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A Day in Mister Rogers' Neighborhood

PUBLICATION: Cincinnati Enquirer
AUTHOR: John Kiesewetter
DATE: November 11, 1997

PITTSBURGH - Fred Rogers pokes his head through a large knothole in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe tree to greet a visitor.

"Welcome to my Neighborhood," he says slowly, as always, during a break in taping his 30th anniversary shows, which will air Feb. 16-20.

"You're always welcome in this Neighborhood. Come right around back."

On his hands are puppets Henrietta Pussycat and X the Owl, two characters first seen 43 years ago - along with King Friday XIII and Daniel Striped Tiger - on The Children's Corner, his first WQED-TV show.

At 69, he's still squatting and crawling around the WQED-TV studios, performing puppets to scripts he jotted in longhand last summer. In the corner, a pianist plays songs composed by Mr. Rogers for a week of shows about "Giving and Receiving."

The giving he receives now keeps him going. It's the letters from parents watching with their children, or from kids with their crayon drawings or photos of homemade Velveeta Cheese-box trolleys.

"It's just come to me recently that this can happen only with a program that has this kind of longevity," he says.

"A parent, somebody who grew up with this particular Neighborhood, is offering it to the child. As this parent watches, his or her own childhood is evoked, and memories come back of what it was like to be a child. And that, to me, is the one of the greatest ways of developing empathy for your own child.

"That is a real joy for me, to think that - like some classic book that a parent's parents might have known through their own parents and grandparents and then offered to them - that this is the first chance that a television program could do that."

He's wearing sneakers, but no sweater. That's the first thing you notice.

To tape fantasy Neighborhood of Make-Believe segments, he wears his trademark blue sneakers, blue jeans (freshly pressed) and a black long-sleeve shirt to blend in with the puppets' backdrop.

His famous zippered sweaters are hanging in a wardrobe room down the hall. The walls of Mr. Rogers' "house," where he changes from loafers and suit coat every show, are stacked in a studio corner.

Inside the tree trunk, Mr. Rogers stands sideways so he can watch a tiny TV monitor while he manipulates X the Owl and Henrietta Pussycat in their treehouses for the cameras.

After each scene, he gathers with the director, producers, camera operators and stagehands to watch a video replay.

After 850 shows, not much has changed on PBS' longest-running show. Mister Rogers Neighborhood is virtually untouched by our disposable, fast-paced, high-tech, computer-generated world:

  • The Neighborhood Trolley, which "takes" viewers from his house to the puppet land, is a one-of-a-kind, hand-crafted model built in Toronto for his 15-minute Misterogers Canadian series in 1963-64.

  • Background music is played live by a pianist in the corner of the studio, instead of later on tape. The trolley's tinkle comes from a battered 75-year-old celeste (pronounced "chell-EST") keyboard instrument, not an electric piano.

  • Many of the sweaters he wears on the show were knitted by his mother, Nancy McFeely Rogers, who died in 1981. He sent one of her red sweaters to the Smithsonian Institution in 1984.

    "Mother would make 12 sweaters a year for an extended family," he says. "Each Christmas, as we opened the boxes, Mother would say, 'What kind of sweaters do you want next year?'

    "And then she'd say, 'I know about you, Freddie. You want one with a zipper.' "

  • Some of the simple puppets were first seen on The Children's Corner, a one-hour live daily show (1954-61). He worked strictly behind the cameras, playing the organ for host Josie Carey and doing voices for King Friday XIII, Daniel Striped Tiger, the owl and the pussycat.

    He traces his rich imagination to his childhood in Latrobe, Pa., about 40 miles east of here.

    "I was an only child for 11 years, so I really had to make up fantasy brothers and sisters and friends. I made up a lot of . . . neighborhoods where everyone had at least one brother or sister he could be with all the time," he says.

    "When I saw television for the first time, I saw people throwing pies in each others' faces - demeaning things. I knew then that this superb medium needed to be used for things that might elevate the human spirt, not denigrate it."

  • He's worn sneakers at WQED-TV for 43 years, so he could silently run from The Children's Corner organ to his puppets.

