“Mr. Dressup – The Magic of Make-Believe”: Ernie continued to tour and appear as Mr. Dressup after the show ended.
WEYBURN – Very few “celebrities” have had an impact on my life, but the iconic Mr. Dressup formed a desire in me, as I’m sure he did with others from my generation, to imagine, create and explore.
I recently watched the documentary “Mr. Dressup – The Magic of Make-Believe” on Paramount+. It took me back to my preschool days of watching intently as Ernie Coombs, “Mr. Dressup”, and his pals Casey and Finnegan, inspired a nation of youngsters.
Through 30 years and 4,000 episodes, the cast of actors and puppeteers brought arts and crafts, drama, costuming and singing to our living rooms.
Coombs is remembered as a great Canadian, however I was surprised to learn that he was actually born in Maine in 1927. He was drafted into the military as a young man, where he served as a weatherman.
Following his service, he went to art school, planning a career as a cartoonist or commercial artist. Coombs began painting scenery for theatre groups and soon found himself touring with a travelling children’s group. It was then that he started acting as well.
While working in Pittsburgh in 1957, he met Fred Rogers. The two became very good friends, with Fred even standing up as best man at Ernie’s wedding. Ernie met his wife, Lynn, a puppeteer, while working on a show called Dimple Depot. Sadly Lynn was hit by an out of control car in 1992 while walking in front of a grocery store, and died as a result.
In 1962, Fred Rogers travelled to Toronto to work on some children’s programming. He invited Ernie to come along, and the two of them worked together on a show called Butternut Square, which was on the air for two years.
While Fred returned to the United States, Ernie stayed in Canada and from 1967 to 1996, taught us how to be polite, play nice and use our imaginations. Mr. Dressup was the highlight of the day in our home and many others.
As a youngster, I was able to see Mr. Dressup, Casey and Finnegan LIVE and in person at the Regina Library. Imagine the thrill!
A nine-year-old child wrote to Coombs as part of a school project that required the students to research and write a letter to their favourite Canadian. Ernie was honoured but had to admit that he was not a citizen of Canada.
In 1994, he changed that and became a Canadian. Always the entertainer, Coombs performed a rap song about Canada at the festivities.
Ernie continued to tour and appear as Mr. Dressup after the show ended. He enjoyed time with his children and grandchildren, and then passed in 2001.
The documentary touches on various questions, including if Casey was a boy or a girl. I can honestly say that I never questioned that myself. Casey was a child and as a child, I could relate to Casey. Finnegan never talked, but always had lots to say. These two puppets were brought to life by Judith Lawrence, who created the characters. Lawrence was the voice/arm behind Aunt Bird and Alligator Al as well.
Space does not allow for me to delve any further into the life of Ernie Coombs, however I will say that Mr. Dressup taught me to keep a good stash of markers, glue, tape and construction paper on hand, and never, ever throw out a toilet paper roll. You could make a craft with that!