Dudley is no dud

Children love the goofy Canadian dragon

Maclean’s, Feburary 19, 1996  

Move over, Barney. A Canadian dragon named Dudley is grazing on your turf, to the delight of millions of young viewers. In Canada, The Adventures of Dudley the Dragon airs on provincial educational television networks and YTV for a weekly domestic audience of roughly a half a million. In the United States, the half-hour show appears on more than 245 PBS stations, up from 120 a year ago. And in the fall, the big green guy not only consolidated his success with a number of merchandising spin-offs but also made his debut as a six-story-tall float in the annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City. There is more than a little irony in the rivalry between two fuzzy reptiles (in both cases, actors in pile costumes) who encourage friendliness and sharing. But Dudley’s creators insist there is no competition: Barney’s audience is between one and three years old, they say, and Dudley’s viewers are between three and seven.


A big part of Dudley’s appeal is humor. While many parents find Barney and friends cloying, the Canadian dragon’s likable goofiness makes him a foil for the sly wit of other characters. “There’s something in it for parents as well,” says Joanne Shoveller of London, Ont., the mother of a three-year-old daughter and six-year-old son. “There’s actually a plot, along with some jokes and comments that adults can appreciate.” Dudley spends each show solving a problem — the consequences of breaking a promise, how to handle a bully — assisted by assorted puppets and a quintet of children under 12. “It’s very imaginative,” says Patricia Chmara of Manhattan, mother of two. She says her son Cary, 4, “just loves the theme song. The program shows kids they can think their way through problems. Cary loves the fact Dudley is a dragon — normally a pretty scary animal — but in this case, because he’s so goofy, not very intimidating.” Dudley also benefits from the respected actors who are happy to appear in his forest. Canadian Saul Rubinek, seen most recently as a campaign adviser in the movie Nixon, once played a lion named Lou. He took the role at the urging of his four-year-old daughter, Hannah. Actress Jackie Burroughs (The Road to Avonlea) regularly plays a balloon pilot. Mary Walsh of This Hour Has 22 Minutes made her children’s television debut as a confused princess. And Graham Greene (Dances With Wolves, Die Hard With A Vengeance) won a Gemini Award for his portrayal of a recurring character, Mr. Crabby Tree.


The show’s popularity has convinced toy-makers that they can duplicate Barney’s success as a merchandising and licensing phenomenon. Last fall, Castle Licensing Inc., approved the sale of Dudley videotapes, plush dolls and board games, and more manufacturers are lining up to cash in on the dragon’s popularity. Castle president Art Kraus predicts that product sales and money from broadcast rights this year will approach Barney’s 1995 $1-billion take.


Curiously, the increasingly lucrative Dudley was created by government bureaucrats. He was the star of a play called The Conserving Kingdom, which toured grade schools under the auspices of the Ontario Ministry of Energy in 1982. Ira Levy and Peter Williamson, partners in Toronto’s Breakthrough Films and Television Inc., bought the rights to the character from the provincial government in 1990. The provincial educational broadcaster, TVO, helped Breakthrough develop a series starring Dudley and gave him a home in the B.C. rainforest. The program premiered in October, 1993, with 12 episodes.


Head writer Alex Galatis tests the basic story for each episode by reading it to children at a Toronto-area daycare center. For the first two seasons, Galatis was also inside the dragon’s fuzzy hide, but now just does Dudley’s voice. “I know the character so well that performing him is like slipping into a comfortable bed,” he says. “Dudley’s worst quality — though I find it charming — is his tendency to be dramatic, to be a little histrionic. For Dudley, things don’t just taste good, they’re DEE-licious.”


Dudley’s sense of wonder is equally crucial, according to educational consultant Jean Morphee-Barnard, who has worked with the dragon since The Conserving Kingdom. “We have to show children how wonderful the world is before we can tell them how to take care of it,” she says. “We talk to educators to find out what concerns children have, what questions they want answered.” Morphee-Barnard, who also writes guides to help teachers use Dudley in the classroom, says the producers have high ethical standards for the show. “We don’t want to use violence or insults. We want to avoid stereotyping; girls have to be just as involved as the boys are. And usually our villains are misguided rather than evil.”


Those standards extend to Dudley merchandising. The dragon’s creators retain veto power over which products can bear Dudley’s likeness. “They want their ideals carried through in the products,” Kraus says. “For toys and clothing, they want natural fibers — nothing artificial or synthetic. For food products, no sugar and no preservatives.” Levy and Williamson vetoed a karate-fighting Dudley: not in keeping with the dragon’s nonviolent demeanor. That insistence on keeping Dudley uncorrupted is a big part of the character’s success. Just call him Dudley Do-Right.