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Mister Rogers' rides into the sunset

Sunday, August 26, 2001

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

The last original "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" episodes air this week at 2:30 p.m. on WQED/WQEX. The classic children's series goes out as quietly as when it came on the air 33 years ago.

What? You were expecting a hype-filled farewell telecast and wailing, sad violin music? That's not in keeping with Fred Rogers' quiet, understated, sincere style.

There's no reference in these episodes to the end of the "Neighborhood" and, indeed, it won't end. Repeats of episodes will continue to air, and there are so many to choose from that future generations of children are unlikely to complain about "another rerun." They simply won't know.

But we do. We know something's different now. Rogers isn't retiring - he'll keep active developing the Mister Rogers Web site (www.pbs.org/rogers) and possibly future TV specials - but watching the last week of new shows, it's tough not to feel something special is drawing to a close.


"Mister Rogers' Neighborhood"

When: 2:30 p.m. weekdays on WQED/WQEX.

Starring: Fred Rogers


"Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" offered an environment free from gross commercialism, trendy child development notions or efforts to reach the "kids of today." Rogers is wise enough to avoid such traps, realizing instead that children are children no matter what the decade. His tried and true techniques will stand the test of time better than Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers or Pokemon. Looking at the last week of new shows, it's easy to see why.

As is his custom, Rogers creates a week with an overriding theme. This time it's celebrating the arts, a worthwhile cause that all too often gets short shrift in schools with ever-tightening budgets.

On tomorrow's show, Rogers draws a picture of a tree, explaining, "I'm not a great artist by any means, but I like drawing." Rogers gives his creation to an appreciative Mr. McFeely (David Newell) and sets in motion the week's theme: You don't have to be van Gogh to make art, and you don't have to be a society mover and shaker to appreciate it.

Monday's show includes two video montages, one on the making of adult tricycles at a factory (interesting) and another on various types of trees (a bit tedious). That's the only negative criticism I can level at this week of programs. Sometimes the video montages go on too long.

Wednesday's show is the best of the bunch as Rogers spends a good bit of time visiting Dolly Naranjo, a Navajo potter in New Mexico. Together they dig for clay, shape coils and ultimately craft a vase. Mister Rogers is clearly a fan of showing children the process of creating everyday things, and these segments are just as interesting for adults.

The art of music comes into play Thursday as Mister Rogers visits Joe Negri's music shop for a performance on an unusual, ethereal-sounding instrument.

Throughout the week, the arts are an important component in the lives of the characters inhabiting the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, always my favorite part of the show as a child.

Using puppets, Rogers is able to entertain, inform and express values to children through archetypal characters, especially perpetual sourpuss Lady Elaine Fairchild. This week she gets on everyone's nerves by declaring herself judge of the neighborhood's art competition. Throughout the week she sings an intolerant refrain: "It'll never win, toots."

As a child, I was sometimes frightened by Lady Elaine's brusque manner, so it disturbed me to realize I sometimes share her snap judgment opinion of modern art.

As a counterpoint to Lady Elaine's negativity, other neighbors offer praise for a drawing by Prince Tuesday. Grand Pere says he likes Prince Tuesday's drawing of the Eiffel Tower even if it doesn't exactly resemble the real thing.

"It has the feel of this place here," he says. "That's what's important to me."

Best highlight in Make-Believe: King Friday reinterprets the poem "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" using $10 words to create "Scintillate, Scintillate Stellar Orb."

Lady Elaine's tyranny comes to a halt when King Friday hurts her feelings by saying, "Why must you stick your big nose into everyone's business?" She then hides under a quilt to keep her nose out of sight and realizes "maybe people don't say kind things to me because I don't say kind things to them."

"Our thoughts and feelings, the way we treat other people, the way we love one another, that's what matters much more than what we look like, " Mister Rogers says. "I like you exactly as you look right now."

Through the years, those of us who grew up watching the "Neighborhood" liked it just the way it was.

In Friday's show, Mister Rogers and Mr. McFeely sing the "Speedy Delivery" song, and then Mister Rogers hangs up his sweater one last time.

"I like being your television neighbor," Mister Rogers says before singing the show's traditional concluding song. "Be back next time. Bye bye."

He will and he won't. He won't be making new episodes, but we'll hope he will always be our television neighbor.

You can reach Rob Owen at rowen@post-gazette.com Post questions or comments to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

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