TIFF 2023 | Mr. Dressup: The Magic of Make-Believe (Robert McCallum, 2003) — TIFF Docs

By Madeleine Wall

Gentle, deliberate, and thoughtful, Ernie Coombs was a mainstay of Canadian children’s entertainment for decades. As Mr. Dressup, and with various puppet companions, Coombs would solve problems, do crafts, and, yes, dress-up, creating entertainment to bridge toddlerhood to childhood. In Mr. Dressup: The Magic of Make-Believe, director Robert McCallum presents a profile of Coombs, his family, and the changing face of Canadian media; he outlines the life and afterlife of what is clearly more than just a TV show. 

It ends up that “Canada’s Mr. Rogers” had a close relationship with his greatest American peer: Rogers was the best man at Coombs’ wedding, while Coombs, who began as a puppeteer at WQED in Pittsburgh, would not have his career without his old boss. In the ’60s, as the CBC began developing their own children’s entertainment department, they solicited Rogers, who brought Coombs along with him. The soft voiced, direct address of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood was developed at the CBC, and upon leaving for the US, Rogers tapped Coombs as his replacement.

With a subject this benign and conflict-free, McCallum makes the wise decision to delve into the archives, with an abundance of footage of the many iterations of children’s entertainment. Coombs and his long-time puppeteer Judith Lawrence, the hands and voice behind the gender-neutral icon Casey and their dog sidekick Finnegan, developed Mr. Dressup together, improvising episodes, and their 30-year run together bespeaks an atmosphere of experimentation and inclusivity. 

If you’re already familiar with the subject matter, rewatching forgotten footage offers a real pleasure of sense memory; if not, then hearing other peoples’ childhood nostalgia can be a bit like when they recount their dreams: it doesn’t mean as much unless you were there. Still, Coombs was a rare breed, and in creating a world that treated children with respect and kindness, went much further than even he could have anticipated.