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A & E
No. 1 in our neighborhood: Fred Rogers

Sunday, June 03, 2001

By Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

In the hit romantic comedy "Bridget Jones's Diary," the leading lady marvels of an admirer: "You like me just the way I am." What a simple yet profound sentiment -- and one that Fred Rogers has been sharing with children for generations.

Fred Rogers was more in demand than ever after announcing that he would tape his last episode of "Mister Rogers Neighborhood," and he tried to comply with all the requests for his time, including this moment when ABC's "Nightline" came calling.

Once the Post-Gazette staff changed the title of its annual list from "cultural power brokers" to "cultural forces," the No. 1 choice was obvious: Fred Rogers. He may work out of a cozy Oakland office that is a media mecca (visitors diligently document what's hanging on the walls, propped on the sofa or tucked into his vegetarian lunch), but his influence is worldwide. It stretches across time, space and cultures.

The host of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" could conduct a veritable symphony of the children introduced to music through the show. He could fill gallery walls, floor to ceiling, with the artwork rendered with crayon, construction paper and raw enthusiasm. He could pack the new Steelers stadium once, twice and then half again if he invited everyone who's sent him a letter since a stamp was a nickel.

And that doesn't count the e-mail messages that can pour in faster than the 15 to 30 snail mails arriving daily. Lest you think he doesn't cherish these missives, he and his staff have saved, sorted and boxed every scrap. "One of the most important things we do is the way we answer our mail. It's a real ministry," he says.

The letters can only be characterized as fan mail, and they don't all come from preschoolers or college students. Typical is one from an Edmond, Okla., man who wrote: "I am a 33-year-old father of three boys who has known you as long as I can remember. I wanted to write you to let you know what you have meant to me personally, as well as how you have helped me to be a better father."

A 28-year-old woman e-mailed that she taught at an inner-city school for four years and sang "It's Such a Good Feeling" to her students. "Presently, I am in law school and continue to sing this song -- it helps me make it through the stress."

For much of his life, the 73-year-old Pittsburgher has shared his gentle advice, imaginative sense of play, enthusiasm for the arts and mission to celebrate the good in everyone. Consider this story, which he relayed at the commencement speeches he delivered this spring.

It's about what happened at a Special Olympics competition. "One little boy trips and falls -- there were nine of them all together -- and the other eight heard him crying, and every one of the eight turned around and went back. One little girl with Down syndrome bent down and kissed him and said, 'This will make it better.' He got up and all nine of them linked their arms together and walked to the finish line."

Rogers pauses and then adds, "I was so impressed with that. What really matters is not just our own winning but helping other people to win, too."

He may not realize it, but he has just summarized what makes him special: He helps other people to feel like winners, as if they've been given a pat on the back or stepped into warm sunshine after a long, gray winter.

The children's host does the very thing that makes him marvel at cellist Yo-Yo Ma. "The only thing larger than his talent is his heart. You can just see people who have met him walk away taller."

When news broke in November that production of new episodes of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" was about to stop after 33 seasons on public TV and nearly 1,000 shows, the phones started to ring even more than usual and haven't stopped. Rogers just might be one of the most wanted men in America. In a good way, of course.

Everyone craves a little slice of his time: for the opening of The Caring Place of Erie, a planetarium conference welcome at the Carnegie Science Center (which received such a spirited standing ovation that it would have "warmed your heart for years," one witness says), a couple of college graduations, a story for a Milwaukee newspaper, a profile for the Boston Globe, a report on KDKA, another on the "CBS Early Show" and let's not forget "Nightline."

He did all of the above and much more in just a month.

"It's thanks to David and Hedda that I can live a fairly normal life," says Rogers, talking about longtime colleagues David Newell and Hedda Sharapan, who field the flood of calls and keep their own busy calendar of appointments, too. Newell doubles as Mr. McFeely, the speedy delivery expert, and Sharapan is an associate producer. They consider themselves ambassadors on the road for Rogers.

"It's the schedule that they're so careful about, and I'm so grateful for that. I write every morning over at the writing office," a block from WQED. He subscribes to the notion that the older you get, the more important silence and reflection become.

Ask how he is, and he responds, "I'm just great. My swimming keeps me going and Joanne, of course, is such a delight to live with." He and pianist Joanne, married almost 49 years, have two sons and two grandsons.

In typical Rogers fashion, he wasn't sure that the conclusion of the fresh shows was even newsworthy.

