You might have been one of those kids who, especially in hindsight, had the TV as your babysitter. I was.
And that wasn’t automatically a bad thing, especially if your babysitter was Mr. Dressup.
That’s why I couldn’t help but get choked up while watching the Prime documentary, Mr. Dressup: The Magic of Make-Believe. It’s been 22 years since Ernie Coombs passed away, which seems impossible to Canadians who grew up watching and learning from him, KC, and Finnigan.
I can easily remember sitting on the floor, criss-cross applesauce, waiting for that familiar piano to signal the start of the show. I remember my knees being imprinted by the fibers of our living room carpet as I eventually sat on them, waiting for my favourite sound – that squeaky black marker he used for his drawings. I was hypnotized by the sound of that marker.
The film had loads of nostalgic moments, but it was also chalk full of things I wasn’t aware of, such as his long-time friendship with Mr. Rogers, another legendary star of content geared entirely towards kids. I also didn’t know that Coombs, like Rogers, was American. Coombs eventually became a Canadian citizen in 1994. He story of how he came to his decision is classic Mr. Dressup. He received a letter from a 9 year old girl who was working on a class project. She was tasked with presenting to her class her all-time favourite Canadian, and chose Mr. Dressup, thinking he was a fellow Canadian.
Coombs wrote the youngster back and was honest with her, but used the child’s letter as a springboard to become a Canadian citizen. In a way, it was classic Mr. Dressup.
The film also covered the tragic death of Coombs’ wife, Marlene Coombs, who was struck by an out-of-control vehicle while exiting a grocery store in Toronto. Coombs was expecting he to arrive at an event but she never came. Friends recall Coombs waiting for his wife to arrive that night, clutching flowers he had bough for her up until the moment he heard the news of the accident. She died a week after 9-11.
While watching this movie I realized just how small a club Coombs belongs to. That club – entertainers who focus solely on kids content and are household names – is a small one. Coombs, Mr. Rogers, and to a slightly lesser extent The Friendly Giant, are the only real household names in Canada for children’s content.
But nobody was as influential and aspirational as Mr. Dressup.
Childhood can be a strange place. Many parents, including good ones, find themselves using the television or devices as a tool for downtime, or just when they are busy with other responsibilities. Having a staple like Mr. Dressup was everything to kids, and it makes me feel like I need to see if my own children will be as drawn to Mr. Dressup as I once was.