For 32 years, Ernie Coombs played Mr. Dressup and opened the doors to a world of imagination when he lifted the lid on his famous Tickle Trunk and shared in the antics of his faithful puppet friends Casey and Finnegan.
Coombs was born Nov. 26, 1927 in Lewiston, Maine.
Initially trained as a commercial artist, Coombs later graduated from the Pittsburgh Miniature Theatre along with Fred Rogers. In 1963, Rogers brought Coombs to Canada to work as a puppeteer on his CBC Television show Misterogers. Rogers soon acquired the rights for his show from CBC and returned to the United States one year later. He would eventually go on to great success as the host of another beloved children's program Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood on PBS.
In 1964, Coombs decided to stay in Canada and created the character Mr. Dressup for the educational CBC-TV program Butternut Square. But the program, popular with young children, was burdened with high-production costs and was cancelled after two years.
Coombs and puppeteer Judith Lawrence proposed to stage a scaled-down show. The new show would feature Coombs' Mr. Dressup character and Lawrence's puppets Casey and Finnegan. Mr. Dressup debuted in 1967.
Mr. Dressup was a success, capturing 90 per cent of its intended audience for close to three decades. The show remained extremely popular with Canadian children until Coombs retired and CBC-TV stopped producing the show in 1996.
Children adored Coombs and his fun-loving, unassuming manner. His tickle trunk overflowed with costumes. His two trusty puppet friends were always at his side. And with just scissors, glue, craft paper and a black marker, he could work magic.
He developed a more intimate long-lasting one-on-one connection with his young audience by talking directly to the camera.
Coombs never demonstrated any trace of self-consciousness when donning elaborate costumes and explained once that he was simply doing what any father would do with his kids. Coombs had two children, Cathy and Chris, and many grandchildren.
Coombs bantered breezily with puppet Casey and his mute puppy Finnegan.
"He was comfortable with humans dealing with puppets," said puppeteer Judith Lawrence. "There wasn't any of that sort of embarrassment that some humans would feel if they suddenly found themselves talking to a lot of puppets."
In 1990, Lawrence retired to B.C.'s Hornby Island. Coombs planned on retiring to Maine with his wife Marlene in 1992. Tragically, she was struck and killed by an out-of-control car that year. Coombs delayed his plans to retire.
On Feb. 14, 1996, Coombs performed in the last episode of Mr. Dressup. Hear Coombs reflect on his career:
With his Tickle Trunk closed for the final time on the air, Coombs spent several years touring college and university campuses to speak about his time as Mr. Dressup. He was a hit with the university crowd, as they had all grown up watching his show.
"There's a certain segment of 20-to 35-year-olds that have one thing in common - they all watched Casey and Finnegan and Mr. Dressup," said Susan Sheehan, a Mr. Dressup producer, shortly after his death. "It's kind of a nice warm fuzzy link between a lot of people who live across the country, and I don't think it will ever happen again."
In 1994, Coombs became a Canadian citizen. In the same year, Coombs was also feted with the Earle Grey Award for excellence in TV from the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television. In 1996, Coombs won a Gemini for best performance in a children's program.
In 1996, he was also honoured for his many years of bringing quality programming to Canadian children when he became a Member of the Order of Canada.
In 2001, Coombs received an honorary doctorate from Trent University in Ontario. In his convocation speech, Coombs advised the graduates to, "Keep your crayons sharp, your sticky tape untangled, and always put the top back on your markers."
A few months later, Coombs suffered a stroke on Sept. 10, 2001, and died eight days later in Toronto at the age of 73. There was a great outpouring of emotion and sadness across the country as Canadians learned of his death.
At a memorial service for Coombs, Canadian actor Albert Schulz made a moving speech about the power of Mr. Dressup. "I have this fantasy in which the entire world sits down for half an hour every morning and watches Mr. Dressup. After a few days, the pundits are talking about a changed world -- a world that has gained its innocence."
Schulz continued, "Friendship is paramount. Diversity is celebrated. Not only is the world not divided along ethnic and religious lines, there is no division between species. And so what if the dogs can't be heard? Just who could hear Finnegan anyway - or did Mr. Dressup and Casey (as I have come to believe) simply endow that poor dumb dog - to make him believe he could be heard. That's OK - I buy that. Power to the people. I know my fantasy for the world is a bit of a stretch, but doesn't it beat some people's plans?"
Check back in the CBC 75th blog archives for more on Mr. Dressup, including retro ads and behind-the-scenes photos.