"At first, we didn't know whether we should even mention it. We had been making fewer programs each year all along the way, and our idea was to build this library of programs that could be, they call it, evergreen. We have practically 1,000 programs that we can dip into any year we want," with 300 to 400 in current rotation.

"Talk about recycling. I think it's the best kind of recycling. The themes we have dealt with all through the years will always be important to childhood -- themes like separation and return, and different childhood fears that we have addressed in gentle ways, and so it was always in the back of my mind that we would create this library of tapes, and now we have it," he says.

The last batch of new shows will air in late August, immediately followed by episodes from the bulging collection. The theme of that week: Celebrating the arts.

"When somebody loves something in front of other people, it's infectious, contagious," Rogers suggests. "That's what has happened with many of the musicians on the 'Neighborhood.' It was only natural when writing those culminating five programs, I would want to do it on the appreciation of the arts."

That might be playing the guitar or trumpet, weaving a rug, performing a ballet or Native American dance or painting with soft watercolors or vibrant hues. In the "Neighborhood of Make-Believe," the residents hold a royal arts festival, and Rogers later encourages young viewers to stage their own festival and include whatever they enjoy doing, such as drawing, painting, dancing, dressing up, singing and cooking.

In that final episode of the week, children will have no clue that an era is quietly passing. As it concludes, Roger sings "I'm Proud of You," takes off his tennis shoes, exchanges his zippered red cardigan for his gray blazer and waves good-bye as he promises, "Be back next time."

And he will be. No one uses the R word for "retiring" when it comes to Rogers, especially since he will continue to appear regularly on PBS stations.

Rogers and Family Communications Inc., the small nonprofit company that rents space at WQED and produces everything from the TV shows to books, CDs, Web sites and video-based training materials, are busier than ever.

A partial list of what's on tap: training workshops for people who work with young children; updates of www.misterrogers.org and www.pbs.org/rogers; magnetic postcards with vintage "Neighborhood" pictures and signature sayings; an activity book with ideas for parents; and an introductory essay for a coffee-table book titled "Pittsburgh Tapestry" scheduled for publication in June 2002.

Asked if he misses going into the studio, Rogers says, "The only thing I miss are the people -- the lighting director, camera people, sound people. The people we played with pretty much because going in to do the 'Neighborhood' was like playing, especially the Neighborhood of Make-Believe."

He doesn't think we've seen the last of that land. "King Friday won't stay silent forever. Lady Elaine will have a few things to say. I love to do things with audio; the thought of that pleases me."

Cameras mean contact lenses and makeup; a recording studio does not. And contact lenses and makeup are still pretty far back on his preference scale.

"There's a lot we can do with the Internet," possibly a series of bedtime stories for children read by Rogers in his soothing voice. "I might read stories and build a library of these things so that as the years went on, there might be 365 of them that people would be able to go to the Web site, pick one out and say, 'Hey, let's have this one to go to sleep to tonight.'"

In these days when cable networks cater to musical tastes by age and genre and variety shows are largely history, the "Neighborhood" erected a big tent. Visitors ranged from musicians Tony Bennett, Van Cliburn, Andre Watts and the Boys Choir of Harlem to poet May Sarton, former Steeler Lynn Swann, magician David Copperfield, artist Red Grooms, astronaut Al Worden and potter Eva Kwong.

"I think Fred has made it acceptable to take in all these different cultural forces," his associate producer Sharapan says, whether it's a Pittsburgh batik artist or a Philippine chef or a jazz pianist named Johnny Costa who grew up in Arnold. "It's that smorgasbord of cultural forces, I never thought of it that way before."

Questioned about the reaction to November's news, Rogers says, "You know why I think there was so much response to that little announcement? So many people who are now in positions like yours grew up with the 'Neighborhood,' and they felt a kind of connection with their own childhood and they really wanted to know whether we all were OK."

If reporters were curious about the fate of the show, members of the public were grateful. "Wherever I go now, people come up to me," as happened when Rogers met a Latrobe friend for a birthday lunch at Dick's Diner in Murrysville.

"The people who came to the table, the people who came to my car as I was leaving, all they say is, 'We just have to say thank you for what you've given to our families.' Invariably, they'll say that. I think people are looking for the best they can give their kids, especially when they're very little. They're going to offer it to them."

And Mister Rogers will always be there to provide it.

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