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He cavorted as a bowler-hatted spider, six of his eight “legs” flopping at his sides. He repurposed toilet rolls as binoculars and sang silly songs about talking trees that sprouted socks. His best pals were a chatty puppet child named Casey and a canine sidekick, Finnegan, who lived in a tree house.
But as big a role as imagination played in his career as a children’s entertainer, Mr. Dressup was the real deal.
“He was soft-spoken, very gentle, very kind, funny and witty,” Cathie LeFort says of her father, the late Ernie Coombs. “What you saw on TV — that character wasn’t far from who he was” off camera.
Revered by generations of children — and their parents — Mr. Dressup appeared weekday mornings on CBC for almost 30 years. Through songs, stories, crafts, drawings and play-acting, the affable host delivered wholesome entertainment and simple life lessons to preschoolers from 1967 to 1996, followed by a decade of reruns.
Today, more than 16 years after his death, the Canadian cultural legend is still a hero to countless devotees.
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“This show was genius, and I credit it for whatever positive aspects exist in my character,” one childhood fan commented online.
Last year, accomplished actor Michael J. Fox paid tribute to a role model who’d taught him to envision “a world of limitless possibility.”
Coombs himself credited the award-winning program’s authenticity for its success.
“I think it’s because it’s gentle, it’s quite real. I think the kids feel that we are real people, even the puppets are real people,” he said in an interview as the last of 4,000 episodes wrapped up in February, 1996.
“You can’t help but respect kids because they’re such wonderful little beings,” he told another interviewer.
Born in Lewiston, Maine in 1927, Coombs came north in 1963 as an unemployed actor and puppeteer to work with Fred Rogers of Mr. Rogers’ Neighbourhood fame before joining a new CBC TV series called Butternut Square. When that show ended, Mr. Dressup hit the airwaves.
Years later, Coombs tipped his hat to Rogers and his low-key style for the half-hour show’s popularity.
“I could probably safely say I owe it all to him,” Coombs said, according to a report in the Toronto Star. Rogers taught him “that you don’t have to jump around madly and stand on your head to hold a child’s attention.”
But it helped if you could impersonate a giant green lizard or the aforementioned arachnid — one of his favourite costumes that appeared from his seemingly bottomless “tickle trunk.”
A cameraman filming Coombs in a goofy getup once asked: “Don’t you feel stupid doing that?” The unabashed performer said he was doing what any father would do with his kids.
At home in Pickering, where he and his wife Marlene raised daughter Cathie and son Christopher, there was warmth, laughter and silliness to spare, LeFort remembers.
On Halloween, her “really, really cool” father took delight in rigging up a ghost that he’d send whizzing down a wire to greet trick-or-treaters coming up the driveway.
Taping shows only two days a week allowed him to be a semi-stay-at-home dad who drew cartoons on her lunch bag, decorated her bike for the school fun fair and took her to lessons and appointments, says LeFort, an Oshawa mother of four now in her 50s.
In the evening he’d sit at the kitchen counter answering stacks of fan mail with personal, handwritten letters, she adds.
Rouge Valley, which bordered their semirural home, “was our playground” where the nature-loving family enjoyed hikes and dips in the swimming hole, says LeFort, who works as operations manager for a lighting firm.
As versatile as he was on TV, Mr. Dressup did get a helping hand — well, two — from Judith Lawrence, the creator and puppeteer behind the gender-neutral Casey and floppy-eared Finnegan.
Like the show itself, they kept the dialogue real, observes now-grownup Adam Cooke, a Nova Scotia musician and journalist.
Mr. Dressup’s “balance of a friendly, conversational speaking tone with a refusal to talk down to kids or overload them with saccharine-sweet mush” was one of his strengths, Cooke wrote in a blog.
When Lawrence left the show after 23 years, viewers were told Casey and Finnegan had gone off to kindergarten, making way for new characters like Chester the Crow and Lorenzo the Raccoon.
After Coombs retired in 1996, he continued to tickle funny bones at personal appearances and on college campus tours. He also turned into a Tim Hortons regular, according to his daughter.
Tragedy struck the family in 1992 when Coombs’ wife Marlene, an early childhood educator, died after being hit by a car.
In 1994, he received his Canadian citizenship and was named to the Order of Canada two years later.
When he died from a stroke in September, 2001, an entire country joined his two children and six grandchildren in mourning “the whimsical man who never lost touch with the child within him,” as Fred Rogers described the then-73-year-old.
He was “the grandfather that everybody wanted to have,” says his show’s executive producer Susan Sheehan.
The Star’s education reporter Louise Brown paid tribute to the “gracious, friendly grown-up” for teaching her two preschool daughters “the sheer joy of pretending; of making fun out of what you have, not what you acquire.”
It’s the kind of affirmation LeFort has heard multiple times since starting a Facebook campaign two years ago to have “the most deserving man ever in Canadian television history” recognized on Canada’s Walk of Fame in Toronto.
In an informal poll by a CBC reporter in Vancouver last year, Canadians voted Mr. Dressup the country’s most memorable English TV show ever.
The wave of support and adulation for Mr. Dressup has been “amazing and humbling,” LeFort says. “It’s incredible to us that he’s in people’s hearts and minds after all these years.”
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