'Mr. Dressup', Ernie Coombs, dies after stroke

Ernie Coombs, who played the much-loved television character Mr. Dressup, has died in Toronto after suffering a stroke a week ago.

Along with TV pals Casey and Finnigan, the kindly Mr. Dressup was a staple of morning television, entertaining generations of Canadian children with simple crafts, sing-alongs and trips to the "tickle trunk" for costumes.

Harkening back to a time before video games and expensive toys, Mr. Dressup encouraged children to use their imagination.

Coombs first started the character in 1964 after moving to Canada from his native United States along with fellow kids' show personality Fred Rogers.

Coombs retired as Mr. Dressup in February 1996, but continued to keep up a hectic schedule of personal appearances in character.

In 1994 Coombs was awarded a Gemini for his lifetime contribution to Canadian television. Among countless other awards, the show won an ACTRA for best program.

He became a Canadian citizen in 1994, years after he was considered a Canadian cultural icon.

Parents, children express their sadness

"We are a great country because of people like Ernie Coombs," said Eard Lynds, in an email sent to CBC from from Changchun, China.

"My husband used to say 'Mr. Dressup for Prime Minister!' and I believe he was truly serious!" wrote Mary Ann Marcellus. "Thanks you for years of quality entertainment not only from my children's point of view but from a parent's point of view as well. Thank you from the bottom of our hearts."

"Anyone who knows the name "Mr. Dressup" is saddened today because we have lost a true symbol of our childhood. We will always remember his smile and the way he could make you believe in the impossible," wrote Lori Jo Coleman in a post to CBC's message boards.

"He taught us that you didn't need expensive toys to have fun: a tickle trunk full of clothes, construction paper and a sand box were all that was needed to have an adventure," wrote David Anstey.

Wrote Clarence Poirier, "Mr. Coombs, in my 34 years, I have had lots of heroes... hockey players, rock stars, and others. You were my first hero, however, and likely had the deepest impact since you taught a young boy of about three how to discover new worlds by simply using his imagination."

Coombs, who lived in Pickering, Ont., is survived by three grown children, Christopher, Kenneth and Catherine Minott. His wife Marlene died in a traffic accident nine years ago.

Ernie Coombs was 73.

The show still airs across Canada in reruns.