A film review by Craig J. Koban October 20, 2023

RANK: #25



2023, Unrated, 90 mins.

A documentary written and directed by by Rob McCallum 


With the exception of my parents, Ernie Coombs - aka Mr. Dressup - was the first person that I can consciously recall looking up to in life.  

For those growing up in Canada, he was a beloved and respected fixture on his daytime children's television program that ran on the CBC for 4000 episodes and over four decades.  Alongside his loyal puppet sidekicks in Casey and Finnegan - as well as a host of other human co-stars over the years - Mr. Dressup became a part of must-see viewing for many a Canuck kid growing up in the late 1960s and onward, and I certainly can't fathom my upbringing without Coombs' warm and inviting presence in every thirty minute episode.  For American viewers, the closet analogy that I could make is that he was the Fred Rogers of Canada.  Both men were iconic figures in educational programs.  Both men displayed a genuine compassion and understanding for what made his viewers tick.  Both were inherently noble-minded people that taught kindness.  And both were actually good lifelong friends that had a mutual influence on the development of their respective shows.  

It's this revelation - and many more - that comes to the forefront in MR. DRESSUP: THE MAGIC OF MAKE-BELIEVE, a new documentary directed with a loving eye by Rob McCallum that not only chronicles the inception, making of, and impact that Coombs' show had on multiple generations of children, but it also attempts to flesh out this very humble man outside of the limelight and provide insight into who he was when he wasn't making art crafts or deep diving into his so-called "Tickle Trunk" to put on an episodic themed costume.  That latter part was crucial in Coombs' messaging to his audience base - you can express yourself however you like and discover and define yourself for the better in the process.  From 1967 to 1992, Mr. Dressup established Coombs as a bona fide Canadian treasure, and his impact on kids and our nation's culture cannot be underestimated.  Most crucially, MR. DRESSUP: THE MAGIC OF MAKE-BELIEVE emphasizes that there was more to this legendary figure beyond his on-screen persona, and like other recent documentaries about landmark educational programs - like WON'T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR? and STREET GANG: HOW WE GOT TO SESAME STREET - this one will hit many viewers right smack dab in the nostalgic feels.  It certainly did for me. 

The opening of the doc is special, especially when one considers the history of the show (and that of one of its crucial contributors) as it opens to a thoughtful recreation of the sets of Mr. Dressup and - whoa! - an introduction by Casey and Finnegan themselves (performed by Judith Lawrence herself, more on her in a bit).  After that, McCallum's film takes on the look and form of many talking-head style documentaries, relying on interviews with Coombs' friends, family members, and creative personnel on his program alongside a wellspring of archival interviews and behind the scenes footage of Coombs himself (who died back in 2001).  We also get commentary from a variety of Canadian celebrities - ranging from Michael J. Fox, Graham Greene, Bif Naked, and the Barenaked Ladies - that relay to viewers what growing up with Mr. Dressup was like for them on a deeply personal level.  For some, it was his unparalleled gentleness that struck the biggest chord, whereas for others it was his artistic strengths and his willingness to embrace inclusively on his sets and shows.  Perhaps most notably, the film reminds viewers that Coombs was not Canadian born, but rather came from extremely humble roots south of the border in Maine and became a Canadian citizen when it was clear that his show - and the country that gave birth to it - had touched him in a deeply personal and fundamental way.  



What I found most engaging, though, in MR. DRESSUP: THE MAGIC OF MAKE-BELIEVE was - as mentioned earlier - Coombs' deep ties with Fred Rogers and the endearing professional and personal friendship they would have for decades.  Before that partnership, though, the doc sifts through Coombs' upbringing in rural Maine and how he had early aspirations in life to either be a cartoonist or commercial illustrator.  He then turned his attention to painting and decorating sets for a Pittsburgh-based (see where this is going?) children's show called THE CHILDREN'S CORNER.  He also did puppeteer work with a then unknown Rogers, who was so taken in with Coombs that he decided to bring him up to Canada to work in a new kids-themed series up there (yes, the roots of MR. ROGERS NEIGHBORHOOD began in Canada).  Although his stint with the CBC was temporary and led to him moving back down to the U.S. to start his own show, Rogers never forgot how gifted of a performer Coombs was and went out of his way to recommend him to CBC brass to give him his own show ("Ernie never forgot the child within him and that informs everything he does with children," Rogers explains at one point).  He first hit the airways in 1967 under his newly envisioned moniker of Mr. Dressup...and the rest was proverbial history.    

