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A cure for what ails the world: a little Mr. Dressup every morning


Saturday, October 20, 2001 – Page F3

People came from all over to gather in the Glenn Gould theatre in the CBC building in Toronto this week to pay tribute to Ernie Coombs -- Mr. Dressup -- who died last month at the age of 74.

Ernie's son, Chris, whose wife had given birth to a baby just after Ernie died, flew over from England, where he lives, dug into the Tickle Trunk and found his father's famous, six-armed spider suit to wear in his role as MC.

Judith Lawrence, the puppeteer, brought Casey and Finnegan out of retirement on Hornby Island in B.C., so that they could do one last gig for their old friend, while Fred Penner, the prairie minstrel, came east to sing us all a song. Other singers and performers just put down what they were doing for an afternoon and came to say goodbye.

There were few tears. Chris Whitely, a scion of Canada's first family of troubadours, sang a song he had written about "the day Ernie died," and set it in the context of following, as it did, the horror of the World Trade Center. One or two others also made abeyance to the horrors in the news. But mostly, it was just songs and laughter of the kind Chris had assured us (as if we didn't know) his father would have wanted.

Don Jones, Ernie's best friend and agent, told some stories about touring with Mr. Dressup -- a phenomenon, I know from my own experience, that was like travelling with a rock star. Jones recounted one encounter with a young man named Jason, aged about 5, who told the icon of Canadian gentleness and good manners that he was "an old s--t" (you don't think I'm going to type that word into a piece about Mr. Dressup, do you?) and didn't want to have anything to do with him.

Stuart McLean introduced a videotape, shot by one of the cast on location somewhere, of Ernie responding to a question about what he would be doing when he was 80 and launching into a pantomime that was halfway between Stan Laurel and Charlie Chaplin. It left us, as they say, rolling in the aisles.

And then Albert Schultz came out. Albert Schultz is an amazing guy: Matinee-idol handsome, a classical actor (Stratford, among other places), a veteran of TV (Street Legal),film and the stage and currently artistic director and a driving force in the brilliantly successful Soulpepper troupe in Toronto. He is also, as his friends in the theatre know, a hilariously gifted, and sometimes savage, mimic. At 38, with two children of his own, he is at the epicentre of the Mr. Dressup generation of Canadians.

At the Glenn Gould, he strode to centre stage, laid his forearms across the lectern and flopped his head onto them. Then, slowly and stiffly, he raised himself to face the audience, his hands as rigid as paddles, and he spoke in the unmistakable voice of Casey, with his dog, invisible and mute (of course, for Casey and Finnegan were the Penn and Teller of their day) at his side.

After a couple of minutes of tomfoolery that had everyone, including the puppets' creator Judith Lawrence, in tears of laughter, Albert shook off his squeaky-voiced persona and addressed the audience.

"I have this fantasy," he said, "in which the entire world sits down for half an hour every morning and watches Mr. Dressup. After a few days, the pundits are talking about a changed world -- a world that has gained its innocence.

"In my dream, the United Nations has a giant Tickle Trunk in the middle of the floor and every time they convene, the members have to don the first costume that they pull out of the bottomless trove, and return to their sets dressed, as the case may be, as a king or a mailbox or a spider. They then take a vote on who is the silliest before giggling their way to consensus.

"At the White House, the giant computerized map of the world is replaced by a big pad of paper on a tripod and the joint chiefs of staff are armed with magic markers. In the deepest of caves and the hidiest of holes, men sit in animated discussion about who can actually hear the dog.

"The world of my fantasy becomes a place in which creativity not only flourishes, but is everybody's job. And people are encouraged to sing, even if they too possess -- how shall we say? -- a charmingly inaccurate sense of rhythm or pitch, and people will love the song for its own sake.

"Friendship is paramount. Diversity is celebrated. Not only is the world not divided along ethnic and religious lines, there is no division between species. And so what if the dogs can't be heard? Just who could hear Finnegan anyway -- or did Mr. Dressup and Casey (as I have come to believe) simply endow that poor dumb dog -- to make him believe he could be heard. That's okay -- I buy that. Power to the people. I know my fantasy for the world is a bit of a stretch, but doesn't it beat some people's plans?"

Well, yes, Albert, I'd say it does.

On my way back from saying goodbye to Mr. Dressup, I was thinking about October, 1970, and the implementation of the War Measures Act, supported by 83 per cent of the population and virtually all the House of Commons.

I used to think -- still do, in fact -- that if only the terrorists of the FLQ -- penny ante thugs in comparison with what we're facing now -- had turned their kidnap victims out onto Ste. Catherine Street in their underwear, they might have exposed the government's overreaction for what it was.

Instead, of course, they murdered Pierre Laporte.

But, and even acknowledging the difference, not only in degree, but in kind, of the world in 2001, I'd argue that Anne McLellan's antiterrorist legislation is over the top. Preventive detention?

Good God, Mr. Dressup, what are they thinking?

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