Revisiting the Big Harbour
July 26, 2012

Theodore Too was designed by Fred Allen, who attended the Nova Scotia College of Art in the 1960s.

You might know that Nova Scotia’s famous sailing ambassador—the Bluenose—was designed by one of NSCAD’s more illustrious alumni, but did you realize that Nova Scotia’s other iconic marine vessel—Theodore Too—was also designed by a former student?

Nova Scotians can’t help but feel a swell of pride to see the Bluenose II sail gracefully by. But they’re more apt to smile at the sight of Theodore Too, a full-scale reproduction of the beloved tugboat character from the children’s TV show Theodore Tugboat.

Marine architect William Roué, designer of the Bluenose, Bluenose II and many other commercial and recreational vessels, studied mechanical drafting at the Victoria School of Art and Design (now NSCAD University) at the turn of the last century. Designer, art director and master model builder Fred Allen, creator of Theodore Tugboat, attended some 60 years and a name change later. NSCAD was known as the Nova Scotia College of Art in the early 1960s when the late Fred Allen attended.

“I think his true genius was his ability to make you believe in these characters, these inanimate objects that he could imbue with emotion,” says Andrew Cochrane, who conceived the concept for the children’s TV show while on a walk along the Halifax waterfront with his then-four-year-old son William. (He’s now 26.)

“We were looking out at container ships in the harbor and these two tugboats were there, with their two wheelhouses facing and it struck me that they looked like they were having a conversation. And then I got curious, what were they talking about?” says Cochrane, now CBC’s Managing Director for the Maritimes. “I had 80 per cent of the series down in five to seven minutes.”

The stories about Theodore and his tugboat friends Hank and George (named for William’s teddy bears), Emily (William’s name had he been born a girl) and Foduck (a name William simply conjured up) and their adventures in the Big Harbour were refined over bedtime. Meanwhile, Cochrane immediately went to Fred and Tom Anthes, also a Nova Scotia College of Art grad, for their input on the look of the show.

As the show was developed and CBC came on board, Tom oversaw the scale model of Halifax Harbour that was created in the basement of the former Alexander MacKay School. Fred set to work on the characters and eventually created more than 60 radio-controlled models—all jury-rigged from bits and pieces of found objects and assembled in the art department next to the set. Remember Phillip and Philmore the Ferry Twins? Northumberland the Submarine? Carla the Cool Cabin Cruiser?

“These little vessels were true artistry,” says Cochrane. “I always liked to look at them—the stacks and winches and cargo and vents and the all the detritus you’d find on a ship—and realize how Fred made them using found objects like detergent bottles or flower pots or whatever he had on hand. He really did see things in a way the rest of us don't.”

Through five seasons and 120 episodes on CBC and PBS, Theodore and his pals sought to make the Big Harbour the friendliest harbor in the world. At one point, his exploits were followed by children in more than 80 countries. Spinoffs included a line of wooden toy replicas, die-cast models, bathtub toys and storybooks.

Construction of a life-sized replica of Theodore came later, after invitations for Theodore to appear at events flooded in from up and down the eastern seaboard. Theodore Too was launched with much fanfare at Snyder’s Shipyard in Dayspring, Lunenburg Co. in April 2000. These days, the big-eyed tug with the red ball cap calls Murphy’s Cable Wharf home and is available for private charters, birthday parties and harbor tours. Just this week, he led the Tall Ships Parade of Sail out of Halifax Harbour.

“The richness of the details that Fred and Tom provided gave the show its authenticity,” says Cochrane, as he holds a plastic paperclip container on his desk, wondering what Fred would have used it for. “It didn’t matter if you were two years old or 70, people suspended their disbelief and really went with our world, our characters...

“And it’s NSCAD that really seeds our industry with that kind of talent. It’s been a major influence on the depth and quality of film and TV production from this area. What we’ve produced here on the east coast has travelled and endured so well.”

More about Fred Allen

Fred Allen (1942-2007) was a designer, art director and master model builder. He put his mark on many a production on stage and TV and at Parks Canada sites.

Born in Halifax, he never knew his birth mother and was adopted at the age of three weeks by Gwendolyn "Ma" Poole in Wolfville. He and his other adopted siblings were known in Wolfville as "Ma Poole's Puddles." Ma Poole died when Fred was 11; he went to live with her daughter in Stewiacke.

Fred attended the Nova Scotia College of Art from 1961 to 1963 and then was hired by Neptune Theatre the year it opened in 1963 as a member of the stage crew. In 1964, he became production stage manager and set designer.

He left the theatre in 1966 to work with the archaeological unit at the Fortress Louisbourg restoration as research illustrator, returning in 1967 to Neptune as resident set designer. His designs for Tosca in 1976 when he was the artist-in-residence with the Dalhousie Theatre Department drew applause from the audience at the top of the second act.

The designer, who made his own Viking-inspired sculptures in his shop at Stewiacke, also worked as a sculptor for Parks Canada projects including the Monument Lefebvre in Memramcook, N.B., and Interaction of Cultures for Kouchibouguac National Park. He did two major installations and illustration work for the L'Anse Aux Meadows World Heritage Viking Settlement in Newfoundland.

At CBC since the early 1970s, he worked on shows including Blizzard Island, Codco, Street Cents and Theodore Tugboat

(Source:  Chronicle-Herald obituary, Dec. 10, 2007)

 Fred-Allen-for-125 Designer and model builder Fred Allen with his most famous creation, Theodore Tugboat. (Photo courtesy of Charlotte Allen)