I’ll always remember September 2001 and not for the obvious reason you might think. Among the sad, confusing and sometimes scary news reports that were painting the picture of what was happening in New York and around the world was also a story about a man named Ernie Coombs who had suffered a stroke on September 10th and died eight days later. You might not recognize the name Ernie Coombs but you most certainly would know him by his stage name Mr. Dressup.
Mr. Dressup ran from 1967 to 1996 and on CBC for 4,000 episodes making it one of the longest running English language television shows in Canada. Ernie Coombs started out as an understudy for another beloved children’s entertainer Mr. Rogers (who I must admit to not having a connection with since I didn’t have cable growing up). Each episode would air weekday mornings and Coombs, as Mr. Dressup would lead viewers through twenty-six minutes of songs, stories, arts, and crafts, as well as imagination games. Mr. Dressup had his puppet friends for company including Casey and Finnegan, Granny and Annie, Truffles and Chester the Crow among others.
Mr. Dressup was a huge celebrity in my world. I can remember hearing that my older cousin served him while working at a local gas station one summer and being green with envy. Like all celebrities, the cast at Mr. Dressup was not immune to gossip. I literally can remember playing in a sandbox while one of my other cousins told me that the reason that Casey and Finnegan weren’t on the show anymore was that their puppeteer had been killed in a car accident. The truth was much less terrifying and sad. Judith Lawrence, the puppeteer behind the two loveable characters chose to retire and the boy and his dog were slowly phased out. Eventually, it was announced that Casey and Finnegan would no longer be on the show because they were attending Kindergarten which sounded nice since so many kids probably stopped watching the show regularly because they too had to attend school. (Also, what kind of school allows their students to take their dogs with them? If Whitbourne Elementary had such a policy I might not have cried just about every day of Kindergarten).
Not only was Mr. Dressup a huge celebrity to me, but he also had a pretty profound effect on me. I can’t ever remember having imaginary friends growing up, instead, I would talk to “my audience” the same way Mr. Dressup spoke to us through the television. I also suspect that the fact that I, as well as just about everyone else my age, grew up watching this man have a costume for just about any occasion or idea explains why just about every party I attended or threw in university had a theme and required a costume. I’m not sure I’ve told anyone this, but there was a part in the Mr. Dressup opening theme that I was convinced sounded like the line from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air theme “Chillin’ out, maxin’, relaxin’ all cool,” except played on a piano. (Can you hear it too or am I just pop culture crazy?)
I know I’m not alone in my admiration of Mr. Dressup. Shortly after starting this article, I made a post on my Facebook, asking my friends to share any memories they had of Mr. Dressup; Gale wrote that she had her father make her a Tickle Trunk and that she used to pretend that the bar in her basement was the Trading Post. “My oldest daughter Cathy has her own tickle trunk,” wrote Fern. “She is a teacher and has costumes from [a] conductor for Polar Express Day to Dr. Seuss’ costume to celebrate his birthday, [and] Halloween costumes from her 7 siblings. I am sure [Mr. Dressup] was her inspiration.” Chelsea also shared a memory about how on long car rides, her mother would measure time using Mr. Dressup as a reference. “Only 2 Mr. Dressup’s left” she would say, signifying that there was an hour left to go.
Let me put this into perspective. Mr. Dressup premiered the same year my mother was born and she can remember watching him growing up, my brother and I grew up watching him every morning until we started school and I was always excited on days when I was too sick to go to school so I could set up camp on the couch and watch, then years later while showing YouTube videos to my two nieces, I searched up Mr. Dressup and they too were hooked. My oldest niece loved how he could draw so effortlessly, and the youngest liked his costumes. That is three generations of Smiths that have enjoyed watching Mr. Dressup draw stories at his drawing board or try on costumes from the Tickle Trunk and act out plays.
During my last visit to Toronto in 2015, I visited the CBC museum. When reading up on Mr. Dressup after introducing my nieces to the show and downloading some episodes, I discovered that the Treehouse set could be found in the main foyer of the CBC Building. Somehow I walked past it and started looking around in the museum. It was cool to see some other familiar set pieces and puppets from other shows I watched as a kid but I was there to see the Mr. Dressup memorabilia. They had the Tickle Trunk on display in a glass case with several of his costumes, the drawing board, the Grannie, Annie, Alex and Chester puppets and a write-up on Judith Lawrence (that confirmed that she did indeed retire and not lose her life in a fiery car crash).
