to upgrade the shows to 4K and 8K formats from the original 35 mm.

ralph, raccoons, drums, drummer
Music was an important part of The Raccoons: creator Kevin Gillis, who got his start writing theme music for TV, also co-wrote the cartoon's music. (CBC Still Photo Collection)

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