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Mr. Dressup documentary is a 'trip down memory lane'

Mr. Dressup helped raise generations of Canadian children for over 29 seasons and more than 4,000 episodes.

The legendary children’s entertainer was known for kindness, inclusiveness and creativity -- not to mention his iconic “tickle trunk,” treehouse, and his best friends Casey and Finnegan.

Documentary filmmaker Rob McCallum grew up in London, Ont., and holds his own fond memories of Mr. Dressup.

“Mr. Dressup is the Grandpa that I had, but I was raised by my grandparents as well. So while other people were like, 'Where’s Casey and Finnegan’s mom and dad?' it was normalized for me because I was raised by people that weren’t my parents, and I just felt at home with someone like that,” says McCallum.

Years later while watching reruns with his own children, McCallum had an epiphany.

“My son turned to me and said if Scarlet, his baby sister, who was two at the time, watches this maybe she will grow up to be a good person too. I thought, ‘Oh my God, wisdom from a five year old.’ I said, ‘I got to make a documentary because the world needs a lot more kindness now a days, because we are in short supply’,” says McCallum.

McCallum set out to tell the origin story and history of Canada’s favourite children’s show, while tracing the life and legacy of the late Ernie Coombs.

“Obviously Ernie is a big part of that show so we start with his story and it goes back to 1927 when he was born. We follow his youth until he meets Fred Rogers, and that’s a big turning point in his life, and those two come up to Canada, and that kind of sets the explosion in the stage of what will become Mr. Dressup,” he said.

The documentary uses archival footage from the Mr. Dressup series, interviews with family members, and many cast and crew members.

“Of course, we have Ernie Coombs being the Mr. Dressup we all know. But then you have Casey and Finnegan performed by one lovely puppeteer Judith Lawrence, who is a strong, steadfast and knows exactly what she wants woman. Never gave up, pushed her messages through and the show was better off as a result,” said McCallum.

The film also features Canadian celebrities.

“Jonathan Torrens was amazing, one of the highlight interviews for me. He flew in just for the interview and flew out that day because he knew that this was something that was important to him and was important to Canadians. The way he acted was very Ernie Coombs-like,” said McCallum.

He says creating this documentary taught him a lot -- much like the show.

“He (Mr. Dressup) was exactly the same person off the screen that he was on. Which is exactly what you hope, you hope that what you see on screen isn’t an illusion. We have home videos, we have pictures, and you can see the spirit of Mr. Dressup and Ernie Coombs are intertwined,” McCallum said.

“He united the country. That show united the country coast to coast to coast. So it didn’t matter where you were from, it didn’t matter your belief system. If you loved imagination and being a part of something and wanting to be in something without barriered entry you just had to be you.”

McCallum said the documentary will hit home with audiences.

“People know this is going be a trip down memory lane, there is a nostalgic element to this. But when people discover all the behind the scenes stuff that lead to the show becoming what it is, and continuing despite of all of these external forces, people are pleasantly surprised.”

'Mr. Dressup: The Magic of Make-Believe' screens at the Atlantic International Film Festival on Saturday and next Wednesday.

A Q&A with McCallum and some of the producers will follow the screening on Saturday.

The documentary will be available on Prime Video Oct. 10. Top Stories

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