While today's children dine on the freaky delights of Boobah
, the preschool version of a psychedelic acid trip, their parents, at least on the north side of the 49th, are left to ponder the question, "what on earth has happened to children's television?". These parents and their parents grew up in a different era, one in which every child invited a balding middle age man, his tickle trunk, and his puppet sidekicks into their homes weekdays at 10:30 am.
Sounds somewhat ominous, doesn't it? But it wasn't.
The middle aged man, of course, was Ernie Coombs, otherwise known as Mr.Dressup. Coombs was born on November 26, 1927 in Lewistown, Maine. He moved to Canada in 1963 as an understudy to his friend, fellow American Fred Rogers. They both worked for the CBC on an early version of what would later become Mister Roger's Neighborhood
. A year later, Rogers moved back to the United States where he would find success, but Coombs stayed in Canada to work on the children's show Butternut Square
, which would later evolve into Mr.Dressup
. Before long, this American would become a Canadian icon.
Over the course of his nearly 30 year run on CBC television, Mr.Dressup taught many a child arts, crafts, make believe, and the importance of friendship. His sidekicks were Casey, the orange haired rouge-wearing "is it a boy or is it a girl" puppet, and Casey's silent dog Finnegan. It is rumoured that Finnegan did not always have to rely on Casey to be his mouthpiece. That situation evolved after Finnegan became so foul mouthed
that CBC producers no longer allowed him to have a microphone. Casey and Finnegan both lived, unsupervised, in Mr.Dressup's backyard treehouse.
Mr.Dressup had numerous friends, both of the puppet and human variety that would drop in for a visit or a game of make believe. From 1967 until 1992 children were entertained by Aunt Bird, Hester the Witch, Wise Old Owl, and Alligator Al. Come 1992, puppeteer Judith Laurence retired and her puppets retired with her. Casey and the crew were then replaced with Chester the Crow, Annie (who sported a mullet), Granny, Lorenzo the raccoon, and Truffles the clown. Many of Mr.Dressup's original fans never warmed up to these new additions and some even maintain that Casey and Finnegan's departure signifies the day that Mr.Dressup jumped the shark
. However, reruns of the program and its ongoing popularity undermine that theory.
In 1994, Coombs, who by now had left an indelible mark on the landscape Canadian childhood, became a Canuck himself. He was presented with the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television's lifetime achievement Earle Grey Award that same year. Two years later, Coombs was appointed to the Order of Canada
. 1996 also saw Mr.Dressup close his tickle trunk one final time as he retired from television, but not from the hearts of his fans. In fact, his tickle trunk did not stay closed for long, he was soon traveling from coast to coast doing stage shows for his old, young, and new fans.
In the spring of 2001 Coombs was awarded an honourary degree from Trent University. As Coombs addressed the graduating class, he advised, "Always keep an open mind and an open heart. Don't take life too seriously - it doesn't last forever, you know. And for the last time - keep your pencils sharp, your hands out of the sticky tape, and always put the lids back on your markers." Coombs died not long after that speech on September 18, 2001.
Peter Gzowski once said, "A cure for what ails the world: a little Mr. Dressup every morning". One can only wonder how different the world would be if Mr.Dressup
had been exported for those thirty years that it was on the air.For Fun:Mr.Dressup Theme Song (audio)
Jim Parker's "Where are You Mr.Dressup?
" (A catchy tribute!)Fact and Opinion on Mr.Dressup
Quiz: How well do you know Canadian children's television