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2001: Ernie “Mr. Dressup” Coombs dies at 73

The Story

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. Ernie Coombs, known simply as Mr. Dressup to generations of Canadian children, passed away Sept. 18, 2001 after suffering a stroke. He was 73. Coombs starred as Mr. Dressup, a fatherly and fun-loving character, on CBC Television from 1967 to 1996. In this CBC news report, Canadians remember the beloved entertainer.

Medium: Television
Program: The National
Broadcast Date: Sept. 18, 2001
Guest(s): Ernie Coombs, Ross Petty, Susan Sheehan
Host: Peter Mansbridge
Reporter: Laurie Brown
Duration: 2:51
Photograph: CBC Design Library

Did You know?

• Ernest Arthur Coombs was born in Lewiston, Maine, on Nov. 26, 1927.

• 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 returned to the United States one year later; he would eventually go on to great success as the host of the beloved children's program Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood on PBS.

• In 1964, Coombs created the character "Mr. Dressup" for the educational CBC-TV program Butternut Square. The program, popular with young children, was burdened with high production costs and the show 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 with children, capturing 90 per cent of its intended audience for close to three decades.

• Children adored Coombs and his fun-loving, unassuming manner. He 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 and Coombs delayed his plans to retire.

• In 1994, Coombs became a Canadian citizen. In the same year, he 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, the same year he made his last episode of Mr. Dressup.

• In 2001, Coombs received an honorary doctorate from Trent University in Ontario. "Keep your crayons sharp, your sticky tape untangled, and always put the top back on your markers," he advised graduates during his convocation speech.

• At a memorial service, 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. 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?"



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