Pat Mastroianni, a.k.a. Joey Jeremiah, celebrates the early years with Degrassi Palooza
|Toronto Star 19 Apr 2019 at 22:13|
Long before hip-hop superstar Drake sat in Jimmy’s wheelchair or TV star Nina Dobrev took on Mia’s modelling contract on Degrassi, a more DIY version of the TV franchise was being made in Toronto.
Pat Mastroianni, who played Joey Jeremiah on Degrassi Junior High and Degrassi High in the 1980s and early ’90s, recalls his costume being kept in a milk crate and how the wardrobe mistress, Judy Shiner, was also the art director, the acting coach and drove the bus to and from the set.
Degrassi cast members, clockwise from top left, Dayo Ade, Darrin Brown, Anais Granofsky, Stefan Brogren, Amanda Stepto, Cathy Keenan, Stacie Mistysyn, Pat Mastroianni and Siluck Saysanasy. All but Granofsy are on the guest list for Degrassi Palooza. (TORSTAR ARCHIVES)
“We were guerrilla filmmaking back in those days,” he laughs over the phone.
Mastroianni is inviting fans to celebrate those early years of the TV phenomenon at Degrassi Palooza, a weekend-long event being held at the Westin Toronto Airport hotel in June.
“Every time you google ‘Degrassi,’ Drake pops up and Nina pops up,” Mastroianni said in an interview. “I’m like OK, they’re superstars and congratulations, but here were these humble beginnings as well, back in the ’80s.
“I wanted to celebrate my generation of the show.”
The actors who played them — Stacie Mistysyn, Stefan Brogren and Amanda Stepto, respectively — are on the guest list for Degrassi Palooza along with 18 other original cast members, and members of the creative team like Shiner, co-creator Kit Hood and head writer Yan Moore.
Mastroianni isn’t acting these days, but he’s been connecting with Degrassi fans through convention appearances for the last six years as well as screenings of the 1992 Degrassi movie School’s Out.
“Last June, a fan basically said to me, ‘Why are you not putting together a pop-up convention for Degrassi where we could meet everybody, we could celebrate you guys and hear what you’ve all been up to?’” Mastroianni says.
He also took inspiration from Drake’s video for “I’m Upset,” which featured cameos by his Degrassi: The Next Generation castmates (Mastroianni also appeared on Next Generation as an adult Joey).
“I was like, ‘Wow, that’s a cool way to give props to your friends you grew up with.’ I get to do that now with my cast.”
Mastroianni points out that in his day there was no social media, so his fellow actors couldn’t connect with fans the way cast members do today.
Degrassi Palooza is a means not only to give his castmates kudos they didn’t get back then; it’s a way to thank fans “for letting us be a part of their lives for the last 30 years,” Mastroianni says.
He has already heard from fans from all over North America who are planning to attend, even from as far away as Australia.
Asked what the attraction is, besides the nostalgia factor, Mastroianni cites the fact that “we were a kid show that tried to talk honestly with our audience.”
Degrassi was renowned, even back then, for dealing with serious issues like sexuality, substance abuse, teen pregnancy, domestic violence, even HIV/AIDS.
And the cast was filled with non-professional actors “who wouldn’t have gotten the opportunity to be on camera” on a unionized program, Mastroianni says. “Not everybody was overly attractive like 90210. I think the audience really appreciated they were being represented on camera … We represented what a real high school would look like.”
Degrassi Palooza will feature the standard meet and greets, photo ops and autograph sessions, as well as a bus tour of Degrassi locations , a screening of School’s Out, and cast and crew Q&As.
But it will also, fittingly, have an education component with former cast members expounding on their non-Degrassi passions. So, for instance, Michelle Goodeve (Miss Avery), who’s an airplane pilot, will take the audience on a virtual flight; Rebecca Haines-Saah (Kathleen) will share her cannabis expertise; and yoga instructor Cathy Keenan (Liz) will talk about mental health and spiritual well-being.
There’s even a panel on whether Degrassi High went far enough in its depiction of diversity.
Cast members have also donated Degrassi memorabilia to be auctioned to benefit the Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital, a cause dear to Billy Parrott (Shane).
Mastroianni, who’s been working 10 hours a day for the last six months on the event, will film everything with the hope of turning it into a documentary one day.
“In a nutshell, we didn’t cure cancer with this, but we are always gonna be a part of a wonderful Canadian legacy,” he says.
“When I leave this world, I’m gonna be remembered hopefully by … this little TV show that (was) this Canadian pop culture icon celebrating youth.”
Degrassi Palooza takes place June 14 to 16 at the Westin Toronto Airport hotel, 950 Dixon Rd., Etobicoke. See degrassitour.com for details.