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Tuesday November 9, 2010

Multitalented entertainer best known as a co-host of Polka Dot Door

He had many serious stage roles - he even played Jesus. But fame came from hanging with Storytime Mouse and Polkaroo

Special to The Globe and Mail

Denis Simpson was a one-man entertainment machine. Actor, singer, dancer, director, TV host and writer, he glided effortlessly from the groovy vibes of Hair, to the satiny tones of the a cappella group The Nylons, to the hearts of children who shyly approached him on the street for an autograph.

Simpson, who died of a brain hemorrhage Oct. 22 in Toronto two weeks short of his 60th birthday, shocking many in the arts community, was a beloved and respected performer, and a restless journeyman who couldn't stay in one place long.

Rail-thin, lanky and sporting a perpetual smile, his breakthrough came in the early 1970s as Simon in the original Broadway production of Jesus Christ Superstar. Crisscrossing Canada, but based mainly in his adopted hometown of Vancouver, his credits over the years included the first Toronto staging of Hair, followed by prominent roles in The Full Monty, Five Guys Named Moe, Driving Miss Daisy, Angels In America, and Ain't Bisbehavin' (for which he won a Dora Mavor Moore Award). He played no less than Jesus in Godspell.

Television appearances included MacGyver, Seeing Things, Robson Arms, and a Canadian game show called Acting Crazy. For a time, he hosted the Live Eye segments on Vancouver Citytv's Breakfast Television and also hosted a cooking show on Channel M called Café m.

But doubtless his best-known turns were as an original vocalist for the sublimely smooth Nylons and as one of the first regular black faces on Canadian television. He co-hosted TVOntario's celebrated children's show, Polka Dot Door, which ended a 22-year-run in 1993.

"He's sort of skinny, his eyes are too big, and he's black - not what one would assume as attributes for a television celebrity in Canada," noted The Globe and Mail in 1984. "Yet for thousands of youngsters, Denis Simpson and TVOntario's Polka Dot Door are the highlights of their day. He sings, he dances and talks to those stuffed animals - and the kids love him for it."

His stint as a founder of The Nylons was short but pivotal, recalled Claude Morrison, who helped form the wildly successful a cappella group in the late 1970s. The two met while working as singing waiters at a Toronto eatery popular among theatre types.

"It was a crucial 2 1/2 months," Morrison recalled. "We would never have gotten off the ground if it weren't for Denis because of his generosity of spirit and can-do attitude. He just said, 'Yeah we can do it. That'll be fun.' He lit up the stage."

Like the other two Nylons originals, Paul Cooper and Mark Connors, Simpson and Morrison were "resting" (theatre talk for un- or under-employed) and itching to start something new. None could play an instrument but as the group's website says, "Dammit, they sure could sing."

Though a velvety baritone, Simpson sang bass, but he left before the group's debut album. "He was doing Indigo with Salome Bey," Morrison recalled. "He was the only of us who was actually working. He left because it looked like how was going to Broadway, but it didn't."

Reams of online condolences from fellow artists and friends have paid tribute to a warm, kind, funny and giving man; a meticulous craftsman who never took himself too seriously.

Dennis Anthony Leopold Simpson (he later dropped an "n" from his first name) was born in St. Ann's Bay on Jamaica's north shore on Nov. 4, 1950. "Upon hearing my mother sing in church at the age of three, I think that's when the bug bit me," he told Who's Who in Black in August. "I also remember seeing and hearing the preacher, and wanted to be a preacher."

The clan moved to Toronto's east-end Scarborough district when Denis was 10. He studied music, dance and theatre at York University for one year. "He chose to do it instead of learning about it," said his half-sister, Gloria Reuben, herself an accomplished singer and actress. Simpson's pace was legendarily brutal. "Time off was not on his radar," she recounted with a sad chuckle. "He was always working."

His stint on Polka Dot Door, from 1978 to the mid-1980s, made him, but uncharacteristically, he sounded a bit chagrined about it.

"Professionally," he explained to The Globe in 1984, "Polka Dot Door has put me on the map. People know who I am. Personally, it has given me satisfaction in that I have given other people satisfaction. Kids have liked me and have learned from what I'm doing. Little kids have learned to speak and to tell time from what I've done. If I can do that - hallelujah! I don't put the show down, by any means. I have done something worthwhile."

But the responsibility of being a role model to children created a sense of frustration.

"A lot of people don't realize that we are actors," he said. "Letters have come into the station - one of the hostesses has done commercials for Tampax - and parents write in complaining that they won't let their children watch the show. I mean, we're actors. We have to pay the rent. I don't want to become just another kiddie show host if I can't go out and have a beer and be silly ...

"It was just a job - what it has become is a whole other thing. I didn't realize it would be such a cult."

His work garnered numerous awards. Apart from the 1983 Dora for Ain't Misbehavin', he won a Pioneer award from the Canadian Black Music Association for raising the profile of black performers in Canada - though Simpson jokingly said that his greatest fear "is becoming a titch too white for my ancestors' liking."

(For the musical Ruthless, he played a white woman, Sylvia St. Croix. As director David Jones told the publication Xtra, somewhat cryptically, "he didn't play her white.")

Simpson received a Jessie Award for Denis Anyone?, a 1996 one-man show he wrote, and he directed the critically acclaimed 2009 Fringe show NGGRFG starring Berend McKenzie. His most recent Vancouver performance was this past May to July in Buddy - The Buddy Holly Story.

"He would just take the audience into his embrace," Bill Millerd, artistic managing director of the Artsclub Theatre Company, told the Georgia Straight newspaper. "Really, that was his personality. He embraced people and was one of those just very open, honest, performers. ... He was just one of those dynamic forces that suddenly are gone."

In an online posting, fellow actor Jay Brazeau recalled Simpson as "the funniest one in the pack. I can't even begin to remember the number of times I had to stuff a pillow in my mouth backstage to prevent the audience from hearing the guffaws."

Simpson recently finished his last work, STRUCK!, a play about his recovery from a stroke a few years ago, and was trying to write a solo piece based on the life and works of author James Baldwin.

His did charitable work for St. Paul's Hospital in Vancouver and for A Loving Spoonful, which provides free meals to people living with HIV/AIDS in Greater Vancouver.

At the time of his death, he was rehearsing for A Year with Frog and Toad, a holiday musical at the Lorraine Kimsa Theatre for Young People. The piece was to combine his love of musicals and performing for children.

He leaves his mother, Pearl, stepmother Merle, and siblings Douglas, Rosemarie, Kathleen, Lennox and Gloria Reuben.

As for that cooking show: "I once asked Denis, 'What do you know about cooking?'" remembered Nylons co-founder Morrison. "He just shrugged and laughed."

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