Canada 1974: Discovering Mr. Dress-Up

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When I was getting familiar with this bizarre new world called “television” (Canadian and otherwise) in 1974, it was probably for the best that I found something that would entertain me on a basic level but still encourage me to use my imagination and to be the best person I could be, at any stage of my life.

So it’s a good thing that, at the age of two, I discovered Mr. Dress-Up. And it’s an even better thing that, one way another, Mr. Dress-Up has stayed with me through the rest of my life.

The show’s namesake, Ernie Coombs, had a pretty good handle on being Mr. Dress-Up by the time I first caught his act. Like Bob “The Friendly Giant” Homme before him, Coombs was actually an American (born in Lewiston, Maine) who landed his CBC gig by coming north. Unlike Homme, however, Coombs hadn’t yet evolved into his most beloved character – he crossed the 49th parallel as an understudy to Fred Rogers, who tested an early version of Mr. Rogers’ Neighbourhood on CBC from 1963 to 1967, before bringing it back to the States for its lengthy PBS run.

By the time Mr. Rogers packed up his neighbourhood (and dropped its “u”), Coombs had already spent three years on the CBC children’s series Butternut Squaredeveloping the Mr. Dress-Up character alongside an Australian-born puppeteer named Judith Lawrence and her two most famous characters, Casey and Finnegan. CBC launched the official Mr. Dress-Up series in 1967, and it would run uninterrupted for nearly three decades until Coombs’ retirement in 1996.

I found a lot to like about Mr. Dress-Up – his frequent visits to his artist’s easel (which helped to inspire my own love of drawing), his balance of a friendly, conversational speaking tone with a refusal to talk down to kids or overload them with saccharine-sweet mush, his endless supply of songs (both original and traditional), and his infinite imagination. There was no character he wouldn’t play, especially not with a Tickle Trunk nearby to supply so many fun costumes and props. (As you can see by the photo on the bottom right, Ernie Coombs actually took the Tickle Trunk with him into retirement.)

So, with all that going for Mr. Dress-Up, my little kid’s brain wasn’t going to sift through the show’s inconsistencies. It wasn’t until well into my teen years that I figured out that Mr. Dress-Up probably could have found a better place for Casey and Finnegan to live than the tree house outside his home. (Although, as you can hear from the show’s first official album in 1969, he DID build them a playhouse.)

Around the same time, I noticed that Casey talked an awful lot for a kid whose lips never moved, while Finnegan – who whispered his “dialogue” into Casey’s ear – barked considerably less than most dogs, real or puppet (which is to say, never). But it never bothered me as a child. Maybe I was too caught up in the personality Lawrence infused into the two characters, as well as her other puppets, including fast-talking trading-post owner Alligator Al and comically-forgetful Aunt Bird (who could trigger my laughter simply by calling Alligator Al “Crocodile Cal” – which probably tells you everything you need to know about my sense of humour between the ages of two and nine).

Seeing how much my sister and I loved the show, our parents bought us the three Mr. Dress-Up LPs pictured here. Despite For A Song‘s ill-advised foray into disco, via Alligator Al’s funky frog friends The Swampettes (no, I’m not making this up), all three albums hold up pretty well as musical collections and dialogue-driven children’s stories. They introduced us to basic kiddie tunes like “Wheels On The Bus” and “Tree In The Wood” (aka. “The Green Grass Grew All Around”) and folk songs ranging from “Mrs. Murphy’s Chowder” and “Michael Finnegan” to “Boil The Cabbage Down”and even the French-Canadian favourite “V’La L’Bon Vent.” Even Alligator Al showed his singing chops, sinking his teeth into some pretty snazzy renditions of “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” and “Down By The Bay.” Like the show itself, the albums relied on fairly straightforward musical arrangements, often with just one or two instruments, instead of the frequently over-the-top numbers found on Sesame Street, The Electric Company and, later, The Barney Show.

But all good things must come to an end, beginning with the retirement of Judith Lawrence and her stable of characters in 1989. Casey and Finnegan were gradually phased out (Mr. Dress-Up later told viewers that Casey was attending kindergarten), and a stable of new puppets with names like Chester Crow, Truffles and Granny showed up. Seven years later, with Deputy Prime Minister Sheila Copps in attendance, Ernie Coombs filmed his last episode of Mr. Dress-Up. He then enjoyed a few years of visiting universities as a guest speaker; one such trip was spotlighted in a CBC Life and Times documentary of Coombs, with one young man in his twenties announcing that the Wise Owl, who spoke to Mr. Dress-Up from a frame on the wall, freaked him out as a child. (Coombs apologized to the lad through barely-disguised chuckles, which actually made me like him even more.)

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The lasting impact of Mr. Dress-Up on Canadian culture can be measured in the sadness that greeted Ernie Coombs’ death in 2001. The touching cartoon pictured above, created by Bruce MacKinnon for Halifax’s Chronicle-Herald, resurfaces on social media nearly every September on the anniversary of Coombs’ death. Another Maritime cartoonist, Michael de Adder, depicted Coombs in the line-up to heaven behind several firefighters and police officers who had died during the World Trade Centre attacks; one first responder was depicted as telling another that Coombs was among the group because “heroes” get to advance to the front of the line.

I don’t know if “hero” is ever an accurate word for a TV actor, especially following the unspeakable tragedy of 9/11, but I’ll admit that I wasn’t quite ready to lose a childhood favourite so soon after the loss of innocence that accompanied that awful day in New York City. Mr. Dress-Up was part of the family for many Canadians, determined to make the best of things even if we were having a bad day (or, for that matter, even if Casey and Finnegan were acting up). It was simultaneously heartbreaking to lose the man behind that mindset and yet comforting to remember a time when all it took was a drawing board, a Tickle Trunk and a little imagination to bring sunshine peeking through the clouds.

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The legacy of Mr. Dress-Up continues to this day in Canada and around the world. In 2012, on what would have been Coombs’ 85th birthday, Google posted the home-page “doodle” seen above. I still get requests – from people barely old enough to have caught the last round of Mr. Dress-Up reruns in 2006 – to play the show’s bouncy theme music on the piano. (I never turn them down; that tune’s as much fun to play as it is to hear.)

The show’s original tree house set is still on display at the CBC Museum in Toronto. And Casey and Finnegan? They’re back with their creator, Judith Lawrence, at her home on British Columbia’s Hornby Island, located 100 kilometres north of Vancouver. (She talks about how that came about, and her history with the show, in an interview located here and here.)

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Most importantly, of course: According to Lawrence, “Alligator Al is still around,” although he’s “a little flat on one side.” (Mind you, if I spent that many years in a trading post, I’d probably wind up that way, too.)

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