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Mister Rogers' Christmas Message

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PUBLICATION: Bangor Daily News
AUTHOR: Chris Palmer
DATE: December 16, 1977

Gentile Fred's first prime time TV special

Good ol' Mister Rogers moves his Neighborhood into evening TV this week, giving new meaning to the term prime time. Called "Christmastime With Mister Rogers," the PBS special is the gentle minister's first, after 27 years of working in the medium. He has spent 15 of those years in front of the cameras, entertaining and guiding America's pre-schoolers, in a manner rivaled perhaps only by Captain Kangaroo.

The hour, Tuesday from 8-9 p.m., is loosely organized around the theme "what a difference one person can make." Rogers and a few familiar faces from his regular show -- Mr. and Mrs. McFeely (David Newell and Betsy Nadas), Francois Clemmons, Betty Aberlin, Joe Negri, Elsie Neal and Audrey Roth -- are planning a holiday get-together. A young and delightful 12-year-old ballerina, Stephanie, who is to dance for the celebration, is down in the dumps because her family is stranded with car trouble and it looks like they won't make it in time for the festivities.

As things are prone to do on television, they work out for the best, and Stephanie and her family are reunited in time for the big show, but only after she and Fred have articulated through fantasy and make-believe, the messages of Christmas: hope, caring and love.

Those messages, so typical of Fred Rogers' style, are relayed through a dream sequence, a pair of stories, and a visit to the Neighborhood of Make-Believe. It is a difficult collection to describe, as are most fantasies, but not to watch. There are character switches at work here not unlike those that happen in "The Wizard of Oz."

Chorale director Clemmons' friend in real life becomes the "person who makes things go right," also called the Music Man because he can coax musical sounds out of an ordinary stick. In the make-believe segments, Stephanie's stranded parents and little brother become the principal characters in her own made-up story about a desert family looking for one of their members, and finding him with the help of a song, a Christmas carol.

These juxtapositions of personnel might confuse the adult watcher, especially the cynical "that couldn't happen" type. But the children in the audience, still without the smoke screens of logic and scientific disbelief, will surely not object.

And the hour is wound together with such an easy, soft touch, that parents need not worry about getting their young ones to unwind after watching. Unlike some of the commercial network Christmas specials that have been keeping children up past their bedtimes lately, and then exciting them so much that they can't get to sleep anyway, "Christmastime With Mister Rogers" is a quiet show. It is a kind of lullaby, dropped in the middle of the hullabaloo.

Parents also might appreciate the fact that Mister Rogers does not restrict his messages to Christian tradition. He does not proselytize about, or even mention Christ or the Bible or the manger, or any other of the elements that sometimes makes Christmas sound like a party only for "believers," to the exclusion of Jews or athiests. At one point, Rogers carefully explains how those of us who celebrated Christmas as children, usually grow up and celebrate it as adults with our own children. Those who celebrated Chanukah, grow up celebrating that holiday, and those who didn't celebrate anything as children, may not celebrate as adults either.

But giving presents, he says, is something that most everybody does at some time of the year. "It's just another way of telling someone that you love them."

Text under photo:

Learning sign language
Fred Rogers and 12-year-old Stephanie practice their sign language, an important part of a dance that she performs in the public TV special, "Christmastime With Mister Rogers." Stephanie, in real life a student at George Balanchine's School of American Ballet, has been training there since she was eight. She has danced the principal role in "Nutcracker" several times. Fred Rogers, host of the weekday children's show, "Mister Rogers Neighborhood," marks his prime time debut with the holiday special, which combines fantasy, music and dance around the theme "what a difference one person can make." The special will be broadcast on Tuesday at 8 p.m. over Maine's MPBN and WCBB.


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