‘Mr. Dressup’ Doc Spotlights the Impact and Legacy of Beloved Children’s Entertainer Ernie Coombs

Mr. Dressup

Ernie Coombs as Mr. Dressup and puppet Casey in a scene from "Mr. Dressup." The legendary children's show, and its star, are the focus of a new award-winning documentary. Photo: Courtesy of Prime Video

Mr. Dressup: The Magic of Make-Believe – the documentary that made its streaming debut this week on Prime Video – has received a giant tickle trunk full of accolades, including the People’s Choice Documentary Award in September at the Toronto International Film Festival.

The star of the film, directed by Robert McCallum, is, of course, Ernie Coombs, the revered children’s entertainer who starred as Mr. Dressup proved a staple of the childhoods of a few of generations of young Canadians. Coombs passed away at 73 after suffering a stroke in 2001. 

His own children, Chris Coombs and Catherine LeFort, were involved both on- and off-screen in the making of this documentary. 

For many fans of the Mr. Dressup TV series, which ran for 29 seasons between 1967 and 1996, two of the biggest stars were his puppet pals Casey and Finnegan. They certainly made a lasting impression on future Will & Grace star Eric McCormack, who grew up watching the show at home in Scarborough, Ont. How much of an impression? Just ask McCormack’s son, Finnegan. 

McCormack, however, was even more impressed with Coombs. As he told me in our podcast conversation in 2022, he was in awe of this man on TV who could pull a hat and a costume out of his Tickle Trunk and transform himself into a fireman or a spider. The future Emmy-winner watched and thought to himself that doing something so fanciful and full of imagination might be fun as a career. 

McCormack is one of a diverse cast of celebrities who sing Coombs’ praises in the documentary. Others offering heartfelt testimonials include Michael J. Fox, singer Bif Naked, CBC head Catherine Tait; fellow beloved children’s entertainer Fred Penner; the four current members of the Barenaked Ladies (three of whom were at the screening), actors Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, Andrew Phung, Graham Greene and Jonathan Torrens; Kids in the Hall players Bruce McCulloch and Scott Thompson; anchorman Peter Mansbridge; and Murdoch Mysteries lead Yannick Bisson. 

Coombs is seen and heard in flashback clips throughout the doc, as is the puppeteer who brought Casey and Finnegan to life, Judith Lawrence. The 91-year-old Australian-born puppeteer added an essential burst of playfulness and sass to Mr. Dressup’s daytime shenanigans on CBC. Her efforts were a big reason why the series enjoyed its lengthy run.

Mr. Dressup
Puppeteer Judith Lawrence, 91, brings Casey and Finnegan back to life in “Mr. Dressup: The Magic of Make-Believe,” with director and executive producer Robert McCallum. Photo: Courtesy of Prime Video


Many Canadians will be unaware that Coombs was an American, originally from Maine. (As the documentary shows, he became a Canadian citizen later in life.) He came to Toronto with fellow children’s TV personality Fred Rogers in the early ’60s at the invitation of the CBC. Canada’s public broadcaster had a children’s television wing at the time, an almost unheard of indulgence then in North American television. Fred Rainsberry was the savvy CBC executive who invited Rogers, whose Pittsburgh-based children’s show had just ended, and his puppeteer/assistant, Coombs, to spread their whimsy and good cheer in Canada.

For the next two years, the black and white series Misterogers ran on CBC. Rainsberry, as his daughter explained at the TIFF première, was thus responsible for bringing three titans of children’s television to Canada: Rogers, Coombs and, even earlier, the Friendly Giant himself, Bob Homme.

When Rogers was lured back to Pittsburgh in 1964, he urged CBC to carry on with Coombs, whose new series launched under the title, Butternut Square before morphing into Mr. Dressup in 1967. It ran until 1996.

Rogers makes the point in the documentary that his friend Coombs reached children not through gimmicks but through kindness and respect. Coombs, like Rogers and Homme, never talked down to his young fans.

Not that these shows were all perfect. Coombs admits in one clip that his early episodes too often had women in stereotypical roles such as homemakers. Yet in other areas the series was remarkably prescient. As Bruce McCulloch points out, one of the core cast members, Casey, was never identified by gender. That drew boys and girls into each daily adventure – a quality that seems well ahead of its time today.

Former network executive Trina McQueen and producer Peter Moss also make impactful points in the documentary, speaking to the fact that Coombs operated outside the general constraints of ad-supported, profit-driven television. Mr. Dressup was never trying to sell you something, other than the idea that anyone can do anything with a little imagination and, perhaps, scissors, tape and glue. There was no bottom line, and therefore no ceiling when it came to a child’s creative reach.

Mr. Dressup
Scenes from the early years of Mr. Dressup. Photo: Courtesy of Prime Video


The other grand and powerful message of Mr. Dressup: The Magic of Make-Believe is that a show that is all about kindness, playfulness and generosity of spirit can have a lot to do with the fabric of a nation. Canadians are often jokingly referred to as a people who say, “Sorry,” when somebody steps on our toes. A certain gentleness of spirit was no doubt handed down from generations of respectful parents and grandparents, but perhaps early Canadian children’s television – saluted this past summer in festivals held at the Museum of History in Ottawa and the Myseum in Toronto – can take some of the credit. 

Sounds a little reach-y? Consider that there are no trusted “parental” figures such as Rogers, Homme or Coombs on TV today. We live in a time when Canada and the rest of the world could use some friendly giants.

That Mr. Dressup spanned, in political terms, from Pearson to Chretien, wasn’t always easy, especially after puppeteer Lawrence retired in 1989, taking Casey and Finnegan with her. Despite the loss of those key characters, CBC budget cuts and the impact of slicker competition such as Sesame Street, the series rarely dipped below the half-million viewers a day mark throughout its long run.

The documentary filmmakers were aided by the fact that Mr. Dressup aired at CBC, where four thousand episodes have been carefully curated in the broadcaster’s archives. 

The history of preserving early children’s television shows is generally not a happy one. Back when the cost of a two-inch videotape was more valued than its content, entire runs of children’s shows were bulk erased or junked. Few if any episodes of such non-CBC shows such as Uncle Bobby or, going further back, Kiddo the Clown, exist. Same with Rocketship 7, Commander Tom and many American-based children’s shows beamed from Buffalo, N.Y. and other U.S. affiliates.

One of the many poignant clips from Mr. Dressup: The Magic of Make-Believe is the end of the 1996 finale, which echoes of the final shutdown of the WJM-TV newsroom on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. As the lights dim in Mr. Dressup’s Toronto studio, the camera pans over to pianist Donald Himes, who wrote the series’ sprightly theme, performed live in the studio each episode. (The same was true of the recorder and harp duet played live every time on episodes of The Friendly Giant.) Himes, who died in 2011 at 80, concluded the series with a grand, extended flourish.

Not as haunting, perhaps, as the final – and only – words spoken by Clarabell the Clown at the end of 13 seasons of TV’s first kiddie show, Howdy Doody: “Goodbye kids.”

Still, Mr. Dressup left behind a more profound message: Make-believe isn’t as much about pretending as it is about believing. We believed in Ernie Coombs because he believed in us.

Mr. Dressup: The Magic of Make-Believe is available now on Prime Video.