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THE NEIGHBORHOOD ARCHIVE - All Things Mister Rogers

One Last Time

PUBLICATION: Pittsburgh
AUTHOR: Christopher Fletcher (Photography by Richard Kelly)
DATE: March 2001


     

    
(Click images above for larger view)

Our cameras were on hand for the final taping of 'Mister Rogers' Neighborhood' -- but don't think for a second that Fred is retiring.

Dec. 1, 2000: Studio A at WQED Pittsburgh is abuzz with activity. And that has little to do with the taping of a television show. About a dozen people decked out in cardigans and ties -- the official uniform of Mister Rogers -- are waiting to jump out and yell "Surprise!" to the host of the popular PBS kids' show.

It's been a tradition during tapings that the crew will poke fun at America's favorite neighbor. Sometimes they put things in the closet on the set where he hangs his sweater at the opening of each episode. Other times, it's theme dress-up day.

As if on cue, Fred Rogers enters the studio. He looks around and smiles at the joke that has been played on him. "Oh, my," he says, "Don't you all look wonderful."

And then it's business-as-usual for the 72-year-old Rogers, much the same as it has been for the 30 years he's been doing "The Neighborhood." The only difference is that this is the final taping of the show. These episodes will air in August, but the "Neighborhood" will continue to be seen on PBS, thanks to an impressive library put together over the years.

"And how many episodes have you done?" I ask Rogers.

"Why, all of them, of course," he answers with a smile, before doing a little math in his head. More than 304 shows are in PBS' rotation. And that doesn't include any of the black-and-white shows produced in the '60s or some of the live shows that happened pre-"Mister Rogers' Neighborhood."

Back to the taping. Rogers is particularly focused. Producer Margy Whitmer calls him "One-Take Fred." Things go so well that he wants to keep going. Shooting will finish one day ahead of schedule. Some crew members shed tears, but not Rogers. The closest he comes is during the song "I'm Proud of You." His voice cracks a little.

Maybe the reason he doesn't get emotional is that even though this is the final taping, it's not as if Fred is retiring. There are no clues in the show that there will be no more new episodes. In fact, says Rogers, "We were careful to make sure it was seamless. I ended by saying, 'I'll be back next time.'

"We had originally thought about bringing back some of the guests we've had to the Neighborhood over the years," he continues, "but then it would have been apparent that this was the end. It would have said 'retiring.'"

And that's one thing that he and the people at Family Communications Inc., the company that produces "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," are not doing. If anything, it's just the beginning.

New material will continue to be available through the Internet and through outreach efforts revolving around episodes of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood." Kids will still learn to deal with anger in "The Mad That You Feel" training provided by FCI. Diversity will be discussed with programs centered on "Different and the Same." Rogers and associate producer Hedda Sharapan will still spend hours each week answering every letter to Mister Rogers. There will continue to be requests that come into FCI president Bill Isler and David Newell (Mr. McFeely when he's not handling PR assignments) for speaking engagements, so many that only a fraction can be honored. In essence, it's only the delivery system that's being changed. Broadcasting is becoming narrowcasting. But the message, says Rogers, is the same.

"Two things that our society longs for and is not served all that well are those things that are deep and simple, and by simple I mean not complicated," he says. However, some of the issues -- separation, fear, dealing with divorce -- are not easy to tackle. But they have been presented in a gentle, caring manner that incorporates a simple message: You are special. A deep thought, indeed.

And Rogers looks at this as a new stage in a career devoted to educating children. "Someone just said something to me that I thought was very appropriate," he says with a grin. "'You may be shy, but you're definitely not retiring.'"

Christopher Fletcher, the editor of Pittsburgh magazine, will continue to watch "Neighborhood" shows with his son, Dylan.

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