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Speedy Mr. McFeely extends the legacy of Mister Rogers

Thursday, February 26, 2004

By Barbara Vancheri, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

When Mister Robinson met Mister Rogers, David Newell was there -- and he has the Polaroid picture to prove it.

Courtney Senior, who attends kindergarten at George Washington Elementary School in McKeesport, prepares for X the Owl to land on her head during a storytelling session with David Newell, Mr. McFeely on "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood."(Pam Panchak, Post-Gazette)

Eddie Murphy opened his NBC dressing-room door and found surprise visitor Fred Rogers, whom he hugged and called "the real Mister Robinson." Newell still has the photo, taken by onetime "Saturday Night Live" player Mary Gross.

It was Newell who picked up the phone the day a woman inquired, "Is Fred Rogers there?" Asked who was calling, she replied, "Tell him it's Gloria Swanson." It turned out that the "Sunset Boulevard" star had young relatives who were fans of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood."

So were the countless others trying, through Newell, to book Rogers as a commencement speaker or get him for a radio spot or TV appearance or ask a quick question for a news story or schedule a full-fledged interview or see if he would perform a wedding ceremony, since he was an ordained Presbyterian minister.

"When his birthday came up -- you know how they list birthdays in the paper -- I would get 50 calls" from radio stations, Newell says. "If Fred happened to be in the office and I could catch him, he'd do a few of them. It was just impossible to do them all."

The nature of the calls has changed since Rogers' death a year ago, but Newell continues to promote Rogers' mission and to wear many hats, including the blue cap with "Speedy Delivery" above the brim. He's been donning that one since the eyeglasses that are part of the "Mr. McFeely" costume were clear instead of corrective.

"I was in Europe for the summer, visiting my cousins when you could do Europe on $5 a day, when I got a telegram from a friend saying Fred Rogers is starting a national version of 'Mister Rogers' Neighborhood,' which was just regional at the time, and I put your name in to be interviewed."

Newell, an English literature graduate of the University of Pittsburgh, had a range of job experience, from working as a clown and hosting children's theater at the Pittsburgh Playhouse to serving as assistant stage manager and assistant to the scenic artists at the Civic Light Opera. For a time, when he lived in Los Angeles, he even ran the machine that assembled customers' bills for May Co.

After an hourlong interview at the old WQED building during which Rogers explained what the initials "N.O.M." on the script meant -- "Neighborhood of Make-Believe" -- Newell got the job. The character was named after Fred Rogers' beloved grandfather.

"When Fred hired me, I thought I had a job for one year. We started taping in fall 1967 and then it went on air in February 1968, so whatever the math is, it's about 36 years," says Newell, an O'Hara resident.

Rogers hired Newell to play Mr. McFeely, a fast-talking, purposeful, grandfatherly man who ran the Speedy Delivery Messenger Service, and to work as a production assistant whose job included locating costumes and props ranging from hats to homeless cats invariably adopted by "Neighborhood" cast or crew or, once, a real baby elephant.

The children's host, who wrote virtually all of the episodes, used the McFeely character to illustrate various lessons (such as taking your time), later added Mrs. McFeely and even gave them grandchildren, including a child with spina bifida, which allowed the show to explore the topic of disabilities.

Newell later became associate producer and then director of public relations for Family Communications Inc., the nonprofit company Rogers founded that continues his mission of serving young children, their families and those who support them.

In December, Newell was a celebrity elf for the "Today" show, collecting toys at New York's Rockefeller Plaza just as Rogers had done a year before. He is the liaison with public-TV stations airing the program, goes to cities hosting the traveling "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" exhibit, and makes appearances here, too. In December, he was honored by the Parental Stress Center and has emerged as one of the most public faces of FCI, along with Fred's widow, Joanne Rogers.

"Every day was different. I loved working with Fred. What you saw is what you got. There was no wall. Fred was always right there. When you were with him, he was with you," Newell says.

"I was with him from day one. I really spent more time with him than I did my wife, at times," he says, since he frequently traveled with Rogers to events such as a 1969 station visit to Los Angeles that drew 6,000 fans, countless college commencements and appearances on programs such as "The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson."

Sometimes he and other staffers would plant seeds of ideas with Rogers, who would spin them into educational, entertaining shows with guest stars such as Margaret Hamilton, the actress who memorably played the Wicked Witch of the West in "The Wizard of Oz."

As an associate producer, Newell wrote to Hamilton and asked if she would consider appearing on the program and letting children know her role was a pretend one. "She wrote back and said, 'I'd be delighted to.' " She was on several times, both in the real "Neighborhood" and the make-believe one.

"Fred was demystifying the scary part. As a result, Margaret -- Maggie -- became sort of the surrogate grandmother to my wife and myself. She would call us every Sunday night and we would talk. She was a delightful person." When Newell's second son was born, she flew to Pittsburgh and attracted double-takes from neighbors who wondered if they had just seen the Wicked Witch or Cora the Maxwell House lady. They had.

David and his wife of nearly 28 years, Nan, a book editor, have three children: Catherine, 27; Taylor, 25; and Alex, 21.

Newell and Joanne Rogers were witness to a remarkable chapter in television history that continues to this day, given the unflagging affection for the show that continues on PBS in returns.

During a recent "McFeely appearance" at a Border's bookshop to promote a WQED literacy project, Newell happily personalized and signed cards with his picture for toddlers, preschoolers, mothers, teachers, siblings and the occasional aunt or colleague. Children were sent away with stacks for their classmates along with the experience of saying "Uga muga" as Daniel Tiger touched someone's nose, or watching X the Owl gently land on someone's head.

Elaine Parsons from Mt. Lebanon had watched the program as a girl in Connecticut and brought her 16-month-old, Charlotte, to meet Newell. Sitting to their right on the floor were Rachelle Engel from Upper St. Clair and her children: Mary Claire, 4 1/2 years old, and Will, 18 months.

Pleasant Hills mom Patti Trainor brought a camera to capture son Eoin, almost 5, and Newell. They had just sent a note to Joanne Rogers telling her Eoin says a prayer for Mister Rogers every night and how much he likes the show.

Newell reassured the group that the program will continue to air and that the "Neighborhood" is wired for information, with two Web addresses -- www.fci.org and www.pbs.org/rogers -- on his 5 by 7 photograph.

The show may be in reruns and FCI is proceeding with projects minus its most famous face, but Newell persists in safeguarding the legacy of Fred Rogers and serving the young fans who will know Rogers only from his TV show, not by bumping into him on the street in Squirrel Hill.

"Well, David is so completely loyal to the philosophy [put forth by Fred]," Joanne Rogers says. "I'm just so delighted to keep that aspect out there. He keeps reminding people that the program's on the air. Over the years he's really learned how to respond to kids so beautifully. He's really good with them. He's so kind, but he's also one of the funniest people I know. Fred would tell me, 'David has the most remarkable sense of humor.' "

Funny thing is, he always said the same of Fred.

This weekend, Newell will be in Baltimore as the Corporation for Public Broadcasting gives the Fred Rogers Award to LeVar Burton and, on March 20, Newell will be at the Children's Museum of Pittsburgh. As it did last year, it will offer free admission in honor of Rogers' birthday.


Barbara Vancheri can be reached at bvancheri@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1632.

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