He is a Canadian we all know and love. He is the man who taught us about sharing, crafts, singing and kindness. While his real name is Ernie Coombs, to millions of Canadians he is simply Mr. Dressup.
Today on the podcast, I am looking at this iconic person and the life he led, along with the show he created that became an iconic part of Canadian children’s culture.
While he is recognized as Canadian, Coombs was born in Lewiston, Maine on Nov. 26, 1927 and it would be almost three decades before he made it to Canada. First, he would have a stint in the army where he was stationed in the Philippines as a weatherman. He would start his career in children’s entertainment when he attended the North Yarmouth Academy in Yarmouth, Maine, majoring in arts and design. Gifted as an artist, he got involved in the arts through his painting of scenery, and the carpentry and electrical services he provided. The owners of the Boothbay Playhouse would hire him to do a pilot of a children’s show, but CBS rejected it and Coombs went back to odd jobs in theatres and construction.
The scenery painting would eventually take him to the Pittsburgh Miniature Theatre and WQED-TV, where he took a job as a puppeteer on a show called Dimple Depot, which ran until 1962.
Coombs would begin working there as an assistant puppeteer where he met a man named Fred Rogers, who would have an immense impact on the life of Coombs. Working on the noontime program hosted by Rogers, The Children’s Corner, Coombs would become close friends with Rogers. Coombs would create some puppets for Mr. Rogers, including Lady Elaine Fairchild. When Rogers went to Canada in 1963 to host a children’s show called Misterogers on the CBC, he asked Coombs to come with him. Coombs accepted the offer and the two worked on the show for three years. Rogers would go back to the United States to start his own legendary career, while Coombs remained in Canada. Rogers would recommend to CBC that they develop a show around Coombs.
Speaking years later, Coombs would say of Rogers.
Rogers gave Coombs advice, saying “If you are restrained, the kids will come to you.”
It was at this point he would join Butternut Square when it debuted on Oct. 19, 1964, where he played the lead character rather than a puppeteer. Due to his frequent costume changes, he began to call himself Mr. Dressup. He was joined on that show by an Australian woman named Judith Lawrence, who created the characters Casey and Finnegan for the show. For the three years that the show ran on CBC, Coombs also appeared as Mr. Dressup in the Poor Alex Theatre in The Tickle Trunk, which included Casey and Finnegan. The goal of Butternut Square was aimed to teach children about the world. Mr. Dressup would tell stories with a mix of fantasy and reality, with dances, games and songs that educated children while encouraging participation.
Butternut Square was suddenly cancelled by CBC to make room for new programs on Feb. 10, 1967. Due to the large public backlash, the producer of the show was able to negotiate to get half the studio space back but that was not enough room for the Butternut Square set. It was enough for an interior set of a home and a treehouse in a backyard. From that, Mr. Dressup was born, and Ernie Coombs had a new show within four days. Taking the character of Mr. Dressup, the Tickle Trunk and Judith Lawrence with Casey and Finnegan, he launched Mr. Dressup. This would be the start of one of English Canada’s longest running and most beloved children’s programs. The first episode of Mr. Dressup would debut on Feb. 14, 1967 and it would remain a fixture of Canadian television for the next 30 years.
Every weekday morning, Mr. Dressup would lead children through a series of songs, stories, arts, crafts, and imagination games while interacting with Casey and Finnegan.
Most of the show was shot outside at the treehouse of Casey and Finnegan, along with scenes in Mr. Dressup’s house that included his living room, kitchen, and playroom. In the playroom you would find the iconic Tickle Trunk, which Mr. Dressup would use in a segment to dress as something, including animals, insects, and various professions. The name of the trunk comes from the fact that the trunk would not always open for Mr. Dressup so he would have to sing a song and tickle the lock to make it open. The trunk had magical attributes as it was always full of costumes but always had the right costumes in the right sizes, folded on top.
