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There goes the Neighborhood: Mister Rogers will make last episodes of show in December

Sunday, November 12, 2000

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor
Copyright 2000, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The beautiful days in "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" will continue, but next month on the show's simple set, Fred Rogers will hang up his famous cardigan sweater for the last time.

Fred Rogers is getting ready to hang up his TV sweater. (John Beale, Post-Gazette)

Taping of the final five installments of the 32-year-old series will wrap in December. When this last week of episodes airs in August 2001, Rogers and his Family Communications Inc. will have completed 33 seasons and almost 1,000 episodes of what is the longest-running children's program airing nationally.

During an interview Thursday in his cozy, den-like office at WQED in Oakland, Rogers said the timing was right. Next year when production concludes, Pittsburgh's favorite Neighbor will celebrate his 50th year in television.

"It was a fairly simple, straightforward decision," he said. "Of course, I prayed about it."

He compared this decision to when he left a job at NBC in New York to come to Pittsburgh in 1953. His friends thought he was crazy. WQED wasn't even on the air yet. Then, as now, he had a feeling that it was what he should do.

"I don't like to be spooky about stuff, but I do think that sometimes you feel inspired to make certain decisions," Rogers said. "I've never tried to make a decision that had to do with selfishness. I think we certainly have done the kind of work I have wanted to do for children and one of the avenues has been the 'Neighborhood.' That will always be a part of who I am, and I trust it will always be a part of those who have grown up with it and will continue to."

Just don't use the "R" word.

"Retire? No, I'm not retiring," Rogers said. "There are so many things Family Communications is involved with."

Rogers has no intention of slowing down. His latest book was published just this month. "The Giving Box" ($12.95, Running Press) encourages families to talk about giving and receiving. More books are in the offing. Rogers said Running Press offered three pages of suggestions for future projects.

"When I started, television was the new medium ... well, there are some new media now and they're taking more and more of my time."

Rogers is a big proponent of cyberspace. His Web site, www.misterrogers.org, was recently updated with the addition of a new section for parents and behind-the-scenes photos from the "Neighborhood."

Show spans generations

Rogers often encounters adults who grew up with the "Neighborhood" and now watch it with their own children or nieces and nephews or even grandchildren. That the show is handed down is important to Rogers.

"For people who have feelings about a classic to be able to offer it to the next generation makes it all the more important for the children," Rogers said. "They sense what [the adults who love them] bring to it. Children long to know that they belong and they take the hint from the people they love as to what the tradition of this particular family is, and it's a very powerful thing."

Just as he does at the start of his television show, Fred Rogers changes his shoes in his office last week at WQED in Oakland. (John Beale, Post-Gazette)

With a huge collection of "Neighborhood" episodes to draw from, the program will continue to air on PBS.

"I can't imagine a PBS without 'Mister Rogers' Neighborhood,' " said PBS president and CEO Pat Mitchell. "I know the member stations feel that way. He probably has the widest carriage of almost any program on public television."

When Rogers called her with the news, Mitchell said she "was very sad. I think that's the emotion most people are going to feel when they hear this. I was deeply emotional about it because my son grew up with Mister Rogers."

But Mitchell was heartened by Rogers' plans for the future and his "commitment to do whatever he can for public television. He can continue to be a very real presence."

And that's his plan.

"I have felt for a long time that the best thing we could do was develop a library of tapes that can be seen over and over again," Rogers said. "And so I really feel we have accomplished our mission with the 'Neighborhood,' and I'm interested in doing other things."

What those other things are, Rogers isn't sure of yet. He said he's focused on the final episodes and on making them the best they can be before moving forward.

"I'd like to use the next few months to be creative in deciding how to use the time that we have, and the opportunities seem limitless. When you're offered a smorgasbord of things, I think it's wise to have some silence and some calm and some time to ask for guidance. I know who's in ultimate charge, and I will always know that I'll be led in the right way and in the best direction."

He pointed to a frame on the wall, obscured by the sun's glare. A closer look revealed these words: "Life Is For Service." It's a photo of Rogers' favorite sign on a wall at Rollins College, his Florida alma mater.

"Those of us in broadcasting have a special calling to give whatever we feel is the most nourishing that we can for our audience," Rogers said. "We are servants of those who watch and listen."

A television icon

Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University, said Rogers is part of a small pantheon who shaped the medium, and educational children's television in particular.

"Along with a very small group of people -- Steve Allen from late night, Irna Phillips with soap operas, Ernie Kovacs with video art -- Fred Rogers really understood what the medium of television was all about, what it could do, how it was this intimate forum that talked to you in the privacy of your own living room, and he grasped that very early on," Thompson said.

"There's something about that program, when you're in your little pajamas with feet attached to them and you're home in the comfort of your living room on the couch, that was so extraordinarily comforting and quiet. It went down like a nice hot bowl of soup."

