Written and Curated by Sandra Hutton @artimmersionstudio, Dec.9th, 2023

Mr. Dressup with puppets Casey and Finnegan

Recently, I watched the documentary Mr. Dressup: The Magic of Make Believe about the life, career and legacy of children’s entertainer, Ernie Coombs. When I was a child this was, by far, my favourite show. Back in those days there was no Netflix, no Disney Plus and I find myself feeling a little thankful for this. The entertainment on demand culture didn’t exist yet and that meant that when my favourite show came on, mid morning if I recall correctly, that meant that I had to tune in at the right time, along with a huge community of Canadian children watching from their homes.

Tuning into this documentary immediately brought a smile to my face. There was something so familiar, so comforting seeing “Mr. Dressup” again on TV–like a relative I hadn’t seen in a very long time. He came through my TV, into my home, every day for many years and, in some ways, seeing that kind face looking back at me again felt like a reunion.

Watching the documentary also got me thinking about Ernie Coombs’ influence on my creativity. It was evident from a young age that I was a creative kid. I remember setting up a little studio space in our basement where I happily painted—for long periods of time, with my dad at work, but my mom nearby. When the time came for Mr. Dressup to come on T.V. I was ready not only to watch, but also to participate with my art tools available if needed! If his program was interrupted for any reason–for example, a political event, I was not a happy little artist. In my world, watching Mr. Dressup was a steady, comforting part of my day and his presence was an expected part of my creative routine.

For Canadian children, Mr. Dressup had a fanbase similar to that of American children’s entertainer, Fred Rogers. Although born in Lewiston, Maine, Coombs would later obtain Canadian citizenship. He began his career as a puppeteer and performer and shared a deep and lasting friendship with Fred Rogers that extended beyond their two respective shows, “Mr. Dressup” and “Mister Roger’s Neighborhood.” Despite the geographical distance between their productions, Coombs in Canada and Rogers in the United States, the two pioneers collaborated on various occasions, exchanging ideas and supporting each other’s endeavours. Their friendship was characterized by mutual respect and a shared philosophy on the importance of kindness, imagination, and genuine connection in children’s programming. Both Ernie Coombs and Fred Rogers left an indelible mark on the landscape of children’s television, and their enduring friendship serves as a testament to the positive impact they had on each other’s lives and the generations of children they reached through their respective shows. I am fortunate to be one of those children who was impacted.

“Mr. Dressup” aired between 1967 and 1996 on the CBC–an impressive span of time in which Ernie Coombs captivated generations of young viewers with his gentle demeanour, imaginative storytelling, and creative crafts. While donning various costumes, he shared heartwarming adventures with his puppet friends. Casey and Finnegan, the two most famous puppets from “Mr. Dressup,” endeared themselves to audiences through their charming simplicity and genuine friendship. Casey, a human-like character whose gender was never defined, and Finnegan, a dog puppet, were more than just playmates for Mr. Dressup; they were conduits for relatable and heartwarming interactions. The puppets’ nonverbal communication, expressive gestures, and the playful dynamic between them resonated with audiences, especially children. Their enduring popularity can be attributed to the universal themes of friendship and camaraderie that they embodied. Casey and Finnegan became beloved companions for young viewers, fostering a sense of comfort and familiarity in the imaginative world of make-believe. The puppets’ appeal lay in their ability to transcend language barriers, making them accessible and endearing to a wide audience. The lasting legacy of Casey and Finnegan lies in their ability to evoke nostalgia and fond memories for those who grew up captivated by the enchanting puppetry on “Mr. Dressup.”

Seeing Casey and Finnegan on the documentary was indeed nostalgic and I was intrigued to learn more about their puppeteer, Judith Lawrence. Born on June 15, 1940, in London, England, Lawrence played a pivotal role in bringing these beloved puppets to life. With her talent and creativity, she contributed significantly to the show’s success and its enduring impact on generations of viewers. Lawrence’s puppetry skills and ability to infuse distinct personalities into Casey and Finnegan played a crucial role in making them cherished companions for children across Canada. Her work on “Mr. Dressup” stands as a testament to the artistry of puppetry and its ability to create lasting connections with audiences. Additionally, Casey, the puppet on “Mr. Dressup,” held a unique and significant place in children’s television as a gender-neutral character. Unlike many other puppets at the time, Casey’s gender was intentionally left undefined, allowing children to project their own interpretations onto the character. This neutrality was a pioneering choice by the show’s creators, emphasizing inclusivity and breaking away from traditional gender norms. By not assigning a specific gender to Casey, “Mr. Dressup” fostered an environment that encouraged viewers to embrace a broader spectrum of identities and characteristics. This approach was progressive for its time and contributed to a more inclusive representation in children’s programming, challenging stereotypes and allowing young audiences to see themselves in the imaginative world of the show, regardless of gender. Casey’s gender-neutral status became an important aspect of the show’s legacy, promoting acceptance and diversity in a subtle yet impactful manner.

