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Saturday, March 23, 2013

Remembering Mr. Dressup

I want to tell you a story about my community arts centre because it happens to be the place where some of my fondest childhood memories were born...and it also happens to be connected to today's blog subject. I'm trying to make this blog more personal so that all of you can get to know why I am such a pop culture addict, and what makes my mind tick.

(And, believe me, that can be a scary thought.)

The truth is that throughout my early childhood, I reckon that I went to our community arts centre dozens of times. In some cases, we went there on school field trips, but sometimes my parents would take me down to special events that were going on in our town. And, while I would be here all day if I went on and on about every event I went to in great detail, I do want to provide a partial list of some of the concerts and plays that I saw as a child (keeping in mind that I was a little boy and my tastes weren't quite that sophisticated back then).

Among some of my favourite memories at the community arts centre were...

  • Seeing a stage production of “Charlotte's Web” when I was in the second grade (we were reading the book in class that year).
  • Seeing a stage production of “Winnie the Pooh” in the third grade (we read that book the same year).
  • Watching Eric Nagler performing in concert (I was sick with the flu when Sharon, Lois, and Bram came, and this was my make-up show!)
  • Seeing Robert Munsch (and meeting him after the show) when I was eight years old. Truly the highlight of this blogger's life, and the incident that likely spawned his interest in reading and writing!)
  • Performing at the Lions Club Music Festival with our grade seven/eight concert band (and doing incredibly well)!
  • Watching multiple re-enactments of “Polka Dot Door Live” at the Arts Centre (I had a bit of an obsession with the show when I was kindergarten aged).
  • I even attended a taping of the classic lottery television show called “Wintario”...and despite the fact that Greg Beresford didn't let me push the button to start the lottery drums, I still had a great time. The ticket that I was holding ended up winning ten bucks! Of course, I was too young to redeem it, so my mom had to do it for me.

That's quite a lot of memories from one little place, isn't it? I think that's why I will always have a soft spot for my little community arts centre, no matter how old I get.

There's one more memory that I have to share with all of you. And, this memory is one that I will forever cherish. It's one of the earliest memories that I have of the arts centre, and why it means so much to me now is because the person that I went to see that day is no longer alive.

I can't remember what year it was that I went to go and see Mr. Dressup performing at the Arts Centre. I want to say that I was five or six at the time. Mr. Dressup was one of my favourite television shows to watch at the time, and when I heard that he was coming to town, I practically begged my mom to get tickets for us to go see him. If I remember correctly, my mother actually borrowed the money from my grandmother so that she could make it happen, which looking back on it now makes the memory even more special.

It was such a wonderful show. Mr. Dressup brought everything with him. He brought his Tickle Trunk, he brought his easel that he used to draw things on, and he even brought Casey and Finnegan's treehouse, along with Casey and Finnegan themselves! It was like I was watching the popular television series that aired on CBC Television come to life right before my eyes. It was a memory unlike any other, and I will always carry that memory with me as long as I am able to remember it.

Of course, now that I've written it down and posted it for all to see, I guess I always will have that permanent reminder.

Anyway, since I brought up the television show, let's talk a little bit about it, shall we?

Now, I get that a lot of you reading this in the United States and overseas have no idea who Mr. Dressup is, and to that I say that I am sorry that you never got to experience this show, as it truly was one of a kind. But, as I understand, some states that were close to the Canadian border could pick up the show, so maybe some of you living in Washington, Michigan, Pennsylvania, New York, and Maine might have seen it.

The show debuted on CBC forty-six years ago, on February 13, 1967. The show was developed and produced by Daniel McCarthy, and its star was an actor by the name of Ernie Coombs.

TRIVIA: I'll bet you didn't know this, but Ernie Coombs was born in Lewiston, Maine, making him American by birth. He moved to Canada in the mid-1960s, where the CBC was interested in creating an early draft of the television series, Mister Rogers Neighborhood! After all, Coombs was an understudy of Fred Rogers. That project didn't work out as Rogers would move back to the United States in 1966. But, Coombs stayed, and after a couple of years on the series “Butternut Square”, he landed the iconic role of “Mr. Dressup”. Ironically enough, the show debuted one year before Fred Rogers launched “Mister Rogers Neighborhood” on PBS.

Anyway, Mr. Dressup became one of the longest running programs in Canadian history airing for nearly three decades before wrapping up production on February 14, 1996. And, each episode usually featured one of three things.

Firstly, there would always be some sort of skit or a play that would be performed in each episode that was based on a story or a fairy tale. And, Mr. Dressup would always act out the play by dressing up in costumes.

(Hence the nickname Mr. Dressup.)

And, where were the costumes found? Well, they were found inside of Mr. Dressup's magical Tickle Trunk. It was magical because everything inside of the trunk was made in Mr. Dressup's size, and contained almost all the pieces necessary for Mr. Dressup to act out the story appropriately.

And, in the case that he was missing an item? Well, that set the stage for the second part of what was found in every episode.

Mr. Dressup would often show the viewers at home how to do a craft that was related to the skit that he would perform in each episode. Whether it was a magic want, a hat, or something else, we would all make the crafts along with him. And, what was great about Mr. Dressup was the fact that he made the instructions so easy to understand, so we could follow along with him at home. I even remember making a couple of Mr. Dressup crafts in my youth, and did them flawlessly thanks to his easy instruction.

And, then we have the third constant of the show...a visit from Casey and Finnegan. Usually, Casey and Finnegan could be found in the treehouse outside, but sometimes they came inside Mr. Dressup's house to visit him.

Casey and Finnegan were created by puppeteer Judith Lawrence, and she voiced Casey, as well as other puppets that would appear on the show including Aunt Bird and Alligator Al. She stayed on the show for several years, but retired from performing in 1989. So, considering that I was eight in 1989, knowing that I very well could have seen one of the last times that Judith Lawrence would perform as Casey and Finnegan live made that memory even more special.

TRIVIA: Just to clarify, Finnegan was the dog...but Casey's gender was never really identified. Casey was chosen as the character's name, as the name was gender-neutral. Just for the record, I always assumed that Casey was a boy.

The show was also aided by some human guest stars as well...perhaps one of the most frequent people to appear on the show was voice artist Alyson Court, who began appearing on the show at age eleven! She appeared on and off the show until 1994.

And, when Judith Lawrence left the show, the treehouse set remained, but a community center set was added, along with some brand new puppet characters, which included Chester the Crow (Karen Valleau), Truffles (Nina Keogh), Granny (Jani Lauzon), and Lorenzo the Raccoon (Bob Dermer). The change was done gradually, so that viewers could transition to the new characters. 

By the time the show wrapped up in 1996, Coombs had begun touring college and university campuses all across Canada, talking to college students who had grown up watching him on television. Sadly, on September 10, 2001, he suffered a serious stroke, and eight days later, Ernie Coombs passed away at the age of 73.

It's been almost twelve years since he passed away, and I remember being very sad hearing the news. Many Canadians were still on edge over the terrorist attacks that took place a week prior, and to have a Canadian icon pass away one week later...well, it was a sad day knowing that the man that made generations of children happy was no longer here. It was comforting to know that repeats of his show aired as long as five years after his passing, with the final airdate of Mr. Dressup on CBC being September 3, 2006.

But even though Mr. Dressup is gone, his legacy remains. Both his Tickle Trunk and Casey and Finnegan's treehouse are on display in Toronto, and on what would have been Mr. Dressup's eighty-fifth birthday, on November 26, 2012, Google Canada designed a special Google doodle on its homepage to honour Mr. Dressup's memory.

A fitting tribute to a beloved Canadian classic.

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