CBC Still Photo Collection

The Evergreen Power of Mr. Dressup

The Magic of Make-Believe celebrates a Canadian icon

11 mins read

For nearly 30 years, Ernie Coombs greeted countless children across Canada. “Hi! How are ya today?” Every day, Coombs’ Mr. Dressup would take young Canadians on an adventure, visiting with Casey and Finnegan at their tree­house, singing songs, making simple crafts, going to Chester the Crow’s Trading Post, and, of course, digging into the Tickle Trunk to find just the right costume for the occasion.

The final episode of Mr. Dressup aired on February 14, 1996, and the series would continue in re-runs for the next decade. However, the legacy of Coombs and the show has enjoyed a shelf life far beyond its presence on television.

“This whole project started when I was trying to find something for my kids to watch,” explains Rob McCallum, director of Mr. Dressup: The Magic of Make-Believe, a film that serves as a cultural history of one of Canada’s greatest icons and a tribute to the men and women who brought him to life. “There were a few [episodes of Mr. Dressup] on a YouTube channel from the Canadian Media Fund and it worked with [my kids]. The singing, the dressing up, the narrative that would unfold, story time, the low-tech animation—they were all in, all the way.”

Mr. Dressup: The Magic of Make-Believe | CBC Still Photo Collection/Paul Smith

The Magic of Make-Believe brings together the many people who made Mr. Dressup, including Judith Lawrence, the puppeteer behind Mr. Dressup’s steadfast friends Casey and Finnegan, who finally receives a much-deserved commendation. McCallum interviews Lawrence and other members of the crew, as well as Coombs’ son and daughter, presenting the story of the show’s genesis and endurance through a variety of lenses.

But beyond taking a merely retrospective, historical view, The Magic of Make-Believe preserves Mr. Dressup’s legacy and demonstrates its relevance to kids—and adults—today. There’s no doubt that the world has changed drastically since 1996, and exponentially since 1967 when the show first aired. Our media tastes reflect that. However, there’s an argument to be made that, for children, the simple production of shows like Mr. Dressup and its American equivalent, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, is forever in style.

“Four- to six-year-old audiences are evergreen,” McCallum offers. “It’s not flashy and HD, and maybe it’d be nice to have an updated set here and there, but kids look beyond that, because once [Mr. Dressup] starts drawing or crafting, they’re hooked. It’s what everything on YouTube is made up of right now: short process videos of creation—that’s Mr. Dressup right there.”

“Not all content in the ’80s was great, let’s be honest,” laughs producer Mark Bishop. “When you go back and watch those episodes, they’re a little bit slow and the colour wasn’t great, but it doesn’t matter. It was much more about the performances [and] being able to bring forward those values.”

For Bishop, The Magic of Make-Believe is especially poignant, bring­ing his childhood full circle: “He came to our town of Saint John, New Brunswick, and it was really special. This was a different time, the early ’80s, and I was five. Not that many people came from television to tour and visit Saint John,” Bishop recalls. “You’re seeing an idol that you watch on TV every single day.”

At the tender age of five, seeing Mr. Dressup in person spurred plenty of questions for the curious tot: “How did he get here from TV? Who’s doing the show today? I could not fathom how it was possible that he was not doing a show and that he was here.” It was this moment that sparked an interest in the television industry for Bishop and set him down a path that would eventually lead him to enroll in Toronto Metropolitan (then Ryerson) University’s radio and television program and embark on a career in television and film.

“The coolest thing was that I got to meet Ernie again when we were in third year,” Bishop says with the same earnest excitement he must have had as a student living the experience. “I was working on the YTV Achievement Awards at the time, and he was getting an award. I had a chance to tell him that story and he just loved it.”

Extraordinarily, Bishop’s story is far from unique. Many of Canada’s best and brightest talent point to Coombs and Mr. Dressup as their earli­est exposure to the entertainment industry, including Michael J. Fox, who cited the series as a source of inspiration for him when accepting his Governor-General’s performing arts lifetime achievement award in 2017. In The Magic of Make-Believe, Fox remembers seeing Mr. Dressup pull out a hat from the Tickle Trunk and change into a new person: “As a kid, before I considered acting a hobby, let alone a vocation, just put­ting on that hat allowed you to open your heart and your soul to other experiences.”

Ernie Coombs and Fred Rogers | CBC Still Photo Collection/Robert Ragsdale

But beyond inspiring future artists, the influence of Coombs and Mr. Dressup was perhaps felt most significantly on a more granular level.

“Mr. Dressup, Casey, and Finnegan became cherished visitors in the homes of countless young Canadians and their par­ents,” producer Aeschylus Poulos states. “Through their daily presence, the show took on the noble mission of enlightening, teaching, and entertaining audiences of all ages, consistently delivering joy and valuable lessons day after day, year after year, and decade after decade.”

“The power of Mr. Dressup was showing kids every single day the wonder of creative exploration and the unlimited potential of imagination, no matter where you are in Canada, coast to coast,” McCallum agrees. “No matter what your background is, Mr. Dressup and his approach to what we could do with our time united everybody without conflict.”

Today, Bishop suggests, people have lost certain fundamental capaci­ties, like “respecting each other and engaging in a dialogue, being able to say, ‘Sometimes you’re right, and sometimes you’re wrong, and that’s okay.’ This type of behaviour was modelled by the show. And it didn’t come from a mandate, it just came from a group of people that really believed in it.”

There is a timeliness to The Magic of Make-Believe that doesn’t go unnoticed as we continue to trudge through an era of extreme divisive­ness in culture and politics. It’s a situation that the likes Mr. Dressup and Mister Rogers prepared us for, even if we didn’t know it then, and The Magic of Make-Believe gently asks us to recall those lessons.

“There is an absence [today] of remembering what’s important,” observes McCallum. “I think we’re all so busy rushing forward to the next thing that we’re never stopping long enough to realize what’s in front of us and around us. We need to slow down and appreciate one another. And that’s what Mr. Dressup [taught us to do] every day.”

“As we navigate an uncertain future, [Mr. Dressup] highlights the importance of kind­ness, calmness, and collective problem-solv­ing to build a more just society,” Poulos adds. “[Our film shows] the profound affection the nation holds for this beloved character and the influence the show had on multiple generations.”

For many across Canada, the impression Mr. Dressup, Casey, Finnegan, Chester, Truffles, Lorenzo, Granny, Annie, and Alex made has never left them. But for some, the show’s impact has become subconscious, buried beneath the mountain of bills, deadlines, and general challenges life hands us. The Magic of Make-Believe reminds us of a simpler time when a kind-hearted man lit our imaginations on fire with a gentle song that opened a trunk full of possibilities and wonder.


Mr. Dressup: The Magic of Make-Believe premiered at TIFF 2023 and opens in theatres beginning Sept. 29.

Get more coverage from this year’s festival here.

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