From what I can remember this museum was small and sort of went in a circle. I kept thinking, “We didn’t see the Treehouse?!” and wondered if it had been moved and the Wikipedia page I had read was not updated with this information. Once we exited, I saw it. There was the Treehouse sitting in the foyer of this huge building in downtown Toronto. The same Treehouse I had seen Mr. Dressup prop himself up against to converse with his puppet friends (was Casey his son or???) and sing songs that entertained me for years after they should have. You can see inside the Treehouse as it is open on the back which would allow for the puppeteers. Inside some asshole had left a used coffee cup. The Captain Planet level recycler in me was disgusted but the Mr. Dressup fan in me was appalled. How could someone desecrate such an important part of Canadiana? I swiftly removed said cup from the Treehouse.
Before leaving the museum and seeing the Treehouse, I had run into something I had not expected. There, amongst all of this memorabilia from Mr. Dressup was a sort of guest book where visitors had left messages. I can’t explain what an overwhelmingly emotional experience this was for me. I remember reading messages from other Canadians who said they grew up watching the show. One person wrote about having fond memories of getting home from school, their mom having poured up a glass of orange juice for them and ready to watch Mr. Dressup. Another message thanked Mr. Dressup for making their childhood. The message that really hit me hard was from someone who wrote that they had gained a new level appreciation for the show when their own kids started watching.
I have to admit that I teared up reading these messages. It was overwhelming yet comforting to know that Mr. Dressup had been so important to so many Canadians, and the last message about introducing a new generation of viewers to the show had hit home with me because of my nieces. I too signed that guest book, but I can’t remember exactly what I said. It definitely included the phrase “thank you”.
I’ve always wondered if Ernie Coombs knew how beloved he was. I can’t imagine that there are many celebrities in Canada who would have such a diverse fan base as Mr. Dressup. I did a YouTube search that delivered a clip from an episode of the CBC talk show aimed at teenagers called Jonovision in which the audience reacts in the same way I’d expect them to for the current pop star du jour when Mr. Coombs is introduced. On November 26, 2012, Mr. Dressup was featured as Google’s Doodle. The clip I just linked to shows people working at Google Canada and pitching the idea for the doodle stating during the pitch that “every single Canadian loved this guy.”
There is always the fear that the characters we grew up loving don’t act the same way in real life as they do on TV but I have faith in the fact that Ernie Coombs and Mr. Dressup were either one in the same or not different people. In a radio interview I came across, Ernie Coombs claims that he and Mr. Dressup are really the same person, and if anything, playing Mr. Dressup made Mr. Coombs a better person. An example of this to me came up during the interview was that both he and Judith Lawrence negotiated their salaries together and made the same amount of money for the show. Mr. Dressup was not only a wholesome childhood entertainer but he seemingly advocated for pay equity between the sexes.
It has been sixteen years since I can remember sitting at my family’s dining room table eating breakfast and listening to the news describing the events of the terrorist attacks in New York City followed by a report that Ernie Coombs had passed away after suffering a stroke. In a lot of ways, it is fitting to me that my childhood died around this time as I began questioning a lot of things regarding religion and politics in this post 9/11 world. This statement might sound dramatic but I think that is why I found that comment from the guestbook about the appreciation for the show after introducing it to another generation hit home so hard for me. So much had changed in the world since Mr. Dressup had ended and the way we consume media, children included has changed drastically but the magic of Ernie Coomb as Mr. Dressup can still capture young minds.
If there is one thing we can all take from Mr. Dressup and apply it to our daily lives, especially in the world we live in today, it is to remember the power of imagination and that we should never be afraid of “a big fat idea”. I’d like to think that a lot of what’s right here in Canada stemmed from the fact that several generations grew up watching this kind man every morning and that we took his lessons with us into adulthood.
Thank you Mr. Dressup for playing such an important part in my childhood and the childhood of countless other Canadians from coast to coast. It was probably you who taught me that littering was wrong in the first place, and I’d toss that disrespectful coffee cup out of your Treehouse any day.
If you are interested in taking a trip down memory lane, or introducing Mr. Dressup to an entirely new generation, you can find many clips on YouTube or you can purchase the DVD Tickle TrunkTreasures on Amazon.