By RON FANFAIR
Like many young kids of his era, award-winning actor Charles Officer grew up adoring Polka Dot Door co-host Denis Simpson who died last Friday in Toronto just two days after suffering a brain haemorrhage.
“I watched him religiously,” recalled Officer. “It’s such a shame that he’s no longer with us.”
Simpson was an accomplished singer, dancer and actor. But the multi-talented artist was best known as the long-time host of the children’s television series that ran for 22 years up until 1993.
Each episode had a human host – a male and female – who led children in song and stories. Set in a large playhouse, the show was an adaptation of the long running British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) children’s show, Play School.
Actresses Gloria Reuben (Simpson’s sister), Nerene Virgin and Tonya Lee Williams were among the Polka Dot Door hosts.
“Denis loved children and children’s programming,” said Williams who co-hosted the show with him for two weeks. “I knew him for 25 years and it was a pleasure to work with him. I saw Denis perform in Ain’t Misbehavin (a musical named after the Fats Waller song) and he was just wonderful in that. Musical theatre was his forte.
“He was one of the Black performers that paved the way for diversity. He was also caring and loving and a mentor to many. Everyone loved working with him and he will be missed.”
Coming to Canada from Jamaica five decades ago, Simpson grew up in Scarborough with his gospel-singing mother Pearl and siblings, Rosemarie, Kathleen, Lennox, David and Gloria Reuben who won the Miss Black Ontario pageant in 1986. David, the youngest of the children, died in 1988.
The original bass voice of the Toronto group, The Nylons, Simpson’s vast love for musical theatre started at a young age and led him to an incredible and rare career in that realm, starting with a debut on Broadway in Jesus Christ Superstar. He was also in the original Toronto production of Hair.
Simpson won a Dora award for playing ‘Andre’ in Ain’t Misbehavin’ and a Jessie award for his one-man show, Denis, Anyone?
The Vancouver resident, who would have celebrated his 60th birthday on November 5, was in Toronto rehearsing for the holiday musical – A Year with Frog and Toad – at the Lorraine Kimsa Theatre for Young People.