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Most folks don’t know that to tell the origin story of Mr. Dressup, we also have to tell at least part of the origin story of Mister Rogers as well! Did you know these two giants of children’s programming were best of friends? It’s true!
Fred Rogers (Mister Rogers) and Ernie Coombs (Mr. Dressup) were both born in the U.S. and met in Pittsburg, PA on a show called The Children’s Corner. Due to the success of that show, Fred was invited to Canada to create a new show for the CBC. It was 1961 when the two drove North, and at that point in history, the CBC was making a massive push to establish themselves as one of the world’s best producers of children’s programming.
The Misterogers (Yes – that’s how it was originally spelled) show debuted on October 15, 1962 on CBC and ran until 1966, when Fred moved back to the U.S. to create the next iteration of his show in Pittsburg that would be called Misteroger’s Neighborhood and finally, Mister Roger’s Neighborhood. Of course, Fred’s history is well documented after that point and his popular show continued on until 2001.
After Fred left the CBC, the network started work right away to replace his show. What they came up with was a completely different concept called Butternut Square and it became a huge hit. The show was built on a massive set featuring a meeting place in the centre of a fictional town called Butternut Square. In the centre of the square was the now famous treehouse where Casey the young puppet character lived with his dog, Finnegan. All around the square lived several other colourful residents including The Music Man, Mrs. Trapeze and … Mr. Dressup.
Butternut Square aired from October 19, 1964 to Februray 10, 1967 when it was suddenly cancelled to make room for a new CBC news program. Butternut’s producer at the time protested and ultimately negotiated for half of the studio space back. Half of the space was not enough room for the sprawling Butternut Square set, but it was enough for a new interior set that focused on the home of Mr. Dressup and the treehouse was moved into his backyard. With that, the Mr. Dressup show was born!
Mr. Dressup was produced from 1967 to 1996 and aired 10 more years in reruns. It was famous for being filmed “live to tape”, meaning it was filmed like an old live TV show from the 50’s whereby everything was performed in one continuous take like a stage play. It featured the titular character, his young puppet friend Casey and Casey’s dog Finnegan, and other live guests and featured players including musicians, artists and other children’s performers. Mr. Dressup’s craft segments were always a favourite and, of course, the Tickle Trunk, where he kept all of his dressing up costumes was also wildly popular.
In 1989, founding puppeteer Judith Lawrence decided to retire and so did the characters of Casey and Finnegan. For the final run of the show, several new puppeteers and characters were created including Chester the Crow, Truffles, Granny, Annie, Alex and Lorenzo the Raccoon. As the cast changed, so too did the sets and the show became more focused on the local community, not just the interior of Mr. Dressup’s home.
The final episode was taped on February 14, 1996 and Ernie Coombs sadly died on September 18, 2001. He had become a Canadian citizen in 1994. After the show ended and before his passing, he toured many of the Country’s colleges and universities giving talks to the students who had grown up with his show.
The show had an important part in raising young Canadians for almost 40 years, instilling them with the virtues that Canadians are famous for around the world: care, respect, sensitivity, thoughtfulness and creativity. Now with a global health scare in full effect, Mr. Dressup might be just what you need to entertain, educate and soothe your young children. Look for the Encore+ channel on YouTube where a total of 11 episodes are free to download.