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Wednesday April 18, 2012

A career spent kicking down barriers

Dodi Robb broke down barriers in the male-dominated media industry - and she did it while wearing fabulous shoes

Special to The Globe and Mail

Having a Muppet character named after you is no small honour. Television pioneer, writer and children's playwright Dodi Robb delighted in her feisty namesake, an adventurous granny and bush pilot who now flies her yellow plane above the entrance to the CBC museum.

Robb received many honours, but the one that held the most meaning for her was the 1994 Governor-General's Award in the Commemoration of the Persons Case, given for a lifetime of effort in breaking down barriers in a male-dominated industry. In the early days of the CBC, when a woman wasn't allowed the title of producer and could be fired for being pregnant, Robb fought the status quo to become head of daytime television and the first woman to head children's programming.

She had a natural flair for content, developing such shows as The Kids of Degrassi Street. She also had a knack for spotting talent. Her influence was decisive in making a young Adrienne Clarkson co-host of the show Take 30. Clarkson, who went on to become governor-general of Canada, describes Robb as being like a second mother.

"She was an understanding, loving and tender person with a great sense of humour," said Clarkson. She also credits Robb with great diplomacy. After viewing a segment of Take 30, Dodd remarked to Clarkson that she would make a great hand model. "It was her way of telling me that I was using my hands too much on air," laughed Clarkson. "I never forgot it."

From 1971 to 1977, as creator and executive producer of the consumer affairs show Marketplace, Robb stuck to her belief the show would work, and secured her career in the process.

"I knew it was a winner. I refuse to accept the commonly held belief that information bores." To the argument that CBC shouldn't be interested in ratings, Robb responded, "No one likes to play to an empty house. You have to be a pretty funny bird if you say you're not interested in ratings."

Robb wrote fiction, ad copy, commercials and magazine articles. She also co-created five successful musicals for children's theatre. One production, The Dandy Lion, toured North America and played in England. During a freelance stint at TVO, she co-created and wrote for Polka Dot Door, coming up with its mythical and much-loved character Polkaroo.

Even though she had no children of her own, Dodd was an adored and adoring aunt to three nieces. She took her relationship with children very seriously. "One does not dash off a play just because it's for children," she said. "If anything, it's more demanding. If they're bored, they'll yawn. There's no fakery with children."

Dorothy Elizabeth Robb was born on Dec. 19, 1920, in Toronto, the middle child of three daughters. During the First World War, her Scottish father, Peter, served overseas with the 48th Highlanders, the kilted Canadian soldiers referred to by the Germans as "The Ladies from Hell."

During her husband's absence, Peter's wife, Robina, a seamstress, and their first daughter, also named Robina, lived with her parents and several aunts. Nine months after Peter's return, Dorothy (Dodi) arrived. She said, "I had a talent for determination and an inborn belief it was better to be a leader than a follower." A third daughter, Jean, was born four years later with cystic fibrosis, fuelling Dodi's desire to make enough money to help care for her.

Money had never been in abundance in the Robb household but, every summer, the family was exposed to great opulence. As a handyman/caretaker, Peter Robb had permission to move his family into a mansion on Toronto's Bloor Street while the owner was away. The setting opened the young Dodi's eyes to riches and glamour. She imagined herself in that world, calling it an enforced dichotomy.

"I was a rich girl for part of the year and an ordinary girl the rest of the time."

Her imagination was also fired when her father took her to matinées at Toronto's Royal Alexandra Theatre, and occasionally backstage to seek an autograph. The culture and romance of the theatre captivated her and she longed to write for the stage.

As a child, Robb attended Moulton College, a small, strict school for girls. She says the fact there were no boys helped her overcome shyness. Later, in junior high school, she and six friends started a school paper with Robb as editor. It managed only one edition but it made Robb hungry for journalism.

Then, as she said, "One sunny day in 1936 my world collapsed." On the way back from a visit to Long Island, her mother lost control of the car, crashing into a cement wall. Sixteen-year-old Robb was projected face-first into the dashboard. Her injuries resulted in the loss of her right eye, eventually replaced by an artificial one. When a nurse found Robb crying in her hospital room she snapped, "Stop that. How do you think your mother feels?"

"I took her advice and my life was never the same again," Robb said.

As the Second World War began, Robb enrolled at the University of Toronto, where she wrote for The Varsity newspaper. She graduated in 1941 with a BA in English. Her first official writing job was a column for Star Weekly. Around this time she became engaged to a British pilot. Robb finally broke off the engagement without explanation. She never married.

After university Robb worked at Eaton's. She loved the job but her mother insisted she could do better. Robb worked at Maclean Hunter writing articles and fiction for $15 a week. She then moved on to CBC as a continuity writer. Soon afterwards, she become a radio announcer and was given her own show. Robb found it extremely funny that one of her assignments was to teach an on-air segment about sewing. It was amusing to her that she had to translate somehow a visual skill through a medium that lacked visuals.

In 1950, Robb left the CBC for the world of advertising at Maclaren's. She stayed there for the next 10 years. During that period her boss sent her to New York to study the new medium called television. Robb called it "the most important invention since the wheel."

Robb liked to say she changed jobs every 10 years, but her next position lasted only five. In 1960, she undertook the job of chief writer for women's programs at CFTO, a new station in Agincourt, Ont. She said, "I should have known CFTO was going to be a slave ship. I scuttled out of CFTO, head bloody but unbowed, and ran back to CBC."

She produced such prestigious shows as Barbara Frum's The Journal, and Peter Gzowski's foray into television, 90 Minutes Live. Robb officially retired in 1985, but spent the next 10 years as a writer/presenter for Vision Television.

When she wasn't working, or travelling, her favourite retreat was a cottage on an island that she purchased in Muskoka. Never a driver herself, Robb relied on friends and relatives for transportation. She got to know many famous people throughout her career and occasionally one, like singer Robert Goulet, would be invited. For many years, a strip of birch bark with the words 'Robert Goulet slept here' was tacked above a bed in her cottage. Her nieces remember Robb swimming into a moonlit path across the lake, and encouraging them to delight in nature.

Colleagues and friends recall Robb's penchant for shopping, particularly for shoes. Many pairs were kept piled under her desk to be changed for an evening event. She was a regular attendee at cocktail parties, theatrical openings and social events with an eye toward spotting new TV commentators or hosts. She said, "How can I develop programs about today if I surround myself with the old and complacent? Well I can't and that's the answer."

Robb, a short round woman, battled her weight constantly with various diets. She liked a glass of scotch and smoked socially, her cigarette being more of a prop than anything else. She called everyone "darling."

The words of Sinclair Lewis are ones she wanted to be remembered by: "She was a good working woman and a good friend who could still laugh when the world had almost worked itself out of the power of laughter."

Robb died at the age of 91 at Sunset Manor nursing home in Collingwood, Ont. She leaves her three nieces, Judy Ross, Pam Raiken, Jane Christie, and their families. A celebration of the life of Robb will take place on Tuesday, April 28, at 3 p.m. at Mount Pleasant Visitation Centre, 375 Mount Pleasant Rd., Toronto.

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