Since 1980, Rogers has taped about 15 new episodes a year, adding to the hundreds produced in the 1970s. Thompson said viewers are unlikely to notice when new episodes stop. A child could conceivably cycle through the entire "Neighborhood" library without seeing a repeat.

"It's not like the cancellation of 'Seinfeld,' where you've got a continuing plot line," Thompson said. "It's not like there are cliffhangers at the end of each season where Mr. McFeely is tied to the train track and the trolley is coming and kids are waiting to see what happens."

No, the last episode of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" won't offer any closure. It will be like any other episode. The last week of programs deal with art education and culminate in an arts festival. Lady Elaine Fairchilde sets herself up as a judge because she's curator of the Museum-Go-Round.

"I can't tell you the punch line of it all because it's just too wonderful, but suffice it to say, Lady Elaine really grows enormously," Rogers said, "and there is a very happy ending."

Not that anyone expects otherwise.

Happy endings are what Rogers returns to viewers who write to him. All viewers who write get a personal response, even a 17-year-old named Tyler, who wrote and asked, "In your younger years, did you get a lot of chicks because you were Mister Rogers?"

"I never want to be so busy that I can't answer the mail," Rogers said. "That is one of my biggest concerns. Usually we're a month or two behind, but we answer every letter that comes in, and now we have more than ever because of e-mail through the Web site."

Keeping busy

In addition to more time to spend answering mail, Rogers has other projects to keep up with.

"Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" inspired a hands-on exhibit, created by the Pittsburgh Children's Museum with Family Communications. The exhibit is touring the country.

Earlier this month, "The Sky Above Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" opened at the Carnegie Science Center. Written by Rogers, it's a preschoolers' planetarium program that, for the first time, recasts the show's characters (voiced by Rogers) as virtual 3D images who shed light on what happens when it gets dark. Rogers said characters from the Neighborhood of Make-Believe will live on through multimedia productions like this one, books and possibly even a network radio show.

WQED president George Miles praised Rogers for exploring new avenues.

"The thing Fred and FCI have done with this whole Science Center exhibition is to think about a whole different form of distribution," Miles said. "I think it's going to be terrific. It's another way of getting the message out about the 'Neighborhood.'"

Miles said "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" will continue to air on WQED/WQEX "for a long time. I think of it as Fred moving from one phase to another. I don't think of it as him retiring."

Nor do those closest to him. Rogers came to this decision several months ago, but only this week told his sister, Nancy Elaine Crozier (that's where the name "Lady Elaine" came from) of Latrobe.

"My sister then called [my wife] Joanne, and she said, 'Does that mean you all are going to slow down and travel some?' And Joanne says, 'I haven't seen any change whatsoever.' "

His schedule of speaking engagements remains booked through 2002.

"I received a letter today asking if I'd do a baccalaureate Nov. 27 of 2001 and I looked in my book, and I have a commencement that day," Rogers said. "Everything we've talked about gives you the idea that this is not stopping."

Family Communications will continue to produce not-for-broadcast parenting and teaching videos and curriculum to accompany new projects. David Newell, who plays Mr. McFeely and has worked with Rogers since 1967, will still make "speedy delivery" visits to PBS member stations.

"Fred has written 95 percent of these shows himself," Newell said. "He's sort of the funnel we all go through."

Newell said he's been so busy he hasn't had time to think about the last taping, but he said he'll miss the performance work and the show's "studio family."

Today "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" is seen on more than 300 public television stations, plus the Armed Forces Network around the world and via cable in Canada, the Philippines, Guam and additional Asian countries.

Evidently, Rogers' voice got dubbed in some of those places. Newell, who doubles as FCI's director of public relations, recalled a breakfast in Texas 20 years ago when a waiter approached Rogers and said, "You speak beautiful Chinese."

Actually, Rogers speaks beautiful English, slowly, properly and with clear enunciation. Newell said singer Ricky Martin recently told Rosie O'Donnell he learned to speak English watching "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood." Newell said "Neighborhood" tapes are used in Japan to teach English as a second language.

Health not a factor

At 72, Rogers remains spry, still swimming every day. He's seeing a chiropractor for a leg injury that he sustained after tripping over a wire and falling while in Nantucket this past summer. Rogers was holding a casserole someone had given him and he didn't want it ruined, so he went down with the dish.

"I was sore for days," Rogers said, adding that he still has pain in one leg. "My chiropractor says this is just a transitory thing: 'Keep up your swimming, you'll be fine.' "

He's quick to offer further reassurance that he's in good health.

"My mother's side of the family lives forever," Rogers said. "I remember my great-grandmother and she was over 100. How old was I when she died? I think I was 14. She and my grandmother and my mother and I used to play rummy together. I found out years later that my grandmother and mother used to let me win one game and let great grandmother win the next game because these two ends of the spectrum wanted to win so badly."

