The Current·Q&A

Mr. Dressup and Mr. Rogers were the 'Lennon and McCartney' of kids' TV, says filmmaker

Mr. Dressup star Ernie Coombs forged a friendship with Fred Rogers over the shared belief that children were important, and that kids’ television could be a force for good, says the director of a new documentary film about Coombs.

Rob McCallum directed Mr. Dressup: The Magic of Make-Believe, which premiered at TIFF this month

Archival photo of Mr. Dressup, Casey and Finnegan, gathered around the show's treehouse set. Mr. Dressup, a smiling man in dark glasses and a patchwork shirt, appears to be dressed in a '70s style. At his right is a puppet stage in the shape of a child's treehouse. Hand puppets Casey -- a freckled red headed child with black spots for eyes wearing a turtleneck -- and Finnegan -- a fuzzy grey dog with floppy ears -- rise from the treehouse porch.
Ernie Coombs, better known as Mr. Dressup to generations of Canadians, is seen next to his puppet sidekicks Casey and Finnegan. (Paul Smith/CBC Still Photo Collection)

Mr. Dressup star Ernie Coombs forged a friendship with Fred Rogers over the shared belief that children were important, and that kids' television could be a force for good, says the director of a new documentary film about the iconic Canadian performer.

The beloved television personality whose program was a mainstay at CBC for 29 seasons, first met the Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood host in Pittsburgh, and over time the two became the "Lennon and McCartney" of children's entertainment, says Rob McCallum.

The London, Ont., filmmaker is the director of Mr. Dressup: The Magic of Make-Believe, which debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this month. 

Here is part of his conversation with The Current's Matt Galloway.

A man is seen drawing on a drafting table with two puppets nearby.
Coombs is seen at Mr. Dressup's drawing board with puppets Casey and Finnegan in the 1970s. (Fred Phipps/CBC Still Photo Collection)

What did that program mean to you when you were growing up? 

Everything. And you'll get the same answer from every Canadian you talk to. It's everything.

It was a staple of who they were. It's a staple of who I am. It taught me everything about creativity and creative exploration, that there are no mistakes.

It's just an adventure, whether it's with a pair of scissors or a pen or pencil. And a story doesn't always have to be the same the second time over. You can improvise, you can add tweaks to it, and life is full of unending, imaginative possibilities. And for a kid, that agency — wow, you can do anything? Awesome. 

There are people who will have never seen this program. Describe what they would see when they turned on Mr. Dressup.  

They would see a loving, grandfatherly type person interacting with neighbourhood friends — some of which may be puppets — all interacting in an inclusive, communal way, helping each other and having fun with no agenda, just kind of being kind with one another, and enjoying the company of one another and getting creative for the sake of creativity. 

A man with a long, red beard poses for a portrait wearing a colourful pattered shirt under a suit jacket.
Robert McCallum, who grew up watching Mr. Dressup, directed the documentary film Mr. Dressup: The Magic of Make-Believe, which premiered this month at the Toronto International Film Festival. (Submitted by Rob McCallum)

How unusual was what you saw on that program compared to what else was on for children's television at that time?

It was very similar in some regards, right? It comes from a TV format from the '60s and '50s, where you typically have an older male gentleman host with some sort of puppet sidekick. The production values aren't anything flashy or snazzy. There isn't a lot of camera movement, but it's within that box that things begin to change.

Of course, Ernie and Fred Rogers were best friends. Fred Rogers was his mentor. So there's a similarity with those philosophies. But where Fred has a meaning and a message that's very clear at the beginning of every show in Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, Ernie's message was a little bit different.

His was discovered through play and it was always provoked through imagination. You didn't have to take a trolley to go to the imaginary world. Imagination was around you, and that was what made Mr. Dressup unique, timeless and evergreen, and why it still works today. 

In this black and white archival photo, two men are pictured with puppets on a television set that depicts a pretend castle.
Coombs was one of the puppeteers who worked with host Fred Rogers prior to starring in his own television show. The pair shared a belief that children's television could help kids thrive, says the director of a film about Coombs. (Fred Rogers Company)

How did Ernie Coombs become Mr. Dressup?

Through a lot of trial and error. He wasn't Mr. Dressup until he was 40 years old. He went to art school to become a commercial artist. That didn't quite pan out, and that's when he started going up and down the coast to be anything and anything connected to the arts, mainly theatre.

And he ended up eventually winding back up in Pittsburgh, where he met his wife and Fred Rogers. Anything around PBS — WQED, of course, the legendary [television] station — that's where their two paths crisscrossed. Ernie was happy to do everything, whether it's painting scenery, whether it's being a puppeteer. Ernie was just happy to be there.

Tell us more about how and why Fred Rogers was so important to the success and the career of Ernie Coombs.

They just had a shared philosophy that went beyond words. Fred Rogers was very specific about who he worked with and why he worked with them. And when he had an opportunity, literally a few days after finishing seminary school, to come up to Canada and develop his program the way he saw fit — because it wasn't going the way he wanted in Pittsburgh — he chose Ernie Coombs. 

Smiling man in glasses
In this photo from CBC Archives, Coombs is pictured during a CBC News interview in 1985. (Midday/CBC Archives)

Somebody says in the film that they're like the Lennon and McCartney of kids' TV. Tell me more about that.

Yeah, a shared vision and totally Lennon and McCartney. Because these two people, eventually Fred comes back to the south, but Ernie stays in Canada.

Mr. Dressup happens and he becomes famous in Canada, coast to coast to coast. And Fred, same thing in America. Those two guys started a friendship over a belief that children were important and could be nurtured and use television to make them into great people. And they had an opportunity that allowed them to be dominant forces of good in children's entertainment.

How did he go about creating the character of Mr. Dressup? 

He was one of four characters in a program called Butternut Square, an ensemble piece that had a very large studio. And eventually Mr. Dressup became a spinoff show, where the remaining character of Mr. Dressup was transported, as well as two familiar friends of his, Casey and Finnegan.

LISTEN | Puppeteer Judith Lawrence explains why Finnegan never spoke:

What do you think Ernie was trying to — it's still odd to call Mr. Dressup Ernie Coombs. What was he trying to transmit to kids on the other side of the screen? What were the values that he was trying to impart?

That you're important. You have power through your imagination and you have more than enough around you to feel fulfilled in the way that you need.

And it's not just Ernie, right? Because he had a whole staff of writers and producers and directors. Ernie is an amazing performer. He couldn't have pulled off that naturalness if it wasn't for him. But there was a lot of people working with him to make sure those messages came across.

A man wearing a costume that makes him look as though he has many arms stands next to a colourful trunk.
The show's 'tickle trunk' was filled with dress-up clothing that sparked a lot of the imaginative situations on the long-running show. (CBC Still Photo Collection)

What did the tickle trunk mean? 

It meant anything. Any possibility. If you're a kid and your life isn't maybe so great at home, you could watch a half-hour Mr. Dressup, feel safe, learn a few things, and then you could go to your tickle trunk, which might just be the bottom of a closet, a box in the basement, or maybe some clothes that you stuffed under your bed.

But you can put something on and transform and escape for a little bit and then develop that imagination. It's all problem solving to a degree, using the creative power, right? 

Produced by Amanda Grant. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity