A Saskatchewan-born film maker who grew up watching Ernie Coombs, the creator and performer behind Mr. Dressup, is working to produce a documentary that tells the story of the man who portrayed the celebrated children’s character.
Keith Hoffart grew up around the Rosetown and Kindersley area before moving to Medicine Hat, Alta., to study new technology and fine arts. In this program, he learned the classical arts like painting and sculpting in addition to web design, animation and video editing. He currently resides in Kelowna, B.C., where he works as a web designer.
Hoffart conceived of the idea to make a documentary based on Ernie Coombs earlier this year after becoming aware of plans for two separate movies based on Coombs’ American contemporary, Fred Rogers.
“I was talking with my friends and family, [saying], ‘Somebody should tell our story as Canadians.’ It’s great hearing the American story of Mr. Rogers, but a lot of us grew up with Mr. Dressup,” Hoffart said.
Motivated to see the project through, Hoffart began to reach out to the friends and family of the late performer, contacting Coombs’ son and daughter as well as Canadian children’s musician Fred Penner. Like many Canadians who grew up with the long-running children’s show, Hoffart’s connection to the source material is both personal and nostalgic.
“Being from Rosetown, we had something called ‘farmervision,’ which was two channels, so if you didn’t want to watch figure skating, you would watch Mr. Dressup,” Hoffart said. “I really loved how [Mr. Dressup] had the arts and crafts segment of the show… I’d be running around trying to find all these things, and then you would make something with him.”
Hoffart credits this element of the show, as well as the drawing segment, with helping to foster his creative talents at a young age.
“You could copy what he was doing, and you could learn how to draw a cartoon. For me, it really resonated, and as an artist, he really brought that out of me,” Hoffart said.
For Hoffart, the behind-the-scenes story of Mr. Dressup is best told through the medium of documentary film. For filmmakers like Hoffart, documentaries allow for a deeper exploration of the material and the chance to dig up some overlooked historical details.
“When you’re dealing with a movie, you have to tell the story. There’s a beginning, middle and end. There’s a plot. There isn’t necessarily a plot with a documentary,” Hoffart said. “Documentary is more about what happened that maybe people don’t know and telling a story that maybe no one has heard.”
As for what kind of new details on the life of Ernie Coombs viewers can expect from the documentary, Hoffart is trying to keep the details of his research under wraps. However, he says he has found that the Mr. Dressup cast had a surprisingly progressive streak when it came to social issues.
“Judith Lawrence, the puppeteer for Casey and Finnegan, she made Casey gender neutral. Meaning that, over 50 years ago, she knew that half the kids watching would be boys and half would be girls,” Hoffart said.
Hoffart also cites Coombs as an early advocate for gender-based equal pay in the entertainment industry.
“Over 50 years ago, Mr. Dressup knew that Judith was playing as much of a part in the show as he was. So he demanded to CBC that they got paid equally, even though he was on the camera more and she was hiding behind a treehouse holding a puppet,” Hoffart said.
As part of the project, Hoffart is working with alumni and students from the Kelowna-based Centre for Art and Technology, both on the initial Kickstarter trailer and the end product. He speculates that the finished film will be sold to either Netflix Canada or CBC.
“If my job is to make a documentary that I want the most people to see, then it’s hard to argue against Netflix, but CBC made the show, and it seems fitting,” Hoffart said.
A Kickstarter campaign for Keith Hoffart’s untitled documentary project is running until Dec. 16, 2018.
Cole Chretien / Culture Editor
Graphic: Mỹ Anh Phan