British Columbia

Casey and Finnegan of Mr. Dressup alive and well on Hornby Island

Beloved children's show Mr. Dressup went off the air nearly 20 years ago, but for those who are wondering, the puppets now live with their maker on tiny Hornby Island.

Puppeteer Judith Lawrence made Casey, Finnegan, Aligator Al and other characters

Puppets Casey and Finnegan with Ernie Coombs, who portrayed Mr. Dressup on the iconic children's show. (CBC)

They were a little child and dog that brought joy to many generations of Canadian children.

Iconic puppets Casey and Finnegan starred alongside the late Ernie Coombs on one of the longest-running Canadian children's shows, CBC Television's Mr. Dressup.

But while the treehouse in which Casey and Finnegan lived can be found in the CBC Museum in Toronto, the puppets themselves aren't there.

That's because, for over a quarter century, they've been sitting quietly in a house on Hornby Island, a tiny island 100 kilometres northwest of Vancouver.

"They're in a bag in my house here, on Hornby," said Judith Lawrence, the puppeteer who brought the characters to life on Mr. Dressup since its inception in 1967 to the late 1980s, when she left and took the puppets with her.

"Much to the CBC's chagrin," she said. "They thought they owned them."

Casey and Finnegan made an appearance when the CBC's Grant Lawrence and his son visited puppeteer Judith Lawrence. (Grant Lawrence)

After all, she did make the puppets herself — something she has been doing since the age of 12.

Lawrence, who was born in Australia, told North by Northwest host Grant Lawrence that she learned how to make puppets after writing into a children's radio show that she grew up listening to on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

"I got this instruction sheet and I made some puppets, and I got down behind the couch, put the puppets on my hands, and started giving them voices, and that was it," she said.

"I had actually never seen a puppet show."

Some years later, when the coming of the 1956 Summer Olympic Games in Melbourne meant that the continent was getting television on a large-scale for the first time, Lawrence saw a career for herself as a puppeteer on TV.

She was told that she wouldn't be able to make it without overseas experience, so she decided she'd go to Canada.

After some time in Toronto one of the people she'd previously met, who was a producer in CBC's children's department, invited her to become a part of a new children's program — which would later become Mr. Dressup.

Casey was gender-neutral

Lawrence was given the freedom to come up with her own characters, and decided on a dog and a child.

She said she purposely made the child androgynous, picking the name Casey, which could be either a girl or a boy name.

"I don't know whether the CBC thought about it, but I thought about it: half the audience are going to be girls, and half are going to be boys. I'd like to make a puppet that they can relate to, and that's why I picked the name," she said.

"Kids often said to me, 'Is Casey a boy or a girl?' and I'd say, 'Well, what do you think?' And if they said 'girl' I'd say 'yes,' and if they said 'boy' I'd say 'yes.'"

The late Ernie Coombs as Mr. Dressup. (CBC Still Photo Collection)

Lawrence also decided to make Finnegan silent because she felt it would be boring to have a dog that talked all the time — instead, he could speak through Casey.

"He used to whisper to Casey, say things that Casey wouldn't, that might be a bit too cheeky, or too profound, or too adult. This way I could filter it through Casey."

She also said that she and Ernie Coombs ad-libbed much of the dialogue. They were given a script with the story, but they filled in the rest.

"It would say things like, "Casey is annoyed with such and such, he's going to tell so-and-so such and such," and then I would just make up the dialogue."

A lasting legacy

Lawrence worked on the show for 23 years, until she became concerned about the consumption and commercialization of TV.

She said working from year-to-year contracts and always wondering if Mr. Dressup wouldn't be renewed the following year, she didn't realize the impact that the show had on audiences.

Even now she finds herself surprised at the reaction she receives during the few moments that she brings Casey and Finnegan out of retirement, like for a private performance for the local seniors group.

"People cry, which is not at all what I really expected," she said.

"But they get all weepy because it's part of their youth."

Lawrence said that eventually Casey and Finnegan will be on display — it's in her will that Casey and Finnegan aren't left forgotten on Hornby Island once she passes away, but will be given to the CBC Museum.

Until then, loyal fans will have to go through the archives to get their fix of Casey and Finnegan and their adventures on Mr. Dressup, which left an indelible impression on multiple generations of Canadian children.

To hear the full interview click on the audio labelled: Mr. Dressup's Casey and Finnegan 


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