Ernie Coombs wanted to be a commercial artist when he grew up. Luckily for millions of Canadian kids, he never did.

From 1967 to 1996, the Maine native starred in a beloved Canadian Broadcasting Corporation show called “Mr. Dressup,” featuring Coombs and a cast of puppets helping children use their imagination to explore the world with kindness and empathy. Coombs died in 2001 at the age of 73, but his life and legacy is being explored in a new documentary film called “Mr. Dressup: The Magic of Make-Believe.” The film began streaming on Amazon Prime Video on Oct. 10.

“You’d be hard-pressed to find a Canadian over the age of 30 who wasn’t addicted to that show,” said director Rob McCallum, who grew up in London, Ontario. “In some ways, he’s Canada’s greatest secret. America had Mr. Rogers, but we had Ernie.”

“Mr. Dressup” never aired on American TV stations. But in Canada, it often drew 650,000 or more viewers, at a time when that country only had 20-25 million people. Coombs was named a member of the Order of Canada – the country’s second-highest honor for merit – for his years of educating and entertaining young people and has a star on Canada’s Walk of Fame in Toronto. He was born in Auburn, lived in Waterville as a child and spent his teen years in Yarmouth. He spent summers at a family camp near Damariscotta throughout his life.

Comparisons to Fred Rogers – host of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” in this country – are both valid and an intriguing part of Coombs’ story. The two men started out together in the TV business in the 1950s, and both went to Canada together in the early 1960s to develop children’s programming for the CBC. The two remained close the rest of their lives, and Rogers, who died in 2003, is seen in the film talking about Coombs’ honest, sincere connection with children.

Maine native Ernie Coombs, left, started out in children’s television working with Fred Rogers, right. Coombs went on to host “Mr. Dressup” in Canada and Rogers hosted “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” in the U.S. Photo courtesy of CBC Still Photo Collection/Fred Phipps

“I would say he very much considered Fred a mentor. They both had the same sort of dedication to children and the same, calm, gentle approach,” said Coombs’ daughter, Cathie LeFort, from her home in Oshawa, Ontario. “I think he was always a kid at heart, he always saw the goodness and wonder and beauty in the world. He always retained the idea that you could be silly without being embarrassed, and he was that way off TV as well.”


Watching clips of “Mr. Dressup” on YouTube or in the film, it’s clear that Coombs brought a Mainer’s sensibility to the way he approached children – honest, plain-spoken and with no affectation or over-acting.

“He was not talking down to kids. With Fred Rogers there was a little bit of preachiness, but Ernie just talked to you like a person,” said McCallum. “In ‘Mr. Rogers,’ the theme of the show came to you from a bit of a soap box. You were told what we’re talking about today and then a trolley had to take you to the land of make-believe. With Ernie, he’d put on a costume and show that make-believe is all around you, and you could activate it any time you wanted to.”


Coombs was born in Auburn, then moved to Waterville and later to Yarmouth. He graduated from North Yarmouth Academy, where his father was a teacher and eventually head of school, in 1945. The Kenneth Brown Coombs Prize, named for Coombs’ father, is given annually to a senior who has demonstrated love and enthusiasm for history.

Around the time of Ernie Coombs’ death, some classmates sent remembrances to NYA staff, recalling his sense of humor and his talent for drawing, manifested often by doodling in class, according to notes on Coombs in the NYA database. He played clarinet in the school orchestra and was art editor of the school’s newspaper. His daughter says Coombs was encouraged in his art by his mother, Irma Coombs, who “found something great and wonderful in everything.”


Ernie Coombs and his wife, Lynn, during a picnic at Biscay Pond near Damariscotta. Courtesy of the Coombs Family

In Maine as a child, Coombs loved going into the woods and building cities out of twigs, McCallum said. Coombs’ father had taught chemistry so Coombs sometimes got a hold of gunpowder, and created explosions to punctuate his adventures, McCallum said.

“Maine is where he came into his own. He loved being out in the woods, where he could find so many things and make his own stories, ” said McCallum.

