Breakthrough Entertainment executive producer and managing partner Kevin Gillis has a certain folksy charm about him that has no doubt helped cement partnerships and open up new business opportunities for the busy Toronto, Canada-based production company. But it may surprise you to know that he learned how to work a crowd on-stage – as a folksinger and songwriter who worked the North American circuit with the likes of Kris Kristofferson and Gordon Lightfoot back in the ’70s.
If you look at him these days, it’s hard to imagine Gillis with the long hair, bushy moustache and peace beads that were de rigueur for that era. But while hippie fashion faded like a pair of stone-washed bellbottoms, the same can’t be said for Gillis’ passion for entertaining, which just continued to grow and evolve over the years. And the music biz contacts he made back then propelled him into TV production and still pop up from time to time in the projects he works on. ‘Sometimes you do things in life that lead you to interesting relationships that you keep coming back to again and again.’
For example, when Gillis was producing The Raccoons in the early ’80s, he was determined to get Rita Coolidge to sing the series’ theme song. Turns out her manager also repped Kristofferson and remembered Gillis from the touring days. He made the hook-up, and Coolidge eventually recorded tunes for two Raccoons TV specials and did some character voicework on the series.
Although he opened for Dylan once, Gillis says his favorite gig of all time was playing guitar with Peter, Paul & Mary at Carnegie Hall when his mother-in-law was in the audience. He was so nervous that when Mary Travers asked him to sing a song, he couldn’t remember what was in his set and had to wing it. He can’t recall exactly which tune he performed that night, but one staple of his repertoire was a song about signing with the NHL. (Hockey wunderkind Wayne Gretzky was just starting to make waves in the league at the time.)
Gillis eventually applied his song-writing skills to TV shows, but he quickly realized that getting behind the camera meant having more editorial control. One of his first projects as a producer was musical variety show Bang Bang You’re Alive, which he hosted and co-produced, bringing in the likes of Melissa Manchester and the Bay City Rollers as guests. He moved into kids with Yes You Can, a show for the CBC that combined interviews with kids about sports with in-studio bits featuring major athletes.
The Raccoons was Gillis’ first animated project, inspired by the pesky rodents’ nocturnal antics up at his cottage. The Canadian animation industry was embryonic at the time; the NFB had done some nice one-off work, some early series projects had been shipped off to Asia, but no one had really tried to produce a toon series entirely in Canada before. So where did Gillis get the confidence to jump into such unmapped territory? From the people who helped him launch his folk-singing career. ‘There was a mentoring thing that was going on then, and I look back on those days with a lot of appreciation.’
The Raccoons aired on its home-turf channel the CBC from 1985 to 1992, sold widely around the world, and spawned several one-off specials. These days, Gillis and his team at Breakthrough are applying the same pioneering spirit that fuelled this first project to the digital media realm, producing a set of Captain Flamingo mobisodes with up-front funding from broadcast partners Jetix and YTV.