You can easily see how Rogers and Coombs mirrored one another so well in watching some of the respective shows' archival footage.  MR. ROGERS NEIGHBORHOOD and MR. DRESSUP were child-friendly environments that talked to kids versus talking down to kids.  It was that special touch that helped separate them from other similar shows on the air during this era.  How Coombs differed, though, was on a level of - yes - dressing up in costumes for play and arts and crafts (I still, to this day, remember being calmly hypnotized by how he could make a plain piece of construction paper become something practical and useful, not to mention that he was an effortlessly skilled artist at his drawing board on-camera).  The documentary thankfully doesn't lose sight of many of Coomb's most important collaborators, with Lawrence in particular being given ample focus by McCallum.  Her affectionate voice and puppeteer work of Mr. Dressup BFFs Casey and Finnegan have largely gone unacknowledged when it comes to discussing the show (it should be noted that Coombs himself was her biggest cheerleader in front of and behind the camera).  One of the most compelling aspects of Lawrence's thoughts on her time on the show is in how Casey was a very early example of demonstrating gender inclusiveness and neutrality.  She amusingly and charmingly reiterates this when recalling being asked (as she has been numerous times over the years) as to whether Casey is a boy or girl.  Her answer?  Yes.  That's remarkable forward-minded thinking for a show so old to have a non-binary character.  

MR. DRESSUP: THE MAGIC OF MAKE-BELIEVE does not shy away from darker elements of Coombs' life, like his wife's sudden and tragic death caused by an out-of-control car that had a seismic impact on his life moving forward.  Like the positive-minded trooper that he was, Coombs insisted on continuing to shoot the show shortly thereafter and also put his foot down in terms of maintaining appearances elsewhere.  One of the most heart wrenching moments of the doc most assuredly has to be the sight of him performing a melancholic ballad with fellow children's performer Fred Penner on TV right after his wife passed (you can sense Coombs gallanting soldiering on with a show must go on attitude while trying to hold back tears).  He also was a very selfless performer in the sense that he always allowed his co-stars (some of whom were minority based when so many shows didn't tread that ground) a share of the spotlight.  Lawrence recalls a painful decision to leave Mr. Dressup and attempts by the CBC to take her puppet creations away from her, which shows that somewhat seedier underbelly of the behind-the-scenes machinations of a corporate-backed show.  The most grueling part of the doc has to be the multiple interviews with Coombs' son, who was overseas in the UK when his father became extremely ill in the hospital and he was essentially stranded there when all air traffic was suspended on 9/11. He recounts weeping and begging for the airline to let him back home to see Coombs before he died by appealing to the agent's knowledge of who Mr. Dressup was.  He got his ticket and was able to say good-bye to his dad.  

Sprinkled throughout McCallum's film are people (many adults) that met Coombs when he was still alive who are shown tearfully explaining to him how significant his teachings were to them as children.  The impact that he had on so many generations of children is on chief display as he's shown in post-retirement meet and greets with his most loyal young viewers that are now older and with kids of their own (he also continued to write to his fans right up until his stroke and passing).  Like children did with Rogers in the states, I learned how to be a good and creative person from Mr. Dressup.  Those are simple morals, yes, but the manner that they have been driven home to me several decades after I watched this program is a testament to Coombs' power as an empathetic mass influencer.  That, and MR. DRESSUP: THE MAGIC OF MAKE-BELIEVE made me feel good all throughout its 90 minute runtime.  My only grievance with the film is is that it could have been longer and featured more interviews with a wider menagerie of people that mattered most in Coombs' world (no offence, but I could have handled more from his chief collaborators than the frequent and oddly incongruent shifting to what, say, the Barenaked Ladies or members of KIDS IN THE HALL thought about Mr. Dressup).   

Nitpicks aside, this doc is an equal parts stirring and wonderful ode to an indelible performer that will live on in the hearts and minds of many adults that fixated on his show as kids for decades to come.  Ernie Coombs enriched my life.  That much is certain.  While watching MR. DRESSUP: THE MAGIC OF MAKE-BELIEVE, it sure was hard not to feel like a wide-eyed pre-Kindergarten child again.   

That's pure magic, if you ask me.

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