Thirty years of teddy bears

Danette Dooley
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Terry Rielly's having some picnic!

For well-known children's entertainer Terry Rielly, Canada Day weekend marks the second year since his beloved bear Harry was stolen from his car.

However, rather than dwell on the negatives, Rielly has turned the theft into an opportunity to teach children valuable life lessons such as forgiveness, kindness, gentleness, sharing and caring.

Terry Rielly is surrounded by some of his bears at his home in Holyrood. Rielly is celebrating his 30th year performing the Teddy Bear Picnic. - Photo by Rhonda Hayward/The Telegram

For well-known children's entertainer Terry Rielly, Canada Day weekend marks the second year since his beloved bear Harry was stolen from his car.

However, rather than dwell on the negatives, Rielly has turned the theft into an opportunity to teach children valuable life lessons such as forgiveness, kindness, gentleness, sharing and caring.

Harry has yet to find his way home. However, the robbery has brought out the best in young and old alike, Rielly says during an interview at his home in Paradise.

"Even to this day, I still have people come up asking me, 'Did you get your bear back?'"

While getting ready to do a show in Clarenville shortly after the bear went missing, Rielly was approached by a child who gave him her own big cuddly bear.

"I told her that I like to remember the person who gave me a bear by naming them after that person. I asked her what her name was and she said Faith."

Rielly has since written a song for the bear and uses it as a teaching tool.

"I talk to children about Harry and about Faith and how important it is to be forgiving," he says.

Rielly shares his home with about 300 teddy bears. Most have names.

Like Rielly, all have a story to tell.

Affectionately known as the Teddy Bear Man, Rielly began carving a career as a children's entertainer three decades ago - the year after his daughter Skye was born.

"I took my daughter's little knapsack and I stuffed it with teddy bears. Then I walked around the Regatta. I made flyers and I handed them out saying that I was available for birthday parties," he says.

Before long, Rielly found himself and his bears performing at children's parties and other special events including picnic-style concerts held on the lawn of the St. John's Arts and Culture Centre.

"The first one was on the landing because the weather was bad outside. There were about 60 people," Rielly recalls of the Arts and Culture Centre venue.

As word of the picnic grew, so did the numbers.

It's not unusual for 1,000 children and their parents to show up for a concert, Rielly says, estimating that over the last three decades his Arts and Culture Centre concerts have reached over 100,000 people.

Rielly's teddy bear persona has taken him to over 350 communities throughout the province, to the United States, Mexico, Poland and the former Yugoslavia.

Bears for Bosnia is among his most memorable experiences, he says.

The project saw Rielly collecting over 10,000 teddy bears and delivering about 2,000 to the children of Bosnia.

"I made sure they all went to children on all sides of the conflict," Rielly says.

Rielly also guest starred on Sesame Street with his performances being filmed in this province.

"One of the songs I did was 'My Daddy is a Fisherman,'" he says, noting that the episode reached children in both Canada and the United States.

In addition to writing songs for children, Rielly also entertains on the club scene and is an accomplished playwright. His play "Some Picnic!" - the story of one family's escape from Belgium during the Holocaust - was premiered in Washington, D.C. in 2005.

While he never has trouble writing lesson-filled songs about children and bears, some of his stuffed animals hold special meaning including one given to him recently by a woman who lives out-of-province.

"The woman told me about the teddy bear she had all her life ... I said, 'It probably has lots of love marks.'"

Rielly says he was shocked recently when the woman gave him the bear, which came dressed in tiny knitted clothing.

"Teddy-boy was born in 1934. The woman was a little girl at the time and was given the bear to help soothe her when she had the whooping cough. She decided that my house would be Teddy-boy's retirement home," Rielly says pointing to the tiny bear on his living room mantle next to a small black polar bear from Rielly's own childhood.

The new addition has inspired Rielly to write a song which he's titled "Teddy-boy."

While the Teddy-boy song and all the other ditties Rielly writes can be easily understood by children, they hold universal messages that people of all ages can relate to.

"We never stop being children. And I try to bring out the child in all of us," Rielly says.

This year's Teddy Bear Picnic at the Arts and Culture Center takes place on Friday. The free event gets underway at noon with an onsite teddy bear hospital. Rielly and his bears take to the stage at 1 p.m.

danette@nl.rogers.com

Organizations: Arts and Culture Center

Geographic location: Paradise, Clarenville, United States Bosnia St. John's Mexico Poland Yugoslavia Canada Belgium Washington, D.C.

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