London, Ont., director Robert McCallum said he made his Mr. Dressup documentary to honour Ernie Coombs, the man whose impact on Canadian culture is undeniable. Despite the generations of children Mr. Dressup influenced, McCallum thinks the man behind the name still deserves more recognition.
Mr. Dressup: The Magic of Make-Believe will premiere Oct. 10 on Prime Video
Jackson Weaver · CBC News
After 29 seasons and more than 4,000 episodes, Mr. Dressup’s place in the Canadian cultural landscape was pretty much cemented.
But even with that impressive pedigree, London, Ont., filmmaker Robert McCallum didn’t think it was enough. Because, he said, those numbers don’t come close to showcasing the immense impact Ernie Coombs’s TV show Mr. Dressup had on five generations of viewers.
“It’s just that kind of stuff that united us. You say Mr. Dressup, we know what you mean, and all those memories flood back in an instant again,” McCallum told CBC News. “Coast to coast to coast — regardless of region, regardless of belief — the creative exploration that show instilled in us, plus the values of society.”
It’s that legacy McCallum was drawn to uphold and illustrate in his new documentary Mr. Dressup: The Magic of Make-Believe, which follows Coombs’s life as he built up the iconic children’s show filled with puppets, patience and play that aired on CBC from 1967 to 1996.
And while a considerable section of the documentary focuses on the particular style Coombs developed on Mr. Dressup, engaging in crafts and talking to friendly characters in a colourful, child-friendly environment, McCallum also says it reveals more about the man behind the name than many might know.
That includes the connection between Canada’s Mr. Dressup, and his American counterpart, Mr. Rogers.
“Of course, these guys were, you know, joined at the hip — it was a philosophy they shared,” McCallum said. “Fred Rogers chose Ernie very specifically to come to Canada.”
Their journey began in Pennsylvania, where the two men met on what would become a parallel show, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. And their like-minded style quickly encouraged a partnership.
Coombs grew up in rural Maine, where he had aspirations of becoming a commercial artist. Soon shifting to scenery painting for theatres across the U.S., Coombs eventually found himself in Pittsburgh, where he met Rogers and began working with him as a puppeteer on a show called The Children’s Corner.
Identifying Coombs’s temperament and philosophy toward working with children on their own level as similar to his own — and, according to Coombs himself, likely taking pity on the fact that he had no other job prospects and had recently welcomed his first child — Rogers brought Coombs with him to Canada for a new project.
WATCH | Ernie Coombs on Mr. Roger’s influence:
Ernie Coombs on his TV origins with Fred Rogers
Featured VideoIn 2001, the beloved TV host known to generations of kids as Mr. Dressup tells a group of university students where he got his start.
Rogers had been asked to bring his style of programming to CBC temporarily, and create his own show for the first time — to be titled Misterogers. After about four years, Rogers returned to the United States, after recommending that Coombs take over for him.
That recommendation resulted in 1967’s Mr. Dressup: the spiritual Canadian successor to Misterogers, and the creation of another children’s show that adopted Rogers’ unique style of engaging with kids.
“Fred was quite a mentor to him,” Coombs’s daughter, Cathie LeFort, told CBC News. “And Fred told him to look at the camera as a child. That’s the child that you’re speaking to.”
LeFort said that connection expanded to his off-camera behaviour as well. She recalls how her dad would spend hours at their kitchen counter composing handwritten, personalized letters to young fans who had sent him letters.
LISTEN | Mr. Dressup’s children discuss the legacy their dad left behind:
Metro Morning10:53Mr. Dressup’s kids on why their father’s legacy continues to live on today
Featured VideoChris Coombs and Cathie LeFort are Ernie Coombs’s children. A new documentary called “Mr. Dressup: The Magic of Make-Believe” will launch globally on Prime Video on October 10th.
Coombs kept writing to fans throughout a long career, and continued to do so until his death in 2001 due to complications from a stroke. Some of those fans even included people who would go on to perform with him.
Jani Lauzon joined the show as the puppet character Grannie in 1990, after a slight rework that saw the departure of some established characters and the introduction of others. Seeing Coombs at that point left her “starstruck” she said. Despite being well removed from the target audience herself, Coombs’s legacy was already well-established.
Lauzon said working with him on developing scripts and ideas also helped reveal a fundamental difference between Mr. Dressup‘s approach to children’s entertainment and the vast majority of other shows.
“Ernie was really, really about helping children discover who they were inside,” she said. “Sure, there was a moral message, but really it’s like ‘Here’s how you can express yourself and here’s who you might be,’ or ‘Here’s how you could discover who you are.’ “
Preserving a legacy
It was that gentle self-assurance that first fascinated and endeared Russ Clayton.
Now a 56-year-old kindergarten teacher in Bradford, Ont., Clayton quite literally grew up with Mr. Dressup. Born the same year the show first debuted, he was enamoured from the time he was two, and credits his eventual career path to Coombs’s way of engaging with children.
Though he’s kept that love alive today through a Mr. Dressup appreciation group on Facebook, which counts LeForte as a member, Clayton says appreciation for the show has been flagging.
Though he’s tried to incorporate Mr. Dressup into his classes, he says a generally more frantic and stimulating wave of children’s programs means kids are less able to appreciate the slow moving, one-on-one style that Coombs championed.
Combined with the fact that there are few ways to legally acquire and watch the thousands of episodes Mr. Dressup created, Clayton says Coombs’s legacy deserves a spotlight.
“I would love to think that a hundred years from now he’s still in people’s thoughts and memories, which is one of the reasons this documentary is so important,” Clayton said.
“Because it finally gives Ernie his due, the same due that he deserved [and] that Mr. Rogers has been getting in the last few years.”
Mr. Dressup: The Magic of Make-Believe will premiere on Prime Video on Oct. 10.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jackson Weaver is a senior writer for CBC Entertainment News. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter at @jacksonwweaver
With files from Eli Glasner, Teghan Beaudette and Jenna Benchetrit