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Famous, ordinary fans all will miss Mister Rogers

Tuesday, November 14, 2000

By Barbara Vancheri and Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Staff Writers

Marc Brown, creator of the popular "Arthur" books and PBS television series, learned about changes in "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" while watching the news this past weekend. "There [Fred Rogers] was, in Hollywood kneeling in front of his star," Brown said yesterday from Boston.

"Oh, that's so appropriate," he thought. "Boy, he certainly is one of the biggest stars in my estimation."

The footage of Fred Rogers was from the archives, but the news wasn't. As reported Sunday, Rogers next month will hang up his cardigan sweater for the last time -- at least on TV. The final week of new episodes will air in August 2001, when Rogers and Family Communications will have completed 33 seasons.

The 72-year-old children's host is not retiring, just moving in new directions. He comes from a family blessed with longevity, and he plans on making the most of this next chapter of his life.

That's good news for his admirers, such as Brown, who featured an animated Rogers on his show. "He's always been such a hero to me. ... I only wish everybody who worked in children's media had such high standards."

Mayor Tom Murphy, fresh from unveiling the city budget yesterday, said he was sad there would be no new "Neighborhood" episodes, but he knows people will be watching existing programs for years to come.

"As I was leaving for work today, my son [who is 10] was watching Mister Rogers. He has had an incredible impact. He's a Pittsburgh institution in the truest sense of the word," Murphy said.

"Fred Rogers has been an important part of moving Pittsburgh forward and making it world class. Certainly, it's a world-class children's program. Everywhere I go, people identify Pittsburgh with Mister Rogers."

Barbara Litt, a Squirrel Hill mother of two, likes that identification. "We're not from Pittsburgh. We moved here five years ago, and it's cool to see things that really are our neighborhood."

Unlike some Pittsburghers, she has never bumped into Rogers -- but if she did, she would like to tell him how much she appreciates the show. Her 4-year-old son, Arthur Mueller, is allowed to watch "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" on mornings he's not bound for school. On other days, it's an incentive to finish breakfast and get dressed on time.

"In general, TV plays to short attention spans and encourages short attention spans," but Rogers doesn't do that, Litt said. He doesn't incorporate advertising techniques or talk down to children. He reminds youngsters he likes them just the way they are.

"I like seeing how he has aged so gracefully. He's so flexible," Litt said, referring to Rogers easily tying his tennis shoes. "That's great for children to see."

Litt shared the Sunday newspaper article with Arthur, but she wasn't sure he understood it. Arthur, meanwhile, said he enjoys seeing new episodes as well as ones he hasn't seen in a long time. His voice chirped with excitement when he talked about a story line in which a regular was masquerading as a gorilla. It was just Neighbor Aber under that suit -- nothing to be afraid of.

Like Brown, cellist Yo-Yo Ma turned to the word "hero" in describing Rogers. "He's one of my all-time favorite people," who first invited the musician to appear when his son, now 17, was around 3.

He marvels at the interest in music sparked by that and later guest turns -- a connection confirmed by letters that land on his Boston desk. "Mr. Rogers sent me a speech he gave at a commencement; it was just a beautiful address. What's amazing is he's the same person on television as in real life. That's why I respect him so much."

One change will be for employees of WQED, where Family Communications rents space and tapes the show. The staff still will be based there -- so Rogers and others will be spotted in the parking lot or elevator or hall -- but the trolley won't clang behind a metal studio door with an overhead red light indicating the cameras are rolling.

"It's always nice to have things going on in the studio. With that Neighborhood of Make-Believe, it's so beautiful and wonderful, you feel like something spectacular is happening there. It is weird to think this is going to be the last time," said WQED producer Rick Sebak.

He produced two versions of a documentary called "Our Neighbor Fred Rogers." The local version, an hour in length and narrated by Sebak, aired on WQED in 1989. A shorter variation, narrated by David Hartman, ran on PBS in 1990.

Now huddling in the editing room to finish his latest documentary, Sebak learned early in his career not to trust performers who were different off camera than on. "He's the same man on and off. A lot of people aren't. He is totally genuine."

Sebak, born in 1953, is too old to have watched "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" as a child. "But I very much remember Josie [Carey], which means I do remember Fred Rogers," who did the producing, puppeteering and music for "The Children's Corner." He also played Prince Charming, who taught ballroom dancing to the young viewers.

Carey was the most visible face and force behind "Children's Corner" along with a KDKA "Josie's Storyland" show that ran concurrently for part of that time. Today, she's busy with a musical take-off on game shows called "Wanna Be a Millionaire" at the Comtra Theater.

Recalling those pioneering days, she said working with Rogers was fun, productive and challenging. "They were probably the most creative years of my life." Lacking a budget, Carey and Rogers had to make up everything as they went along.

"We filled one full hour live every single day. We learned how to do television, because if a guest didn't show up, all of a sudden we had 20 more minutes to fill."

The show informed and entertained youngsters about a range of topics, from pizza-making to tap dancing, body building and the Morse code, "everything a child would be interested in. What we did was open windows."

Jane Werner, director of the Pittsburgh Children's Museum, hopes this transition will allow Rogers to spend more time over on the North Side.

"I think I've learned more from Fred Rogers than I have from anyone else. I'm looking forward to having him spend more time at the museum. He has taught us a lot about how children learn. He helped us hone in on what the Children's Museum is all about -- the role of play and learning, the role of a caring adult in a child's life.

"He's just been an inspiration to all of us here. We're hoping he'll spend more time working with us and teaching us. There's a little bit of sadness that he's not doing the TV show anymore, but what a legacy he's left."

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