Mr. Dressup doc a 'nostalgia trip' for generations who loved the children's performer

TORONTO — A record signed by beloved children's performer Ernie Coombs, more affectionately known to generations of Canadians as Mr. Dressup, hangs in Mark Bishop's office.

The Toronto-based producer doesn't call himself a superfan, but a lifelong love of the man who encouraged children to be themselves and provided a portal for their imaginations with a toy chest called the "tickle trunk," suggests otherwise.

Bishop met Coombs twice before the performer's death in 2001 — once as a child and then years later in university.

About three years ago, Bishop came across various social media posts about the performer as part of a Facebook fan page. He decided to reach out to the man who posted the videos, Canadian documentarian Robert McCallum, to pitch a project that would explore not only the popularity of Mr. Dressup but also who Coombs was off camera.

Bishop tapped McCallum to direct the full-length documentary "Mr. Dressup: The Magic of Make-Believe," which debuted at this year's Toronto International Film Festival. It will also be available on Prime Video Oct. 10.

"We wanted to give the audience a wonderful nostalgia trip, but also hopefully have them walk away and take some learnings they probably didn't realize from (Coombs') incredible story," said Bishop.

The film uses archival footage from the "Mr. Dressup" series, which ran on CBC for about30 years, as well asinterviews with family members, former castmates and Canadian celebrities. It also includes home videos thattrace the life and legacy of the American-born Coombs, who died in Toronto at age 73.

One of the lesser-known aspects of Coombs' life the filmmakers shed a light on was his relationship with fellow American children's performer Fred Rogers or Mr. Rogers.

The twomay be perceivedas competitors when in reality they were best friends and collaborators, having both come to Canada to get their start at CBC in the early '60s.

"These men had a kinship. It wasn't competitive, it was actually very complimentary," said Bishop.

Coombs'longtime partner and puppeteer Judith Lawrence, who created the series' first crop of puppet co-stars Casey and Finnegan, provides inside knowledge of what the early years of the show werelike, while later co-stars speak about the sombre final days of one of Canada's longest-running television series.

The interviews showcase the untarnished love many have for the "Mr. Dressup" series, a cultural juggernaut in Canada.

"The thing right across the board everyone said is that (Coombs) lived the values. He was the same person off camera as he was on," said Bishop.

Coombs' character and what he symbolizes for many Canadians across the country is what propelled Hawkeye Pictures runner Aeschylus Poulos to take on the project as co-producer.

"I really wanted to tell a story that resonates with all Canadians," he said.

"There's a lot about nationalism, which is scary and dangerous in today's world, but it's really important for us as Canadians to tell Canadian stories to know where we came from to build towards the future."

"Mr. Dressup: The Magic of Make-Believe" screens again at TIFF on Sept. 15.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 10, 2023.

The Canadian Press