Family Communications, which rents space at WQED's headquarters in Oakland, probably boasts the most loyal and loving staff in all of Pittsburgh -- and perhaps television. Rogers' colleagues protect, respect and seem to genuinely care for the man who has become a cultural icon.

When associate producer Hedda Sharapan called Newell from an education conference in Atlanta this week and learned a reporter was visiting, she was eager to share some of her experiences. She said a Texas researcher called Rogers his hero and told an audience, "the only good thing kids can watch on television is Mister Rogers."

There seems to be no person who has encountered Rogers who has not been touched by his gentle, caring manner. At public ceremonies, he often asks for a moment of silence so audience members can thank the people who made them who and what they are. It never fails to move people.

In a recent interview with Newsweek (most of which appeared on the magazine's Web site), Rogers was asked if it's true that he's not playing a character on television but simply playing himself. "One of the greatest gifts you can give anybody is the gift of your honest self. I also believe that kids can spot a phony a mile away."

As for the show's longevity, he said: "I do think that it has to do with offering yourself. I'm like you see me on the 'Neighborhood.' People long to be in touch with honesty and with another human being that they feel is real, rather than a show."

Over the years, Rogers has hosted many celebrity guests, including LeVar Burton, David Copperfield, Tony Bennett, Lynn Swann, Wynton Marsalis, Stomp, Margaret Hamilton, Julia Child and locals like Bill Strickland of the Manchester Craftsmen's Guild.

And, of course, there's Yo-Yo Ma, a visitor to the "Neighborhood" several times.

"He's such a special man," Rogers said. "Aside from his being a superb cellist, he's just a wonderful human being. To be able to offer that kind of a person and that artistry to children who might not be able to be in touch with that personally, it's a real thrill for me."

Yet for all the celebrities, Rogers also remembers visits from unknowns. Just this past week a disabled child who could hardly speak visited the "Neighborhood" and sang with Mister Rogers.

"I was walking this far off the ground," Rogers said, smiling at the memory and holding his hand a foot above the floor. "You know, there are special times and there are extra special times. I feel that the real drama of life is never center stage, it's always in the wings. It's never with the spotlight on, it's usually something that you don't expect at all."

Honored many times

The list of awards presented to Rogers runs 25 single-spaced, typed pages and includes lifetime achievement awards from the Daytime Emmys and the Television Critics Association. Rogers was named one of the "50 greatest TV stars of all time" by TV Guide in 1996, got a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1998 and was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame in 1999.

Fred McFeely Rogers was born in Latrobe in 1928. After graduating from college in 1951, Rogers landed a series of TV positions, with "NBC Opera Theater," "The Voice of Firestone," "Lucky Strike Hit Parade" and "The Kate Smith Hour." He did any number of jobs, from fetching coffee and Coke to working as a floor manager and orchestrating action behind the cameras.

It was the fledgling WQED and "The Children's Corner," which debuted in April 1954 with host Josie Carey, that brought him to Pittsburgh. He produced the program, did the music and worked the puppets -- including Daniel S. Tiger and King Friday XIII.

After moving to Canada to create a 15-minute children's show called "Misterogers," he returned to WQED to develop a new half-hour format of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood." PBS began distributing it nationally on Feb. 19, 1968.

In that landmark inaugural episode, Rogers walked through the front door of his television house, doffed his raincoat and suit jacket and donned a sweater -- button down, not zippered like the red one he would donate to the Smithsonian Institution. The routine established that day is designed to give children a sense of security. Rituals help them know what to expect and to settle in for Rogers' "television visit," as he calls it.

Rituals were part of Rogers' childhood visits with his beloved grandfather Fred Brooks McFeely, the namesake of the "Neighborhood's" Mr. McFeely. Even today Rogers loves to talk about his grandfather, remembering how every Sunday as a child, he visited "Ding Dong," a nickname McFeely was christened with by his grandchildren.

"Invariably, he would say something when we left that was very much like what I say to the children," Rogers said. "He'd say, 'You know, you've made this day a special day just by being yourself.' It's been a privilege to pass on the good stuff that was given to me, and television has really been a fine vehicle for that. And now there are some other vehicles."

And then it hits him. As Rogers finishes the final "Neighborhood" episodes and thinks about the future, he realizes something about ol' Ding Dong.

"It just dawned on me. Mr. McFeely loved to start new things. Isn't that interesting?" Rogers said, pondering it a moment before he continued. "He helped to start practically every industry in Latrobe, but he always got out of it the minute it was going well so he'd have enough to invest in a new company. I remember in his 80s he decided he was going to have a chicken farm, so he bought 5,000 chickens. When he got all that going, then he did something else. He didn't have a lot of money when he died, but he has this whole legacy of things that were started."

Rogers is a starter, too. His legacy is starting children off in life with warmth, appreciation and the reassuring words, "I like you just the way you are."

After three decades of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," the feeling is most definitely mutual.


Post-Gazette Staff Writer Barbara Vancheri contributed to this article.



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