Year Born: 1927
Year Died: 2001
Coombs, Ernie “Mr. Dressup” (1927-2001)
Ernie Coombs helped raise countless Canadian children in a humble but distinguished role as Mr. Dressup on CBC television. Beginning in 1964 on a children’s program called Butternut Square, Ernie took the concept a step further; speaking directly to the camera and therefore directly to each of his young viewers as Mr. Dressup.
Born in Lewiston, Maine on November 26, 1927, Ernie came to Canada as a puppeteer in 1963 with Fred Rogers, who went on to host Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood in the U.S. Rogers returned to Pittsburgh in 1964 as Coombs developed his concept of an affable host who worked with puppets and his trademark Tickle Trunk.
The first show was taped on Valentine’s Day, 1967. Puppeteer Judith Lawrence provided life to Casey, a 4 ½ year-old boy and Finnegan, a silent gray dog. In each episode, the puppets watched Ernie reach into the Tickle Trunk and pull out a costume that he modelled. Mr. Dressup taught children to sing, dance and make crafts and is remembered by colleagues as one who didn’t speak down to children.
When Lawrence retired in 1989 along with Casey and Finnegan, Mr. Dressup carried on with new puppet sidekicks, including Chester the Crow, Truffles Granny and Lorenzo the raccoon.
He retired in 1996 after 31 years on the air encompassing two generations, with more than 4,000 half-hour episodes taped. At Coombs’ insistence, no mention was made when the last show was taped out of respect for his young viewers. The CBC ran repeats of his program each weekday, although stopped for a week when Ernie died so as not to confuse youngsters who had heard of his death.
During his formidable career, Coombs remained busy away from the set. He released five musical albums and three books: Mr. Dressup’s Things To Make and Do, Mr. Dressup’s 50 More Things To Make and Do and Mr. Dressup’s Birthday Book. He also made personal appearances around the country.
Offstage, he had a passion for vintage Auburn automobiles, meticulously restoring his own over the years and attending rallies and festivals when he could.
As a pastime, Ernie then began performing in live theater, namely the Christmas Pantomime at the Elgin Theater in Toronto. He also appeared in Peter Pan, Cinderella and Aladdin. For several years he was spokesman for the Canadian Save the Children Foundation.
Ernie’s list of awards and honours include: induction as a member of the Order of Canada in 1994, the Earle Grey Award for excellence in television from the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television in 1994, a Gemini for best performance in a children’s program in 1996, a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Children’s Broadcast Institute in 1989, two Juno nominations for best children’s album, and an honorary doctorate of laws by Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario in 2001.
On September 10, 2001, Ernie Coombs suffered a stroke and died eight days later.
Written by Joseph Chrysdale – June, 2003