August 23, 1999
Degrassi kids keep memory alive
Fans tour school where TV series shot final show
By Chris Nuttall-Smith
Toronto Star Staff Reporter
In a season when baby boomers never missed a chance to commemorate the summer of ’69, their kids finally had a revival of their own.
Some of the generation that grew up with Joey, Wheels and Spike, televised teen pregnancy and perennial pubescent angst gathered Saturday in the lobby of Centennial College, the school where the final episode of the 12-year Degrassi TV series – including The Kids of Degrassi, Degrassi Junior High and Degrassi High – was taped in 1991.
At the Carlaw Ave. campus – now the Bell Centre for Creative Communications – amid pastel party crepe and tacky mementos of the series, twentysomethings Jonathan Carson and Wendy Baker and some 35 loyal fans came face-to-face with Dwayne the bully and Spike’s crazy-coiffed gal pal Liz, as well as Degrassi teachers Ms Avery and Messrs. Garcia and Raditch.
“It’s so weird watching them on TV and then seeing them in a room,” one woman gushed.
Between floating balloon stems, the fans relived teenage memories and long-forgotten crushes, and shared their take on the show that helped shape a generation.
For Baker, who grew up in a tiny Loyalist township in Eastern Ontario, Degrassi was a window on kids in the big city. But as Baker and many others noticed, the goings-on were never far from what they saw in their own lives.
“For me it was nice to watch a show and feel like `Yeah, there’s other people like me,’ ” she said. “And it brought up a lot of topics I wouldn’t have thought about otherwise.”
The Degrassi franchise started in 1979 with The Kids of Degrassi, which taped 26 episodes before Degrassi Junior High got a Sunday afternoon slot on the CBC in 1987. In the fall of 1989 the kids graduated to Degrassi High, taking a world of viewers with them for another 28 episodes.
The shows have been subtitled into more than 30 languages, with episodes broadcast in the Middle East, Asia, North America and Europe.
The show’s lessons about the tribulations of growing up also went into thousands of classrooms. How many Canadians in their 20s can remember the awkward phys. ed. teacher leading discussions about Spike’s pregnancy, or Yick’s first wet dream?
The show’s later episodes, and earlier reruns filtered down to younger viewers as well.
Katie Durant and Sonia Tomaso, 17 and 16, were too young to catch Degrassi Junior High when it first aired, but adore the show today.
“We came all the way from Welland today because we’re such Degrassi fans,” Durant said.
Durant, with Tomaso and her sister Erin, 20, and Roseanne Krol, stood in the middle of the lobby, her arms nervously folded over a Care Bears T-shirt.
Anxious fans couldn’t sleep
“I was awake all night with this – I was awake practically all night,” Krol piped in. “We have so many tapes of Degrassi, it’s not even funny.”
“Everybody watched it, we would quote it sometimes,” the younger Durant said, cutting Krol off with abundant excitement. “Me and Sonia, we both practically failed Grade 10 math class because we just sat around talking about Degrassi.”
They agreed the episode in which Liz and Caitlin had a catfight over Catlin’s plans to have an abortion was the best one, and the one where the Zit Remedy, Degrassi’s garage band, tried to make a video came in second.
They burbled and finished each other’s sentences, and tried not to get caught staring at the cast members who showed up.
“Like I never knew Dwayne was so short,” Rosanne said, looking toward former Degrassi actor Darrin Brown.
For Brown, Kathy Keenan (who played Liz), the massive Roger Montgomery (Mr. Garcia) and Michelle Goodeve (Ms Avery), the fans had grown up, but the school looked almost the same.
“There’s the special ed classroom where they gave their AIDS lecture,” Brown recalled on an impromptu tour of the school with a reporter in tow.
Then a few fans joined in. “There’s where I had my fight with Joey.”
A few steps later Brown was tour guide to about 20 raving fans. “Ohmygosh, ooohmygosh,” one of them exclaimed when they saw the cafeteria.
So what happened in the cafeteria?
“Everything, everything happened in the caf,” she said.
Convention co-organizer Mark Polger, 24, said he decided last spring to invite some of the hundreds who regularly hit his authoritative Degrassi Web site (www.degrassi.ca), and follow the Degrassi mailing lists.
Just two years ago he launched his site, containing intelligent synopses of every episode, Degrassi trivia, lyrics to the theme song and links to order boxed sets of the series.
The crowd was eccentric, and a bit over-focused, maybe, but no more so than the suburban parents who still pull out the MC5 records and the water bong once a year to relive The Day.
“This whole conference,” marvelled Jennifer Hollett, 23, who wrote a communications dissertation at Concordia University about the show’s influence on television. Still discerning what the show means, she looked at the mix of party girls and nerds, the bully actor and the organizers for whom a television program had become an education, a mirror and an obsession.
“This is so Degrassi.”