And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the power of Mr. Dressup’s Tickle Trunk and its significance. Mr. Dressup’s Tickle Trunk was not just a magical chest filled with costumes and props; it was a symbol of boundless imagination and creative exploration. The Tickle Trunk encouraged a sense of play and creativity, inviting young minds to embark on imaginative adventures. For children, it represented a world of endless possibilities, where they could transform into any character their hearts desired. The trunk symbolized the timeless power of make-believe, urging individuals of all ages to tap into their imaginations and express themselves freely. Mr. Dressup’s Tickle Trunk became an enduring icon of creativity, fostering a spirit of playfulness that transcends generations and serves as a cherished memory for those like me who grew up under its whimsical influence.

“Mr. Dressup” enjoyed a remarkably long and successful run on Canadian television, captivating audiences for nearly 30 years. During its run, Ernie Coombs endured the tragic death of his wife, Marlene, who was killed in a traffic accident in 1992. Amazingly, he continued on with his work, continuing to share his creativity with his audience until his retirement from the show in 1996. Ernie Coombs, passed away on September 18, 2001, just days after the tragic events of 9/11. The convergence of these two events had a poignant impact on a generation of fans including me. Mr. Dressup had been a beloved figure in the lives of countless children, and his death, occurring in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, added an extra layer of sorrow and reflection. In a time of collective grief and uncertainty, the loss of Mr. Dressup as a cherished childhood icon served as a reminder of the impermanence of life. The combination of Ernie Coombs’ passing and the global tragedy of 9/11 created a sense of nostalgia, loss, and a yearning for the comforting simplicity that characters like Mr. Dressup provided. In many ways, and despite the fact that I was an adult when these two events occurred so close together, it felt like an abrupt end to my childhood.

Fortunately, due to the fact that Ernie Coombs created such a legacy and fostered so much creativity, he lives on in our individual and collective memories and in our creative actions. I was touched to watch a segment in the documentary depicting his son, wearing one of his father’s costumes interacting with Casey and Finnegan. Finnegan whispered to Casey who relayed the message– poignantly noting that Mr. Dressup isn’t gone—he is in everyone’s hearts. This brought a tear to my eye and made me think more about the values he represented and the lessons he left us with through his character and his show. 

Here are 10 Lessons from Mr. Dressup that I’m going to think about more closely in my creative practice and, frankly, just to aim to be a better human and more fulfilled person. I will leave you with these as I head to my Tickle Trunk:

Imagination Knows No Bounds: Mr. Dressup’s whimsical world emphasized the limitless power of imagination. Creatives can learn that there are no boundaries to what they can create when they let their imaginations soar.

Creativity Is Play: The Tickle Trunk and the various costumes inside encouraged play as a form of creative expression. Mr. Dressup taught us that creativity is most vibrant when it’s approached with a playful and open spirit.

Inclusivity Matters: Casey’s gender-neutral status and the show’s diverse characters promote inclusivity. Creatives can learn the importance of creating content that is accessible and relatable to people from all walks of life.

Simple Can Be Profound: Despite its simplicity, “Mr. Dressup” conveyed profound messages about friendship, kindness, and creativity. Creatives can take away the lesson that simplicity doesn’t diminish the impact of a message.

Adaptability Is Key: While maintaining its core elements, “Mr. Dressup” adapted to changing times. Creatives can learn the importance of staying adaptable, embracing new ideas, and evolving without losing the essence of their creative identity.

Create a Safe Space: Mr. Dressup’s gentle demeanour and the comforting world he created served as a safe space for children. Creatives can understand the impact of fostering environments where people feel secure to explore and express their creativity.

Learning Is Fun: Educational segments on the show were seamlessly woven into the narrative, making learning enjoyable. Creatives can take away the lesson that blending education with entertainment can be an effective and engaging way to convey information.

Friendship Is a Powerful Theme: The genuine friendship between Mr. Dressup and his puppets resonated deeply. Creatives can learn that themes of friendship and camaraderie have a universal appeal and can be powerful storytelling tools.

Leave Room for Individual Interpretation: Casey’s undefined gender allowed for individual interpretation. Creatives can learn that leaving aspects of their work open to interpretation can invite a broader and more diverse audience to connect with their creations.

Consistency Builds Legacy: The show’s nearly 30-year run is a testament to the power of consistency. Building a lasting legacy often involves dedication, commitment, and staying true to one’s vision over time–something important for creatives to think about.

Works Cited:

Mr. Dressup: The Magic of Make Believe (2023) documentary