Crafts were also an important part of the show and Mr. Dressup would often draw or make a craft and sing a song with the puppets on the show. The craft lessons incorporated household items that children from all income brackets would have on hand including shoeboxes, egg cartons and string. This was done so all children could participate and feel included.
Sometimes, a short documentary would be shown, or he would read a book. Most of the films that Mr. Dressup would show were silent and he would narrate it for the children. The show was also shot live to tape, in one continuous take like a stage play, even the piano music at the start was performed live with each show. Typically, four new episodes per week would air, with a rerun on Fridays.
Tapings of the show only took two days a week, which allowed him to be home with his two children where he would draw cartoons on his daughter’s lunch bag, decorate their bikes for a school fair and take his daughter to lessons and appointments. Some evenings he would sit at the kitchen counter answering stacks of fan mail with personal handwritten letters.
His daughter Cathie LeFort would say of him, “he was soft spoken, very gentle, very kind, funny and witty. What you saw on TV, that character was not far from who he was.”
Josh MacKinnon, whose uncle married Coombs daughter, and who job shadowed him one summer, described Coombs as such.
He would go on to say during his time job shadowing:
“Mr. Dressup was energetic and artistic on camera. He acted, drew, talked in voices, told jokes and interacted with the puppets and other actors in such a natural way…Ernie was incredibly good at what he did and I suppose he should be, by this time he had been doing it for over 25 years.”
In 1969, Sesame Street debuted and there was a worry the higher energy and faster pace would result in a show like Mr. Dressup ending. Coombs kept his same format though and Mr. Dressup not only remained strong, but often did better than Sesame Street in the ratings. At its peak, the show drew 500,000 viewers and 90 per cent of its target audience.
Eventually, Judith Lawrence chose to retire from the show. Instead of recasting the puppeteer for Casey and Finnegan, an announcement was made on the show that they had begun to attend kindergarten. Casey and Finnegan were slowly phased out of the show while the new characters of Chester the Crow, Truffles, Granny, Annie, Alex, and Lorenzo the Raccoon began to appear. With the new characters, a new set was added to the show, the community centre.
In describing his show Coombs said “I think its because its gentle, its quite real. I think the kids feel that we are real people, even the puppets are real people. You can’t help but respect kids because they are such wonderful little beings.”
The final episode of the show would air on Feb. 14, 1996, 29 years to the day that it premiered. Coombs had requested that no mention be made of when the last show taped out of respect for the young viewers of his show. Coombs would say on the last episode, the only indication it was the last episode: “We end each show by saying ‘We must go now. We’ll see you again soon.’ This last time that will be a lie.”
By the time the last show taped, Coombs had made 4,000 episodes of Mr. Dressup.
For the next several years, Ernie Coombs would begin touring around Canada performing at college campuses, which were filled with the children who had grown up watching him for all those years. His college tours were called “Tales from The Tickle Trunk”. The reaction to these performances was seen on a smaller scale when Mr. Dressup appeared on Jonovision in the late-1990s.
He would die on Sept. 18, 2001 at the age of 73 in Toronto. For one week after his death, CBC stopped showing Mr. Dressup to not confuse children who had heard about his death. They would start up again in October 2001 and continued until 2006. His ashes were spread at his camp in Maine. In the House of Commons, his passing was acknowledged by the Members of Parliament who expressed their gratitude for his dedication in creating positive images for children on television.
Upon his death, Fred Rogers said that Coombs was “the whimsical man who never lost touch with the child within him.”
Over the course of his life, Ernie Coombs released four albums as Mr. Dressup. The first was simply called Mr. Dress Up in 1970, followed by Mr. Dressup: Happy Birthday Alligator Al in 1976, Mr. Dressup and Friends: For A Song in 1979 and Wake Up Mr. Dressup in 1982. He also released three books as Mr. Dressup during his life.