  • Mr. Rogers still performs six puppets: King Friday, Queen Sara Saturday, Lady Elaine Fairchilde, and the three animals.

  • Most staffers have been with him for two or three decades. (A funny young stagehand named Michael Douglas did move to Hollywood in the mid-1970s and changed his name to Michael Keaton.)

    "I thought I had a job for one year, and then I'd move back to L.A. and do acting," says David Newell, the Neighborhood public relations director seen as Speedy Delivery man Mr. McFeely for 30 years. "And it turned into a career."

    After 850 shows in three decades, only the shooting schedule has changed. Mr. Rogers tapes just 15 new programs a year. Says Mr. Newell: "If Fred didn't write them all, maybe we'd still be doing 65 a year."

  • Mr. Rogers' corner office upstairs also is a throwback to another time. No desk, no computer, no multiline phone with speed dial and intercom buttons.

    It looks like a comfy family room - a couch, leather recliner, another overstuffed easy chair, a trimline phone, photographs and a comforter. (He writes the shows at a nearby office-apartment or his Nantucket summer home.)

    "He's not a desk person. He works on his lap in a chair almost always," says his wife, classical pianist Joanne Rogers and namesake for Queen Sara.

    "I have one of those Southern double first names - Sara Joanne - and I chose Joanne because I thought Sara was a very prudish kind of name," explains Mrs. Rogers,69, who met her future husband when they were studying music at Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla.

    "Fred calls me Sara. Now I love the name."

    They married in 1952. They have two married sons, and two grandsons, 9 and 4ï, who occasionally visit the Neighborhood set.

    "People always ask me that lovely question: 'What's it like to be married to Mister Rogers?' And I tell them: What you see is what you get. That's who he is," his wife says.

In a dark WQED-TV control room, Mr. Rogers watches a replay of a yellow balloon on an invisible nylon thread "floating" around the Neighborhood castle and treehouse.

Director Bob Walsh turns to interpret his boss' stoney silence.

"What should we do differently when we do it again?" he asks.

In the frustrating hurry-up-and-wait world of television - it takes an hour to set up, rehearse and film one minute of the show - everyone here says that Mr. Rogers never loses his cool.

He's always lived life in the slow lane.

"He's always been patient," Mrs. Rogers says. "Sometimes you'd rather not have to be pulled away to talk to people when you're trying to finish a meal or get to a plane on time. But he's very patient about it.

"He's really interested in people. He loves relating to them," she says. "He has the ability to be such a good friend."

That's why spending a day with Mr. Rogers can be a spiritual experience, like being in the presence of a modern-day saint. He's a most caring, sensitive, humble person with the rare ability to deflect attention to somebody else.

Ask Mr. Rogers to pose for a photo with his wife and the trolley, and he pulls longtime stagehand Joe Abeln into the picture as he praises the employee's wife, a former Neighborhood stagehand who is now a lawyer.

Ask about how Mr. Rogers composed hundreds of songs for the show, and he'll praise pianist Michael Moricz (who replaced the late Johnny Costa last year) for his perceptive repetition of a musical theme during a scene.

Ask how he writes scripts, and he turns the question on a reporter. "For a long time I did the scripts with an electric typewriter. Now it's back to longhand. Is that how you write?"

When he accepted lifetime achievement awards at the Daytime Emmy Awards telecast last May, and from the Television Critics Association in July, he asked those assembled to reflect - in silence - on loved ones who had nurtured them early on. He turned his honor into a relection of others' success.

"What I'd like to know, is how I can offer people silence. That's my big, big big challenge," he says, noting that "Fred" is a Scandinavian word for "Peace."

Co-workers have arranged for Mr. Rogers to be honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame - but he shows no interest in flying to Los Angeles for the installation ceremony, which is on hold until he agrees to attend.

"He really likes being at home. He really likes his own bed at night," his wife says.

Mr. Rogers' modesty "may be part of why he's lasted this long," says Sam Newbury, production director and 18-year employee. "(Fame) is not his interest. His interest is his work with children, and his faith."

Mr. Rogers surprised his family after college in 1951 by announcing he was going into TV, instead of divinity school. He eventually earned a master's degree at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary in 1962.

