Feelin' a bit under the weather but must say a cyber-toast to Ernie Coombs - or Mr. Dressup as he was better known. It's his 85th birthday today and Google.ca is honoring it by featuring his smiling mug on their homepage.
I worked with Mr. D back in the late 80s after I graduated from Rye High and got myself gainfully employed in the TV biz. He was one of the funniest, sweetest, nicest people I ever knew.
I'll never forget the first time I saw him in person. I was sitting in the reception area of the Children's TV Department at the CBC where I would spend the next couple years working as a clerk and production secretary. Maybe I was getting interviewed for the job or something because I remember being dressed up 80s style and sitting very straight to make a good impression. I was even sober (gasp!). I was already nervous to begin with ... but then I heard a voice.
It was my Daddy!!
Or at least my surrogate dad. Because I always felt Ernie reminded me of my father when I was little. Back then, we were living in a teeny village in Northern Ontario not even accessible my road. My pops was the dispatcher for the railroad and we lived in the train station. (Yes, there's a reason everyone in my family drank so much.) We only got two channels in those days - English and French CBC - and Mr. Dressup was the highlight of my morning on the old black and white TV.
The funny thing is, I was so young at the time that I thought because I could see Mr. Dressup, that he could see me, too. As if television wasn't a one-way technology, but more like a window that let you see both in and out. I always thought Mr. Dressup, Casey and Finnegan knew that I was there singing or drawing along or whatever. I believed that's the way TV worked.
So when I was sitting there in the reception area of Children's TV almost twenty years later and I heard Mr. Dressup's voice as he was coming into work, I felt the blood rush to my cheeks. I honestly don't think I've ever been more nervous. I was suddenly 4-years-old again - and somehow, I still had the feeling that Mr. Dressup could 'see' me through the TV. Meaning, he knew I had stopped watching him because I was a grown-up now. And the reason I was so nervous/scared is because I thought he'd feel badly because he'd recognize my face and realize that I'd abandoned his show. (I was self-centered even before the world of blogs, obvi.) But that's how much I loved Mr. Dressup as a kid. Even as a mostly-grown-up young lady looking for work in the Big-ish City, I was an absolute baby for Mr. D. When he came into the reception area, smiling at everyone - including me - he gave no indication of ill will. But I don't think I could talk for a week.
(By the way, I should mention that Ernie Coombs was actually born in Maine - and was an understudy to Fred Rogers. Yes, that Mr. Rogers. They came to Canada in the 60s to do an original version of Misterogers - the original title of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood. Ernie loved it so much that when Mr. R went back to his 'neighborhood' on PBS, Ernie stayed at the CBC and eventually became Mr. Dressup.)
Anyway, back in the late 80s, I ended up having to do odd jobs on Mr. Dressup and was often there for the tapings. (Believe it or not, for anyone who watched the show, that zany piano theme music was played LIVE every time!)
I was also there for the office parties. ;)
I remember talking to him at a Christmas party my first year there. Natch, I was tipsy and natch I took the opportunity to let Mr. D know just how much he meant to me when I was growing up. His calm manner (my own dad had a temper best left for sadder blogs), sweet voice, stories, crafts and ideals helped form me as a person.
And it's one of the reasons I'm just so sweet today. Blink, blink. ;)
Anyway, so I'm sitting there at this Christmas party, a bit toasted as girls fresh out of university can get at their first professional party and - being as damn cute as I was back then - Mr. D always had time to talk to me. Not that he was ever inappropriate!! Oh my God! Don't be a sick-o!! Oh man. Casey on the other hand ... whoa. What a whacko nut-job puppet he was. Or she? ... I mean I worked there and I still wasn't sure if Casey was a girl or a boy for years. (P.S. He's a boy.)
Annnnnnyyway ... so at that party, Ernie did this thing that he did every time afterwards ... because it made me laugh so much. We were talking and suddenly he took off his glasses (yep, he wore glasses and looked/acted just like Mr. D all the time) as if he was considering something as we spoke. He had a very serious look on his face, gesturing with his eyeglasses as he told this story. Then he went to put his glasses back on and, without missing a beat, he jabbed one of the arms straight into his eye! He cried out in mock pain, buckled forward, holding his eye and blinking comically.
And of course, the first (ten) times he did it, I'd be worried for him. "Mr. Dress - I mean, Ernie ... Are you okay?" Then he'd just give me a big smile. He was so damn good at this little game that he got me every time. It made me laugh so much. I've never forgotten it.
Sadly, Mr. D passed away in 2001 and you can watch CBC's sweet coverage of here. Lots of trips down memory lane for fans ...
If you love Mr. Dressup or don't want another reason to get depressed on a Monday, you can stop reading now.
I can never think about Ernie without thinking about a really sad story.
I'm warning you ...
Back then I did some after hours work for one of the unit managers of the department - the legendary Mr. Peter Tiedemann. He used to hire me to type the minutes from the management meetings for extra coin. Considering I was already very depressed 24/7, scared about the future, and drinking very heavily, these little afterwork projects made me feel responsible and 'good.' And a girl had to stay in boxed wine and Jacob clothes, after all.
It was a Thursday night I believe. I was working late on these minutes and Mr. T was getting ready to leave. He and his wife were meeting the Coombses at a restaurant for a nice dinner. Being Mr. D's unit manager, he was very close to Ernie and the couples were good friends. I don't know if I overheard this part or if Mr. T told me, but I remember learning that Mr. D and Mr. T's wife were already at the restaurant and that Ernie's wife had not made it yet. They were waiting for her. Mr. T hurried out of the department and I wished him a nice dinner. As I finished my work alone on the floor, I remember thinking how nice it was that they were such good friends ...
The next day we learned the news. Ernie's wife had been doing some last minute shopping (as I remember it) and was on the sidewalk outside the store when a drunk driver jumped the curb and rammed right into her, killing her on the spot. It was so awful. Such a terrible and unfair thing to happen to such a wonderful man.
I don't remember Mr. D doing that joke with his eyeglasses for me ever again. He continued to tape the show for a few years, but it seemed the light had gone out of him ... just a little bit.
(I warned you, right?)
No reason for tears though. Remember, Mr. and Mrs. Dressup are up there in the big Tickle Trunk in the sky, playing with all those great toys and drinking lemonade and telling each other jokes and laughing and laughing ...
Bless you, Mr. D...
With much love from me and all the kids you helped raise,
More about the show here.
Google's charming tribute page here.
Mothers Against Drunk Drivers
Author's Note: I can't find any information about the fact that Marlene (Lynne) Coombs was killed by a drunk driver - only an "out-of-control car." Though if memory serves ... and it sometimes does ...