Once upon a time, Cindy Robin worked for a company with a long-standing tradition: whenever one of its employees turned a year older, the rest of the staff would kick in for a gift perfectly suited to the birthday boy or girl's personality.
It was no secret Robin loved fairies. The mother of three had pictures of sprites hanging up in her cubicle at work, her personalized licence plate read PIXIDST and in her spare time, she volunteered as a storyteller at places all over Winnipeg, where she would show up with an armload of books and puppets, and read her favourite fairy tales to an audience of enraptured youngsters.
So when Robin's big day rolled around eight years ago, her co-workers knew just what to get her: a pair of battery-operated, adult-sized fairy wings.
"That weekend I had a reading event at the Children's Museum," says Robin who, today, is dressed un-Tinker Bell-like in a grey, cowl-necked sweater and dark slacks. "I was wondering what would go with a pair of wings so I went into my closet and found this long, blue, Celtic-looking gown. When I came downstairs my son took one look at me and said, 'Omigod, my mother has turned into the blue fairy.'"
Robin wore the get-up to the museum. It was an instant hit with those kids in attendance. The next day, she was booked to appear on the Good Day Show, an in-house program filmed at the Health Sciences Centre and beamed into the rooms of young patients staying at Children's Hospital. After donning her wings for the second time in as many days, a nurse told Robin one of the children in her ward adored fairies and was wondering if she could sit next to Robin in the studio, while she was reading.
"Absolutely," Robin replied. "That's what I'm here for."
After Robin was finished and the little girl was back in her bed, the nurse told Robin she had made the child's day.
"But the truth is, the way she was so enthralled with me dressed as a fairy and reading as a fairy, she made my day," Robin says. "So on the way home I thought, 'That's it, Cindy. From now on, you're the story fairy.' "
Later this month, Robin will begin filming episodes for the third season of The Story Fairy and Friends, which airs on Shaw TV. The half-hour program, which is filmed on location at places like FortWhyte Alive and the St. Norbert Farmers' Market, is reminiscent of gimmick-free shows like Mr. Dressup and The Friendly Giant -- kids' series Robin grew up with at her childhood home in Winnipeg Beach.
"We lived there year-round and I used to feel sorry for the campers and cottagers who left in the fall," says Robin, who got her first taste of performing in front of a crowd when she starred in Gimli Composite High School's clothed production of Hair. "Winnipeg Beach was such a magical place and really, it's where my whole love of fairies began. Whenever I was outside running around in the forest, I used to imagine them flying all around me."
Robin's longtime sidekick on The Story Fairy is Dusty the Dragon, a lovable leviathan-of-a-puppet voiced by Winnipeg chiropractor Terry Michalyshyn. Although each show is built around its own central theme, the end-message is always the same: respect others and appreciate nature -- a point driven home during Robin and Dusty's sign-off, when the duo recites the fairy promise ("I promise to be kind to others with my words, to always recycle and feed the birds...").
This summer, Robin and Michalyshyn will be joined by two new cast members -- a raccoon played by media personality Stan Kubicek and a tortoise voiced by comedian Jon Ljungberg.
For Ljungberg, it's a gig almost 40 years in the making.
"I'm not a professional puppeteer by any stretch of the imagination but I have always been fascinated by puppets and I've always had a few kicking around the house," says Ljungberg, a toy collector of some note. "I remember when Sesame Street first came on the air in the late '60s; I took a bunch of my dad's socks, glued ping pong balls on them for eyes and created my own characters. So maybe deep down it's something I've always wanted to do."
Ljungberg, the former host of Breakfast Television, met Robin when she appeared on his show five years ago, during I Love to Read Week. And was the Massachusetts-born cut-up taken aback when a grown woman arrived in his studio, sporting wings on her back?
"Hey, you're talking to a guy who just spent $100 on an Adam West Batman doll. So with me, it's all good," he says with a chuckle.
Ljungberg hasn't "met" his character yet -- the puppet is still being built, he says -- but he already has a few ideas how to portray him.
"People usually do turtles as slow and kind of dumb. But my plan is to be very quick-witted, use a Liverpool accent and call him Winston," he says. "And the reason for that is when John Lennon used to appear on his fellow Beatles' solo records, he went by the name Winston O'Boogie. I always thought that was kind of neat, so my plan is to have some fun with that, through my puppet."
Ljungberg is aware of the rumours that broadcasters like Treehouse TV are interested in adding The Story Fairy and Friends to their lineup of preschool programming. But that's not the reason he and Winston signed on, he says.
"At the end of the day it just sounded like a lot of fun. I mean, any time you get a chance to play with puppets, the question you really have to ask yourself is, 'Why not?'"
If Robin's Story Fairy character does find its way onto network television, it should only add to her ever-growing notoriety.
"It is odd when I find out who watches the show," Robin says. "Last summer I got lost driving around in the Exchange District. I stopped to ask a city worker where I was exactly and as he was about to answer he poked his head inside my window and said, 'Hey, you're the Story Fairy. I love watching your show with my kids.' " (Whenever Robin is recognized at the grocery store by moms or dads, she sprinkles them with pretend fairy dust and tells them to go buy a lottery ticket.)
Even if Robin becomes a star on par with Ernie Coombs or Shari Lewis, she promises never to cease doing what she refers to as her "love work."
"About six years ago I was asked to dress up as the Story Fairy and read to a little girl who had been taken off life support," Robin says, taking a few seconds to catch her breath and dab her eyes. "Her worker told me she was between worlds and might not know I was there when I arrived, but she did know I was coming.
"I brought a gorgeous, butterfly pop-up book with me and for the first five minutes or so, I kept referring to the beautiful pictures in it. I asked her if she was ready for me to begin, told her I was going to open the book now and just then her eyes opened, made total contact with mine and my life changed forever.
"She passed away the next day but I swear I will never forget her. So when people laugh and say, 'So you're a grown woman, you dress up like a fairy and you don't get paid?' my response is always the same: I've been paid in ways you could never imagine."