"It was very unusual," his wife says. "The Presbyterian Church ordained him as an evangelist - their wording - to minister to families and children in his television work. So that's been his ministry. He's very serious about that part of his life. It makes the program even more important to him."

A stagehand crouched at Mr. Rogers' feet slips a yellow balloon to X the Owl.

"I'm having the best time," Mr. Rogers says in X's deep voice, as the balloon appears in the knothole. "I love balloons, don't you?"

Such simple, direct statements to TV's youngest, most impressionable viewers make Mister Rogers' Neighborhood unlike any show on broadcast TV - and the ridicule of comedians.

While Sesame Street blitzes kids with facts and figures, Mr. Rogers gently talks to them about who they are, what they feel and how they fit into the world.

He talks about growing and helping, their fears and worries, or their frustration about their parents' preoccupation with their jobs. An October theme week about anger and aggression was called "What to do with the mad that you feel?"

"Knowing that we can be be loved exactly as we are gives us all the best opportunity for growing into the healthiest of people," he says. "And I've learned through the years that expressing feelings in healthy ways was a major way of establishing peace."

A 1991 study revealed that children in Toledo day-care centers who watched Mister Rogers were kinder, less hostile and more imaginative than those who did not, and that the child-care providers changed too. "They said they now talked to children instead of at them," says Hedda Sharapan, the associate public relations director who has opened Mr. Rogers' mail for 31 years.

So Mr. Rogers' non-profit production company, Family Communications Inc., obtained a grant to produce 60,000 copies of Around the Neighborhood newsletters with show topics and suggested activities. Three times a year, the newsletters are sent to PBS stations for distribution to preschools and day-care centers.

"The show looks deceptively simple. Then you start looking at it, and realize how rich it is," says Ms. Sharapan, who writes the newsletter.

Jane Werner, a 38-year-old working mother, says Mister Rogers' Neighborhood has taught her to be a better parent to her sons, 8 and 4.

"I'm taking more time with my kids because of him," says Ms. Werner, program director at the Pittsburgh Children's Museum, which will open a hands-on Mister Rogers exhibit in April. The replica of his TV house, the Neighborhood of Make-Believe and a walk-through trolley will travel to other children's museums for three years before becoming a permanent display at her museum in 2002.

"Mr. Rogers' approach to TV is all about taking time," Ms. Werner says. "When you're a working parent, time is this most important commodity."

And everyone who takes time to write Mr. Rogers gets a personal reply, Ms. Sharapan says.

"We get letters from people who grew up in abusive and dysfunctional families who say, 'You've broken the cycle for me. I find myself weeping, and I realize that no one had ever said this to me. You're helping me feel good about myself, so I can turn that around and give it to my child.'

"I think we've really turned a lot of lives around, and enriched and nourished people," she says.

Can you say: "Retire?"

Sure you can.

But not Fred Rogers.

"No, because I'm so healthy," he says.

"That's true," his wife agrees. "So far, we're both fortunate in that we are in good health and we can still be active. I think you face retirement when you have to.

"And he's not very good at relaxing," she adds with a laugh. Mr. Rogers rises at 5 a.m. and swims a mile. His light TV schedule - about three months a year in the studio - keeps him fresh.

After the staff goes home, Mr. Rogers may stay in the office to answer personal e-mails on Ms. Sharapan's computer. Then he heads home late afternoon for a 45-minute nap before supper. While his wife watches evening TV, he reads or keeps in touch with friends by correspondence or telephone.

"A lot of things interest him, more and more, all the time," Mrs. Rogers says. "And he makes time for those things. I think that just comes with age."

Can you say: "TV icon?"

She sure can't.

"It's been just amazing to me, an interesting adventure," she says of her husband's career.

"People are wonderful to him. He's not crazy about traveling but he comes back each time and says, 'You know, we have such wonderful people in our Neighborhood.' "

His legacy after 30 years in the Neighborhood "is that young parents who watched the show are now offering it to their children. It's a service that naturally I hadn't expected," he says.

"How could I have ever known that we would have been doing this for 30 years?"

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