After high school, he served in the Army, in the Philippines. He then studied art at Vesper George School of Art in Boston and the University of Kansas, with the hope of becoming a commercial artist, his daughter said. During summers he had worked as an actor at Boothbay Playhouse, painting scenery for sets as well.

Coombs moved to Pittsburgh in the 1950s and worked with a children’s theater group. It was in Pittsburgh that he met his wife, Marlene, known as Lynn. He also met Rogers and started working with him, as a puppeteer, on a show called “The Children’s Corner” on public TV station WQED.

In 1962, Coombs and Rogers went to Toronto to develop children’s programming for the CBC and worked on a show called “Misterogers.” After a couple years, Rogers decided to go back to the United States, but Coombs stayed in Canada, working on a show called “Butternut Square” before beginning his own show, “Mr. Dressup,” in 1967. “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” debuted nationally on PBS stations in America in 1968.

On his show, Coombs talked to his TV audience, interacted with puppets, made things out of everyday items and drew pictures. But what most viewers seem to remember about the show was the “Tickle Trunk,” so named because Coombs had to tickle the lock to open it. Coombs would pull out costumes, props and hats. With those, he’d pretend to be a cowboy, a dinosaur, a bat, a fireman or anything else he could come up with.


A highlight of “Mr. Dressup” was when Ernie Coombs went looking for costumes in the Tickle Trunk. Photo courtesy of CBC Still Photo Collection

The film on Prime includes interviews with many Canadian celebrities – including actors Michael J. Fox, Eric McCormack and Graham Green, as well as members of the rock band Barenaked Ladies – talking about how magical the Tickle Trunk was and how believable Coombs’ world of make-believe was.

“Is he going to be a wizard? Oh, no, he’s a dinosaur!” says McCormack, best known for the NBC sitcom “Will and Grace.” “The endless possibility of that.”

Fox, in the film, says one of the reasons he became an actor was that “from a very early age, this person on television, an adult but not an adult, taught me it was OK to let my freak flag fly.”

Ernie Coombs, who starred in the Canadian children’s show Mr. Dressup, with Truffles, Annie, Granny and Chester the Crow in the 1990s. Photo courtesy of CBC Still Photo Collection/Fred Phipps

The film explores how “Mr. Dressup” stayed on the air so long, even as other shows, like “Sesame Street,” began a trend toward more frenetic, high-energy children’s programming. It also talks about how Coombs lost his wife in a tragic accident in 1992; she was walking on a sidewalk in Toronto when a car struck her. Coombs died in 2001 after suffering a major stroke, but reruns of the show remained on the air in Canada until 2006.

Coombs was a major celebrity in Canada, always recognized where ever he went, his daughter said. Besides being on TV,  he often took his Tickle Trunk on the road and performed live shows for children. Coombs is seen in the film being interviewed later in his life, and is asked why he thought his show had been so successful.

“I’m a child at heart. It’s all doing things that I always liked to do when I was a kid,” he told the interviewer.


Maine remained a special place for Coombs throughout his life. Though he became a Canadian citizen, he brought his wife and two children back to Maine every summer, to a family camp in the Bristol area, south of Damariscotta on the Midcoast, said his daughter. He loved the ocean from his years growing up in Maine, and while living most of the year near Toronto, he missed it.

Coombs had a boat and liked to cruise to islands for picnics. He mostly relaxed and did some painting during the summer. Beginning in the late 1970s, he painted a series of scenes based on children’s stories in the children’s room at the Bristol Area Library, which are still there today. The children’s room, which was added on to the library, is dedicated to Irma Coombs.

He is also buried in Maine, near where he spent summers, his daughter said.

Mural panels in the children’s room of the Bristol Area Library, painted by Ernie Coombs. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

LeFort said she and her brother, Chris Coombs, have always been protective of their father’s legacy and didn’t want “Mr. Dressup” commercialized in any way. But after talking with McCallum for about an hour and hearing what the show had meant to him, they became convinced he would do their father’s story justice.

“Hearing people talking (in the film) about how much of an impact my dad had on them has been really wonderful, very emotional,” said LeFort. “He really was able to capture the blessed life Dad had.”

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