BORN: Lewiston, Maine • 26 November 1927
Canadians like to think they are kinder and gentler than Americans, and it may even be true. What no one ever asks is why this should be so.The reason may be Mr Dressup.Ernie Coombs went to art school in Boston and, as a scenery painter, found himself working in children’s theatre in Pittsburgh.
There he met Fred Rogers and came with him to Toronto in 1963 to be a puppeteer on a CBC children’s TV program. Rogers left a year later to return to the United States, where he became famous for Mr Rogers’ Neighborhood, but Coombs remained in Toronto and in 1964 went on air as Mr Dressup on the show Butternut Square. After three years, Coombs’ character got its own show.
Mr Dressup quickly became an institution, a daily half hour that captured up to 90 per cent of the children’s audience in Canada—a stunning half¬ million viewers each day! To Coombs, his audience was each individual child—never a collective “Boys and Girls”—and the style, by conscious choice, was low key, slow, amiable; indeed, the approach was characterized by a quintessentially Canadian mild understatement.
“If you’re restrained,” Coombs said, emulating Fred Rogers, “the kids will come to you…It’s easy to throw something at children and know that they’re going to watch it…but ultimately you’ve got to recognize that children deserve to get some sort of value out of watching it.” Values such as manners, innocence, and simplicity.
The approach worked for twenty-nine years and more than 4000 episodes, with the children of the original 1960s’ viewers still watching reruns as devotedly as their parents ever did.The TV program, produced initially in some 140 live half-hours a year, featured Mr Dressup as a commercial artist who did drawings or crafts, sang songs, or welcomed guests.
His puppet characters were a four year old named Casey who lived in a backyard treehouse with his dog, Finnegan, both created by Judith Lawrence, an Australian puppeteer. Scripted, but nonetheless a meandering and seemingly impromptu half-hour, the show’s best-known feature was the Tickle Trunk, a large steamer trunk full of costumes that Mr Dressup put on for various roles ranging from foolish kings to pirates.
The costumes—the budget for them was $5 a show, Coombs joked, with most passed on from other CBC productions—were sometimes shopworn, but that never seemed to matter to Coombs or his viewers. TV critic Morris Wolfe noted that unlike the American Sesame Streeet, Mr Dressup “assumes that children have an attention span that extends beyond two minutes, an assumption that’s reflected in structure, style and content.
” And Coombs basked in the praise of parents, who told him: “Yours is the only program my child will sit and watch for half an hour.It’s a quiet time when the children can watch friends and not get overly stimulated.” Very Canadian, that, even if the show was the product of an American and an Australian.
The devotion of children to Coombs is genuine—-and it lasts beyond the teen years. When he appeared as part of his farewell tour at the University of Manitoba in early 1996, Coombs drew a standing-room-only crowd that greeted him with a huge ovation.
The students listened to Mr Dressup for an hour and then lined up at a microphone to tell him how much he had mattered to them. “You were a very important part of a very happy childhood,” said one. “I just want to say you’re my hero,” said a second.
And a student from northern Manitoba told Coombs he had set a good example for children in isolated areas. “You showed that a child does not need fancy toys to play—just use your imagi¬ nation. We will miss you. Thank you. We love you.”
Winner of a Gemini for best performance in a children’s show in 1996, Coombs taped his last Mr Dressup in February that year. Happily, his show will run, likely forever, in reruns.Not until 1994 did Mr Dressup become a Canadian citizen.“I’m a Canadian legend,” Coombs said, “but I’m an import.”
Perhaps feeling slightly guilty over his slowness in taking the citizenship of his adopted country, he added the Canadian truism that “in a way, kids are pretty universal. If you’re doing something for children, I don’t think you have to necessarily be a citizen of any particular place.”