“He taught kids to be bored”: The filmmaker behind the Mr. Dressup doc on the show’s enduring appeal
In Mr. Dressup: The Magic of Make-Believe, director Robert McCallum chronicles the life and work of beloved children’s TV personality Ernie Coombs
If you were a kid in Canada any time between the late ’60s and mid-’90s, then chances are you spent time with Ernie Coombs. More commonly known as Mr. Dressup, the Pittsburgh native came to Toronto in the 1960s and went on to spend 30 years in the backyard with puppets Casey and Finnegan, delighting young audiences and sharing a message of kindness and capability. “I think when you look at kids’ TV today, we’ve lost some of that,” says Robert McCallum, the London-based filmmaker whose new documentary, Mr. Dressup: The Magic of Make-Believe, premiered at TIFF and arrives on Amazon Prime this week. Here, McCallum tells us what’s wrong with kids’ shows today and why Mr. Dressup is what the world needs now.
You’ve made documentaries on Nintendo and He-Man. Why Mr. Dressup?
I first got the idea almost five years ago. My kids were five and two at the time, and I was trying to show them something from my childhood. I don’t necessarily love everything that they watch today, so I was trying to inject a little good old fashioned nostalgia. The show they gravitated toward most was Mr. Dressup. Television these days is so fast paced, but they were surprisingly receptive to something that is just kind of in the moment and kind and patient. My son, Harrison, said he thought it was a good show. I asked him why he thought his younger sister liked it, and he said, “Well, if Scarlett watches it, she might grow up to be a good person.” It’s one thing for Canadian adults to say, Oh, Mr. Dressup was a good show—I’m a better person for having watched it. But, for a five year old with no understanding of the legacy to wrap his head around that—wow. So that was a really big push.
You made your documentary with participation from Mr. Dressup’s two adult children.
Christopher and Catherine were involved from very early on. I guess you could make a film about Mr. Dressup without approval from his family, but you probably shouldn’t. We had a very transparent conversation about my vision for the film and the story I wanted to tell. They had heard from many people over the years who were interested in doing something about the show, and they’d said no. I think they saw that I had a love for their dad and for the show—one they obviously shared.
So you grew up on Mr. Dressup?
I can’t remember a time in my life when Mr. Dressup wasn’t there. Every day at 10:30 a.m., channel six: Fred Penner and Mr. Dressup, back to back. And then, of course, The Price Is Right. You’d age out of watching every day because you’d start going to school, but he was still there on a sick day. It really was a foundational show for me, and I started to think about how there is a whole generation—anyone under 25—who might not know who Mr. Dressup is. The show stopped taping in 1996, but it was on in syndication until 2005.
I think we can all agree that it’s been a pretty messed up twenty years since then. I’m not saying that Mr. Dressup could fix everything, but to be exposed to those very subtle lessons of virtue on a daily basis really amounted to something special. It wasn’t a preachy show, but it was always about leading with kindness and having compassion for our differences. Maybe we’ve lost some of that. I live in London, Ontario, where in 2021 a Muslim family was brutally killed by a man in a pickup truck. Our prime minister came here on a campaign stop, and people threw rocks at him. People say, “That’s not our Canada,” but it is our Canada. So how did we get here?
That’s a lot of pressure to put on children’s TV.
I just think that having this daily reminder of kindness and respecting others was really important. It’s all part of what Fred Rainsberry started at the CBC when he was head of children’s programming in the late 1950s—this idea that shows for kids needed to be more than just a pie in the face. Pie in the face is great, but the idea was to put some meat in the pie so that kids get what they want in a way that nurtures their minds. That helped usher in the era of Fred Rogers and Mr. Dressup.
I had no idea they were such good pals until I saw your film.
I didn’t realize that either until I got into the research. Of course, I had seen the Mr. Rogers documentary in 2018, and I was aware that they had really skipped over his history at the CBC in the 1960s, which was foundational to his future success. Mr. Rogers brought Ernie Coombs with him from Pittsburgh to Toronto to work on this new children’s series, and that was how Coombs ended up in a position to launch Mr. Dressup.
Mr. Rogers was the best man at Mr. Dressup’s wedding. Who knew?
Right. They really were a dynamic duo of children’s television. I like to think about that time when Fred Rogers gets the call to go to Canada to develop a program with way more resources than he ever had in Pittsburgh, and he asks his friend Ernie to go with him. He could have chosen anyone, but he chose Ernie Coombs, and there is a car ride to Toronto that is going to change both of their destinies and the destinies of all of the young people who would love them over the years. But, at that point, they’re just two guys heading to a new place to see what happens.
How has kids’ TV changed since then?
It’s become more consumable, more reproducible and more distributable. A lot of that leads to animation, which doesn’t have some of the constraints of live action. You can put it in any territory because you can dub it, which makes it far cheaper and easier and potentially more profitable to produce. Obviously cheaper and easier doesn’t always mean better. I’m not knocking animation. I love cartoons. But there is something you get from real people and puppets interacting with the real world. Kids see their real lives reflected back to them. For example, when Mr. Dressup is in the kitchen making lunch, maybe they can do that too. When they see the Paw Patrol in Adventure Bay, that’s not something they’re ever going to experience. Who’s teaching our kids to be comfortable in a quiet space? Who’s teaching them that silence and boredom can be good?
I’m pretty sure the answer is nobody.
Exactly. Today, how would you even pitch a show with the premise of teaching kids to be bored for half an hour every day? What’s exciting? Nothing is exciting. The show is about championing silence and patience. There are episodes where Mr. Dressup is raking the leaves, cleaning up his living room, reading a magazine, or on the phone talking to someone at the hospital and then explaining that to Casey. It’s like the Seinfeld of kids’ shows.
You mentioned Casey, a puppet whose gender was ambiguous. It wasn’t a big deal at the time, whereas today, the culture wars would be all over it.
And that was the beauty of a show: it wasn’t soapboxing or preaching, just quietly normalizing instead of drawing attention. For Judith Lawrence, the puppeteer who created Casey and Finnegan, and for the writing staff, this wasn’t just a job; it was an opportunity to use their platform to fight racism and sexism and gender stereotypes—but the way they did it was subtle. When people would ask Judith if Casey was a boy or a girl, she would just say, “You decide.” It’s when you start focusing on the ideological reasons behind it that you open yourself up to politicization.
The doc includes a lot of celebrity cameos: the Barenaked Ladies, Bif Naked, Michael J. Fox. Were you surprised by how many famous people agreed to share their love for Mr. Dressup?
I will say that this never happens. Usually, you reach out through a casting agent, and you’re lucky to get one or two bites. But, in this case, I don’t think we got a single no, which obviously speaks to the special place Mr. Dressup holds in our hearts. You see these very famous people start talking about what the show meant, and it’s almost like they’re not celebrities anymore. They’re just big fans talking about something that was so important to them before they were famous.
The film’s last twenty minutes or so are a pretty big sob-fest. Have you watched it with an audience?
I have. During the screening at TIFF, I remember thinking, Either this is a really bad cold and flu season, or people are getting very emotional. We tried to bring balance, so there’s a lot of humour and fun and new information, and yes, it does get very sad.
It’s like you’re crying because Mr. Dressup died, but also for your lost childhood.
That’s exactly it. It’s the loss of childhood and then the rediscovery of your childhood through adult eyes. It’s about a realization that our world is different, but the world of Mr. Dressup is still within reach. I don’t want to get preachy, but if Mr. Dressup taught us as youngsters to be creative and solve problems through imagination, I think we can still do that as adults.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.