Throughout his life, Coombs was a lover of vintage Auburn automobiles and would restore his own over several years and took it to rallies and festivals whenever he could. He also enjoyed performing in live theatre, especially the Christmas Pantomime at the Elgin Theatre in Toronto.
In 1994, Coombs became a Canadian citizen.
Coombs had lived with his family in Pickering, Ontario, and his wife Marlene ran a day care in Scarborough called Butternut Learning Centre. They had married in 1961 in Pittsburgh. The couple had two children, Christopher, and Catherine. Sadly, while out shopping with Ernie in 1992, Marlene was killed by a car that went off the road when the driver had a seizure, killing her instantly.
Coombs would appear on Fred Penner’s Place only two weeks after death, leading to an emotional moment for Penner and Coombs.
The show itself has been honoured greatly in Canadian culture. A YouTube channel run by the Canadian Media Fund and Google Canada put episodes up for people to watch in 2017. In 2010, Casey’s treehouse was put on permanent display at the Canadian Broadcasting Centre in Toronto, and the Tickle Trunk with props was put on display near to the treehouse. In 2017, an informal poll had it at number one as the most memorable English Canada television show. In the poll, conducted by CBC journalist Justin McElroy, Mr. Dressup dominated against the other 64 shows in the brackets. In the Children’s Bracket he won 93 per cent of the vote against The Edison Twins, 75 per cent against Reboot, 79 per cent against The Racoons and 75 per cent against The Friendly Giant in the final round. Advancing to the final four to compete with the winners of the other brackets, he beat the Heritage Minutes with 70 per cent and then easily defeated the Kids in the Hall in the final round. CBC’s Karin Larsen, after 400,000 votes had been, summarized why he was so popular among voters. “Mr. Dressup helped millions upon millions of Canadian children make what can be a scary thing, starting school, a much happier experience.”
On Nov. 26, Mr. Dressup with Casey and Finnegan were featured as a Google Doodle on the Canadian Google website.
When Jim Carrey created his character Mr. Pickles for his show Kidding, he was inspired not by Mr. Rogers, but Mr. Dressup. He states:
Michael J. Fox would pay tribute to the show saying that it “taught him to envision a world of limitless possibility.”
Over the course of his career, Coombs would be widely honoured in Canada. In 1989, he was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Children’s Broadcast Institute. In 1994, he was awarded the prestigious Earle Grey Award for excellence in Canadian television program and in 1996 was presented the Order of Canada.
His Order of Canada citation reads:
“Affectionally known across the country as Mr. Dressup, he has been entertaining people in a gentle, caring fashion for three decades, refusing to succumb to more aggressive, commercialized format. Believing that education linked with entertainment enhances the cognitive learning process, he encouraged and stimulated the imagination of pre-school children in thousands of original television programs.”
In 1996, he won the Gemini for best performance in a children’s program and one year later was awarded the Save The Children Award for his years as the spokesman for the Canadian Save The Children Foundation. In 2001, he was given an honorary degree by Trent University and in 2019, he was given a star on Canada’s Walk of Fame.
I will close this episode out with Mackinnon’s description of Coombs and his impact:
“Ernie was a warm, funny, jovial man. He was passionate about the arts and loved teaching children how to use their imagination…Realizing what a special world he had built around him that he worked incredibly hard for, he taught me that hard work and dedication do pay off…he taught me not to take life too seriously and laugh with everyone at work. He taught me that the relationships you build with friends and colleagues have the potential to last a lifetime, so always be kind to those around you. In addition to these things, above all, Ernie Coombs, Canada’s beloved Mr. Dressup, in his dressing up, playing with on-screen friends and puppets, drawing and singing and just plain having fun, he taught me that your imagination is your most powerful tool.”
Information comes from CBC, Canada’s Walk of Fame, Wikipedia, National Post, Medium.com, Canadian Encyclopedia, TheLoop.ca, Drivingsuccess.ca, The Star, Canadian Encyclopedia
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